Giving presentations

Performance

Reading time 12 minutes

Woman presenting in front of the audience

The first few seconds of a presentation are crucial. If you can grasp your audience’s attention with your personality from the start, your presentation is much more likely to impress them. Maintaining their attention and inspiring them is the next challenge. Your audience will expect you to present knowledge clearly and concisely to them. They’ll want to examine complex facts and gain insights. They expect the presentation to resonate with them or even involve them.

You can prepare for presentations, not only in terms of structure and content, but in planning and rehearsing the way you perform to, and interact with, your audience. Learn how to address your listeners with charisma and confidence, while also coming across as authentic, open, and empathetic.

Inspiration from theater

Actors are experts in performing to an audience. Some of the key skills you need to present well are taught in drama classes.
Acting is not putting up a mask. Each time an actor acts, he does not hide; he exposes himself.
Jeanne Moreau

Actors are taught a whole range of performance skills:

  • Presence in front of an audience
  • Body language
  • Breathing, use of voice, speaking
  • Empathy and dialogue with the audience
  • Engagement
  • Choosing the right role
  • Authenticity – to recognize and express our own personality 
  • Concentration and discipline
  • Creativity and improvisation
  • Self-confidence
  • Handling stage fright

You can also draw on the techniques and methods used by professional actors to help you perform well in a business environment. Use them to help you act confidently in public, and impress or convince others in key meetings and presentations.

Captivate your audience with storytelling

The foundation of any presentation is its content. Your messages and core statements provide a structure for this content. They need to be plain and clear. 

You can supplement any facts you present with images, analogies, comparisons, and stories. Storytelling can help substantiate and illustrate facts through a vivid narrative. Experiences from your own personal life or work processes, or even anecdotes from short breaks, turn facts into pictures people can understand, identify with, or relate to. Using storytelling helps you engage with your audience. Stories bring the presentation to life. Your listeners feel as if you’re speaking to them personally and become motivated and curious about the presentation, and you, the speaker.

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Stay present while presenting

Presence is the art of being in the moment during your presentation and connecting with your audience. This is how you inspire and energize them. Tired, nervous, or hyperactive speakers bore their audiences. Being present as a speaker means your mind and body are wide awake and stay in the here and now. Your senses are heightened, while you simultaneously radiate calm, balance and relaxation.

Actors with stage presence are good role models for impressive presentations. They perform with their full attention and don’t let their minds wander – neither towards the past nor the future. This also helps them to improvise if necessary.

There are three main forms of presence you can observe for your own presentation:

Physical presence: Physically present people are consciously aware of themselves and their body. They notice their impulses and feelings and express them without getting lost in thought.

Physical spatial presence: People with a high degree of physical spatial presence are perceived by the audience as “filling a space.” They enter the room, and all eyes are immediately on them. Their own attention is focused on being aware of their body and noticing the space around them.

Contact presence: This is the mindfulness and attention the speaker shows the audience. They communicate openly with them.

Show your appreciation

Woman presenting

As a manager it’s vital that you express appreciation. It demonstrates your strengths in verbal communication and emotional intelligence. Having a sense of and skills in appreciation is a cornerstone of good leadership – and excellent presentations.

Consider appreciation as an inner attitude. It’s a basic ethical mindset reflected in your demeanor every time you present to or communicate with others. The leadership quality “self-presentation” is about influencing how we come across to others. We want to give a positive impression of ourselves and an optimistic, appreciative attitude to life is part of this. A presentation is credible and effective if, in addition to willpower, the speaker exudes skills in self-direction: awareness, respect and dignity. Appreciation is a key prerequisite for engaging in dialogue with your audience.

The three facets of appreciation

  • Appreciation for yourself: Successful managers exude balance and self-confidence. They have a high degree of appreciation for themselves, which isn’t dependent on external factors, such as challenges, stress, and pressure.
  • Appreciation for your audience or conversation partner: Those being spoken to must feel treated with respect, dignity, and interest from the first moment of interaction with us. We manifest our attitudes through our posture, openness, and ease.
  • Appreciation for the topic: The presentation revolves around your values and principles as a speaker. If you’re passionate about a topic, it even expands your on-stage presence with focused attention and energetic body language.

Engaging with the crowd

An excellent presentation is always a dialogue with your audience, never a monologue. As a speaker, you must make immediate contact with those watching and listening. The talk itself is a complex communication process that’s consciously and subconsciously observed and co-created by the audience. Your presentation’s structure and your skills as a speaker must incorporate various levels of communication.
Sound familiar? You enjoy listening to a talk which really appeals to you. Then you leave the building and realize you can’t remember much about the topic, the speaker, or details of their core message. The speaker quite possibly only focused on reading their prepared text out loud. They only used one level of communication – and so failed to leave a lasting impression.

Experienced presenters play with the rules of communication like musicians with their instruments. They master the subtleties of verbal and non-verbal expression:

  • Their content and text layout convey a sense of intellectual indulgence, as they clearly illustrate complex topics. They aspire to achieving “light-bulb moments” among their audience.
  • Personal examples and analogies resonate with the audience’s experiences and tap into their subconscious and forgotten knowledge.
  • During the presentation, they never lose contact with their audience. Even when concentrating on the text or presentation equipment, there’s never any tunnel vision. They make gestures towards, or make eye contact with, individual listeners or the whole audience.
  • The speaker’s voice is melodious, not monotone, and their body language is inviting and encouraging to listeners. The presentation triggers thoughts and feelings which place the intellectual content in wider contexts, which impresses them and helps win them over.
  • The speaker clearly registers the audience’s body language, what they’re moved by or react to, and responds to this accordingly.

With a passion for communication, and by being present while engaging with your audience, you too can create an atmosphere that grasps your audience’s attention. This encourages them to listen to what you have to say and learn from it. It secures the success of your presentation, even after everyone leaves the room.

Express yourself for the right impact

During your presentation, your audience will hear and interpret every word you say. They’ll notice every gesture, look, change in posture, every modulation in the tone of your voice, and emphasis on phrases as messages. Sometimes, our bodies can subconsciously convey something other than the presentation text. An outstanding presentation is one where all forms of expression are coherent – when language, voice and body language all say the same thing as the text.

Verbal communication

Action title

When you speak in front of an expert audience, you impart complex information. You can use the spoken word to structure topics and spark your audience’s interest. You can make even the driest of topics exciting with a lively voice, the right pitch, intonation, presentation speed, and well-placed pauses. 

These aspects all impact on the clarity and quality of your verbal communication:

  • Articulation
  • Vocal quality
  • Volume
  • Pace of delivery
  • Pauses
  • Voice and emotion 

Articulation
The term “articulation” comes from the Latin word “articulatim” meaning “limb by limb, syllable by syllable, point by point.” We articulate sounds by moving our mobile speech organs (lips, tongue, soft palate) and forming certain positions with them. For instance, try saying “ee” first with your lips pursed and then again with your lips stretched into a wide smile. The two sounds you produce are quite different.

Vowels are what give language its sound; consonants are developed in combination with vowels. They can explode (as with P, T, K), hiss and puff (as with S, SH, F, H), and be voiced (as with V, M, L). After a while, you should be able to recognize your own distinctive use of language and work on this for greater clarity of expression. 

Vocal quality
A powerful, natural-sounding voice ideally comes from the diaphragm. Inexperienced speakers often generate their vocal volume using compressed air through tense vocal chords. Their voice then sounds shrill and unpleasant for the audience. Plus, anyone speaking like that for a long time will gradually go hoarse. With a stable, supported voice, you can speak in a relaxed, audible manner even for longer periods of time, and fill a large room with your voice without needing any equipment.

Volume
The volume of a speaker’s voice can enhance the impact of their speech. For instance, you can emphasize core statements and principles with a stronger use of your voice when relevant. With targeted variation of your speaking volume, you can make your listeners more active and guide them through your most important points. Appropriate presentation volume of course depends on room size and acoustics. Do an on-site test. In general, speak at a volume just above what you’d normally use in conversation. If you’re unsure, ask your audience at the start if everyone can hear you properly – especially those at the back of the room.

Pace of delivery
The right pace is just as important as the right tone. A suitable pace of delivery for a presentation is generally a bit slower than for regular dialogue. This helps your audience to grasp complex points.

If you talk too quickly, they might miss what you’ve said or not understand it properly. Worse, they might get the impression that you just want to get the presentation over with. Stage fright almost always causes presenters to speak too fast. When practicing, concentrate on your delivery speed. If you use cue cards for your presentation, add the words “slow down” at several intervals to remind yourself to take a breath between sentences.

You can deliberately slow your pace down before and during core statements. This helps increase audience attention and helps them retain information from your presentation. Changing up the pace keeps your listeners engaged and interested in what you have to say.

Tip: If you’re nervous about presenting, before you start, take several deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This can help calm you and will make it easier for you to control your talking speed.

Pauses
The incredible impact and power generated by a pause in speech is often underestimated. Structural pauses really help listeners grasp and absorb the meaning of your statements. As a speaker a pause offers you the chance to calmly catch your breath. Pausing before a word is also a good way to emphasize an important term or concept.

Voice and emotion
Your personality adds spice to the presentation and brings it to life. Unlike written text, a talk or presentation is much richer with its varying intonation, rhythm, dynamics, and emotion. You can sound optimistic, shocked, dismissive, determined, or confident of victory depending on the situation. Expressing emotions adds your personal take on facts and highlights your standpoint. If you truly believe in what you’re talking about, the emotion in your speech can pack a rhetorical punch.

Non-verbal communication

Woman presenting

What makes a speaker convincing and charismatic? Every human has an innate ability to notice physical signals given off by another person. As Albert Mehrabian’s “Silent Messages” case study revealed, a speaker’s impact is based 55% on body language (physical presence, gestures, eye contact), 38% on voice and tone, and just 7% on the content being communicated. The audience uses their overall perception of content and body language to get an idea of the speaker’s self-confidence, engagement, social skills and trustworthiness. To achieve a natural aura of authority while presenting, it’s essential to appear authentic and act in a genuine, unaffected manner. 

You can improve your air and demeanor by paying attention to a few key points and adjusting them when necessary. The following practical exercises, inspired by physical and acting training, will help you prepare and instill confidence in yourself as you give your presentation.

A confident stance
Standing firm with upright posture shows a person can rely on their stable balance. The stance looks solid, self-assured, and powerful. When you present to an audience, it’s important to adopt a confident stance. Center yourself into a relaxed, but upright posture. This puts you in touch with your physical center, deepens your abdominal and diaphragmatic breathing, and improves stability. Your movements from this core position are then much more fluid and relaxed, and even follow their own natural rhythm.

Breathing
Conscious breathing supports a speaker throughout a presentation. The spoken word is a resonant exhale, which is very important for your voice’s projection and expression. At the same time, your respiratory energy creates suspense, alertness and presence. Breathing training – inhaling and exhaling slowly and steadily – can help you warm up and calm any anxiety before going on stage to present.

Gestures
People express their personality through their gestures. Just like signatures, they’re highly individual from person to person. They can range from minor movements and subtle impulses to extravagant gesticulation. This body language can intensify the impact of your communication and presentation in many ways – both on stage and in everyday life.

Our gestures can’t be seen as independent from our general body language or the meaning of the words we say. This link is the reason individual gestures in everyday life are spontaneous. Sometimes during presentations, we can unwittingly make gestures or facial expressions which give away our lack of confidence. Once we’re in flow with our presentation, though, our body language can subconsciously support our speech and content, and how we communicate with the audience.

Eye contact
While talking during a meeting or presenting, one key part of your attention is focused on the people in the room. The listeners are the ones you want to get through to with your presentation. Eye contact demonstrates you’re there with the people in the room. Be as attentive as you can to your guests and look right across the room during the presentation.

It takes courage to make eye contact with the audience, because it means engaging in dialogue with them. Rest your focus on certain groups of people. Address different individuals through your eye contact, but avoid long, intense periods of eye contact with just one person.

Note: Your contact with the audience is broken every time you look down at your script or cue cards. Try to talk as freely as possible, without relying on your notes.

Roles of the speaker during a presentation

The main objective of public speaking is usually to impart knowledge, to convince or sway opinion, to inspire or to entertain an audience. One feature of an excellent presentation is the deliberate way the expression and effect of the speaker’s various roles are used to achieve these objectives.

In presentation situations, an audience often expects the speaker to play the role of expert on a topic, which they express through the presentation. Body language and a clear, matter-of-fact voice indicate that it’s an expert speaking. The effect is factually convincing – but it can become monotonous and bore listeners.

If as a speaker you want to inspire and impress your audience, this role won’t suffice. You need to adopt other roles, such as a storyteller who engages with their audience, or a host who welcomes their guests and invites them to listen and reflect.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

William Shakespeare

Theater roles in presentations

The sociological approach to roles has its origins in ancient theater. Actors prepare their role by expressing it in their own personal way using their body language and voice. By analyzing the role, they explore all the motives behind the character’s actions, their values, and expectations (always in the socio-political context of the play and its era). The actor plays their role successfully when all forms of expression – both visible and invisible – are coherent.

Theater and literature are full of archetypal roles with their own specific motives. Some examples:

Theater roles illustration

Ruler/Authority (The King or Queen)

  • I’m the one responsible and where the buck stops.
  • I’m the ruler and oversee everything.
  • I’m the role model.
  • I have a duty of care for everything entrusted to me.

Host (The Physician)

  • I invite you in.
  • I’m genuinely happy that I can assist you.
  • You’re important to me.
  • I’ll take care of you.

Expert or academic (The Scholar) 

I want to inform objectively and impart knowledge.

Courageous warrior (The Hero)

  • I concentrate hard.
  • I react with great purpose when problems or challenges arise.
  • I have a keen, unshakable sense of awareness.

Trickster or Shakespearian “fool” (The Jester) 

  • I’m very agile.
  • I’m curious, even about unusual, cryptic, or taboo topics, and like discovering new things.
  • I enjoy holding a mirror up to people, so they can see how others perceive them.
  • I like to entertain – or annoy – my audience with provocation and jokes.

The role repertoire is applied based on the public-speaking structure, where content-based objectives are translated into presentation phases. This can be supported with a “stage direction schedule” as part of the preparation for presentations.

Role coaching

The conciseness and clarity of the speaker’s role is reviewed through role coaching. In any communication, expectations, and value systems (including assessments) shift consciously and subconsciously between the speaker and their audience. Subconscious patterns and habits can cloud clarity, and therefore success, in communication. This makes it difficult for the audience to listen, absorb key messages, and take in new or complex information.

Role coaching examines the way the speaker presents or expresses themselves. Sociologist Erving Goffman talked about “impression management” in this context. Self-presentation of a speaker must fit with the values of their audience, those they’re speaking to or with. A role coach will check that the speaker’s aware of the expectation patterns of their role, and of their own personal patterns of expression (facial expressions, gestures, voice and use of language). They must consciously choose the role and then pay attention to any subconscious patterns that could diminish the performance and success of their talk.

Prepare for your presentation

Presentations audience

If you prepare your next presentation thoroughly in advance

  • it will run smoothly on the day
  • you’ll be more confident, knowing what you have to say and how at each point
  • you can improvise if you need to, in case of technical or other issues

Plan your timing for delivering each part of your presentation at the right pace. Rehearse your whole performance – how you want to come across, what role you’ll play and when, and at what points you’ll involve your audience. Think about which words you’ll use to kick-off your performance as a first impression for your listeners. Make conscious decisions on where you’ll place your cue cards, glass of water, remote control to change slides, and so on, so it all feels comfortable and familiar on the day.

Consider how you’ll get yourself ready for the presentation on the day. For instance, plan in some calm time to psych yourself up and center yourself. Precisely plan your appearance (clothes, shoes, bag/case, hair, make-up, as appropriate). Map out your whole journey to the venue without needing to rush.

For a detailed look at how you can prepare yourself well for your next presentation, see our paper, “Giving presentations: Preparation.”

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