6 Easy to Apply Tips to Giving an Effective Presentation

Learn how to give a presentationEditor’s note: This is a guest post from Julie Bradlow.

Back in the 1980’s, it was common for interviewers to ask the now-cliched question: “What’s your greatest weakness?” The first time someone asked me this, I immediately quipped, “Chocolate.” While that was, and still is, true, I later learned that one is supposed to describe a former weakness that one has made over into a strength.

So here is the story of my former greatest weakness – difficulty with public speaking.

When a former boss, who was slowly going blind, wrote on my annual review that my presentation skills needed work, both I and the company I worked for took it seriously. For the following several months, I was assigned to report at my department’s weekly lunch meeting on new developments. Week after week, I had to give these reports. I read. I outlined. I sweated. I paced my office, giving my talks out loud to the four walls. And slowly, I got better. The last talk I gave – this past January, over 20 years later – I spoke for 45 minutes with nothing but four pages of notes, and got a standing ovation. And that made me very happy.

Here are my suggestions for giving presentations that will make your audience happy:

1. Know your subject.

If you know the subject matter well, you can talk fluidly about the topic at hand. So if someone asks you to give a talk on a subject with which you are unfamiliar, either (a) decline (b) research the living daylights out of it, if it is in your field of expertise. If nothing else, giving the talk will make you better at your job.

2. Outline your talk.

Making an outline beforehand will help you organize your presentation. As with essay writing or storytelling, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But don’t write out and read your entire speech, unless you are fortunate enough to have a TelePrompTer in front of you. (See also my point about slides, below.)

3. Don’t rely too much on slides.

Now that PowerPoint has made it easy to make slides, it is all too common to give presentations that lean too heavily on slides. Although this may be another post in its own right, try and (a) make your slides short – no more than 3 to 5 lines of text (b) avoid slides that are overly busy (too many graphics, etc.) and (c) whatever you do, please don’t read your slides to the audience.

4. Getting to Carnegie Hall.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: One man stops another on the street on Seventh Avenue in New York, and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The second man immediately responds, “Practice.” To get to Carnegie Hall in the oratorical sense, this is true as well. Rehearsing your talk out loud not only helps you practice giving the speech, but also helps you discover the weak points in your talk so you can shore them up before you go out there and say “Um…ah…” It goes without saying that you should avoid colloquialisms like “Like,” and “You know,” as well as highfaluting words like “colloquialism.”

5. Keep your chin up.

Even in a room of a thousand people (and hopefully, your first presentation won’t be to that large a crowd), it’s important to connect with your audience. Even if you rely on your carefully-prepared outline, try to keep your gaze up and not down, making periodic eye contact with audience members on all sides of the room. This is like learning to use the mirrors in your car – it also gets easier with practice.

6. Use humor sparingly.

One of the worst talks I ever heard at a professional conference was from a speaker whose presentation was little more than a string of jokes – with hardly any substance in between. So I would say that humor in a speech is like hot sauce on food – a few drops go a long way.

So what are some of your suggestions for giving effective presentations?

* Image courtesy of benchilada


  1. Great tips, Karl. When I teach presentation skills programs I also suggest that folks know their audience – that way they can make sure the content is relatable (I’ve made this mistake over the years!) Also, don’t forget to breathe – keeps you grounded, settled and on track. Not to mention can calm your nerves. And finally, notice your posture and body language. More than half of our communication happens through our body, so make sure you have a confident, approachable, open and grounded stance. (Just the other day I saw a speaker stumble over her own feet because she kept rocking back and forth).

  2. Julie Bradlow says:

    Stacey, thanks for your comments and the additional tips! I agree that it’s important to pitch your presentation to the audience’s level of understanding; if it is either too simple or too complex for the group, you will lose them.

  3. Andrea Hypno says:

    Very good suggestions, especially number 2 and 3 but really they are all good. Until I got a public speaking course I used to be pretty scared of speaking in public but now even if I lack practice at least I know I can handle it if the need arises.

    Given that being good or decent at public speaking can be useful even at the grocery store it’s an ability everyone needs to be able to handle.

  4. Hi Julie,

    You’ve given some good tips for preparing and giving the presentation.

    I’d suggest joining a toast masters group or taking a course on public speaking if the level of anxiety about giving presentations is so intense that it’s really getting in the way of being able to work effectively. Learning how to give presentations in a supportive, respectful environment makes a big difference to one’s level of self-confidence which in turn helps to reduce the anxiety levels.

  5. Julie Bradlow says:

    Sue and Andrea, thank you for your comments. I agree that a public speaking course can be helpful, especially if the speaker is afraid of speaking in public in the first place.

  6. You had several tips. If I may, I would like to make a distinction between telling jokes and being humorous. You are absolutely correct in that a speaker should never, in my opinion, give a presentation telling a string of jokes. That’s attempting to be a comedian, not a speaker.

    Adding humor to your own personal stories, even making fun of yourself, is quite appropriate, as long as the humorous story relates to the points you are covering. Professional speakers often tell a story to make a point because stories are remembered much longer than the points the speaker is discussing. Humorous stories are remembered even longer.

    I especially like #3. The less PowerPoint you use, the more interaction with the audience. I recommend using slides only if the slides enhances your presentation.

    Likewise, a presentation should always have an beginning, a middle, and an end, though I generally say an [attention getting] opening, body and a conclusion [with a call to action]. I also recommend writing a speech starting with the conclusion and then working backwards.

  7. Julie Bradlow says:

    Frank, your point about humor is well taken. I have helped organize many professional conferences, and I always prefer that speakers be entertaining as well as informative. I would, however, add two things. First, I agree it is appropriate to make fun of yourself, but NOT of anyone else in the room (unless they have authorized it beforehand, of course). Second, I have seen many attempts at humor go flat because they were otherwise at odds with the speaker’s presentation as a whole. So I would say that it takes practice to strike the right balance between entertaining and informing an audience.