Seven Tips to Improve Your Presentations, Before You Even Start

1. Get in early. My company has a standard practice of getting to any venue the night before. Wherever possible get into the room or space where you will be speaking way in advance of the presentation actually beginning. In most cases I like to get into the room the night before the presentation, or at least a good few hours before. The benefits of getting into the place where you are presenting are many – you can practice sight-lines (where to stand to be seen, where you wont be seen) the acoustics in the room (strange echos, for example), you can take a look around at entrances and exits, you can ensure there is nothing for you to trip over as you make your way to speak. Even if it is not practical, and it isn’t always, to get into the room before the audience arrive, I still recommend wherever possible giving them a couple of minutes break before you speak. Then you have the chance to get in and set up before you start speaking. This is a far better, than bundling yourself into the room and trying to go straight up to speaking.

2. Get comfortable. Set up things like water and notes and even the temperature of the room to suit yourself. This confuses lots of people, because they believe that the presentation is all for the benefit of the audience. Well this is true, but you’re the person at the front of the room that everyone can see! So whilst we need to ensure our audience is comfortable, we also need to remember that we are the person under all the pressure. So ensure you have water where you want it, and even do things like open the bottle first or pour yourself a glass before people arrive. Make sure you have backup notes and “notes on notes”, and even emergency notes in all the places at the front of the room where you may need them. This will feel a great comfort later on. And remember the temperature – much is written about an optimum temperature, but from my perspective especially if I’m the first speaker in the day I would like the temperatures to suit me and that means cooler rather than hotter. I can always turn up the temperature later on if I need to.

3. Keep ‘em out! This is not always possible when we are working but it is worth trying to do. Keep the delegates out until you are ready! This might seem rude, but I promise you, if you keep the audience out until you’re ready it allows you time to rehearse, to set the room the way you want, to have any minor crises without being witnessed. This is so much easier than trying to deal with problems in front of other people. It’s not always possible of course, there’s always that one person who turns up two hours before the event, sits at the back, and says “I’ll just sit here and read my paper” but my general guideline remains. I want to keep the audience out until I am ready to invite them in.

4. What’s behind you? Check the view from the audiences side of what is behind and around you when you are speaking. You are looking for anything which is especially distracting, or you are looking for something which if someone were to take a photograph would not give the image she wants such as a phrase or words which along with your face will not be something you want published.

One thing I never want behind me when I am speaking is a clock. With that there, the entire audience is reminded of the pace of presentation, for good or for bad! Always move the clock out of the line of view of the audience, and somewhere that I can see it clearly. This will have the added benefit of allowing me to see the time without that awkward not very subtle glance at the watch!

5. Technical difficulties. Practice anything technical! This includes opening and closing curtains, checking of the lights, any music you wish to play, adjusting DVDs or anything to do with computers projectors or screens! All of these things can and will go wrong! Whether it is a stuck curtain, a light switch which blows a fuse, or all the multitude of problems that happen with computers and projectors, absolutely do all of these things of before your audience is sat in front of you.

6. Smile at awkward people! Yes I mean it. When people first arrive your brain will be looking for people you know and like and for good reason. You might be nervous or unsure some of the material and it’s always comforting to see a friendly face. For this reason most speakers tend to gravitate towards colleagues they like and know and who they know are generally supportive of their message. This has a benefit. However a great benefit can be obtained by actively seeking those who seem positively hostile, negative or unwilling to listen to your message.

This goes totally against the grain of the way we normally work socially, but it pays big dividends. Consider this – someone comes in, and sits their arms folded glaring at you. Go and engage that person in conversation and a number of interesting things start to happen – for a start they often just have that sort of face! Maybe they are tired, they’ve had a long journey, or it’s just been one of those days and for someone to come up and be friendly and welcoming to them is just what they need to start smiling back.

This helps you both and it helps build your confidence and creates one person in the audience who is rather warm and welcoming toward you. On the other hand they may generally be negative or hostile to you or your message. The fact is that the norms of social interaction mean that once we have shared a few kind words together it is harder for them to sit in silence throughout the presentation, looking angry – you now have a contact. Therefore at the start of any presentation I want to welcome and say hello to as many people as possible – it a bit like I am assuring myself of some friends in the room. Of course it doesn’t work all the time, and it certainly doesn’t work with everyone, but it is much harder for someone that I’ve just chatted with and enquired about the journey and their day so far, for them to continually sit and glare at me in a way that some audience members do. I thoroughly recommend this technique.

7. You’re in charge! Remember overall that you are the speaker so set things for you. This would include the suggestions I’ve made about water, temperature and keeping the audience out until you are ready to begin, but it also includes the layout of the room. In many conventions it is the norm to stand behind a podium and speak. This doesn’t suit my style of presentation and on occasions organisers are slightly perturbed to discover that I intend to walk around the stage as I present, but I am the person that the attention is on, and I will therefore present to the best of my ability. For me this means not standing behind a podium.

It would include also the layout of the room and if I have any opportunity to dictate how the room is laid out I will do so, in my case I always want slightly less chairs than numbers of people expected because we can add more chairs as people arrive – but a vast and empty auditorium with a few people scattered around looks appalling. Again this goes against the nice tidy minds of some organisers but it is something that I request because it suits the way that I present

These seven tips are all actively used when ever I and my colleagues present and I thoroughly recommend them to you.