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The Perfect Presentation: Speaking

In part 3 of a 6-week series, you'll learn how to deliver your material like a seasoned presenter.

Presenting to investors or potential clients is a daunting task. There's a lot at stake; the future of your business depends on whether you deliver a stellar presentation. If that isn't enough to make you nervous, then a career in politics is probably for you. But for the rest of us, the ability to be a great speaker rarely comes naturally. That's why we've compiled a list of the best speaking tips--from body language and vocal delivery to what to do when you forget what to say--to help you deliver the perfect presentation.

Overcoming Nerves
"The best advice I can give is to over-prepare," says Carmine Gallo, a former CNN business correspondent and author of the upcoming book Fire Them Up!. "Prepare to the extreme--what you're going to say, when you're going to say it, and what you're going to do to demonstrate it."

  • Go from "me" to "we." "People get self-absorbed; that's why we get nervous," says Gallo. Too many people focus on themselves when they present: Is my shirt wrinkled? Why is he looking at my shoes? What is that person thinking? "It's all about 'me.' Instead, shift the focus to what your product or service means to the investors."
  • Practice, practice, practice. Go over your slides and notes--out loud--as many times as necessary until you memorize the key points, inside and out. "People who are naturally nervous tend to over-prepare, but the result is they look effortless and totally electrifying."
  • Breathe deeply and smile. Take five deep, slow breaths from your diaphragm, not your nose, right before you start talking, and then put a warm smile on your face and go. "There's something about the deep breaths and smiling that changes the cellular structure of your body," Gallo says.

Body Language
"Body language speaks volumes even before you say a word," he adds, so set the tone of the presentation by having a commanding presence from the beginning.

  • Walk into the room like you belong there, says Kelly Swanson, a professional speaker, comedian and president of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild. Exude confidence by making eye contact immediately and smiling. "Make your introduction warm and welcoming, but maintain a professional air that says you have control of this situation."
  • Maintaineye contact 80 to 90 percent of the time. "That comes down to being prepared," says Gallo. "The better you know the information, the more you rehearse out loud, the easier it is to make eye contact." Make sure you look at everyone, though. "Never hold eye contact for an uncomfortable amount of time or focus on one person in particular," adds Swanson. "Give each person equal time, but make your transitions from one to the next smooth and natural."
  • Maintain open posture. Open posture means you don't put anything between yourself and the listener. It gives a bad impression by creating distance and creating a barrier between you and your audience. Examples of closed posture are crossing your arms or legs in front of you, putting your hands in your pockets or, if you're speaking to somebody across the table, having a notebook computer or other object between you.
  • Use hand gestures. "Research shows that complex gestures, meaning two hands doing something different above the waist, reflect complex thinking and gives the audience confidence in the speaker," says Gallo. If you naturally use your hands, feel free to do so during your presentation. It will free up your thinking, and you'll become a little looser. Just be careful; you don't want to look unnatural and over-prepared. "Tape yourself and look for gestures or body movements that are distracting," says Swanson, adding that less is always more. "Don't use gestures that aren't natural to you."

Vocal Delivery

  • Deliver the punch right away. Remember "90 seconds to two minutes"--a tip recently given to Gallo by a group of angel investors. "In that amount of time, you should deliver your punch. In 90 seconds they can determine if they want to hear more or not."
  • Let your volume fluctuate. Vary the volume and inflection of your voice to keep their attention. Raise and lower your volume at different points in your presentation, but do so in your normal voice. "The more you can be your real self, the more they'll trust what you have to say," says Swanson.
  • Change your cadence. Varying the speed at which you talk will keep your presentation from sounding monotone. Speed up at certain points and then slow down. Pause for impact. "Obviously, don't exaggerate any of this," says Gallo. "You don't want to pause for 30 seconds, but don't be afraid to experiment a little bit and to add another dimension to your presentation by the way you use your voice."

Buying Time When You Forget
If you keep your presentation concise, you shouldn't have a problem remembering what to say. Most people are only going to remember two to three key points anyway, which should be easy to commit to memory. But don't try to memorize your points word for word. "That's where people get stumped, and they don't know what to say," says Gallo. "If you have everything scripted in your head, and you get to a point in the script where you forget your next line, you're stumped."

If you find yourself blank, with nothing to say, Swanson offers the following tips for buying time:

  • Have anecdotes or brief stories ready to use, but pick stories that have something to do with what you're talking about.
  • Reiterate what you've said up to that point.
  • Learn your presentation in an outline form so that when you lose your place you can jump ahead to the next bullet point.

Responding to Questions

  • Practice tough questions. Assemble the toughest questions that can be asked and create categories that those questions would fall into. "There could be 100 tough questions or more, but there are really only about seven or eight answers to your story," says Gallo. Most questions will generate a particular answer. So if you have a stock response to a type of question, such as competition or marketing, it will trigger the same response. "A question can be phrased many ways, but you should have only one response."

Swanson offers the following additional tips:

  • Never make something up. "Honesty is always best. But you don't have to be so honest that you make yourself look bad."
  • Sidestep the question. "Tell them that you've been looking into that and want to make sure you have your facts correct before speaking."
  • Always validate their question. "Never brush it off or make them feel stupid for asking it."

Other articles in "The Perfect Presentation Series":

Week 1: Materials

Week 2: Technology
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