Practice makes good

Slide design is not the effort yielding the highest return on investment in improving presentations. “Arghhhh... Why didn’t he tell me this on page 1!” you’ll be thinking. It’s because professional presentation do require great designing, but, more importantly they need to be delivered well. So practice, practice and practice presenting it again. and again.

You’ll find you’ll evolve and improve with each practice run. Especially the first few run throughs.

Steve Jobs used to practice for days before his big talks

Steve Jobs was known to be a very good presenter. And he is said to have practiced a full two to three days before a major product launch speech. Two to three days! I bet if you put in such an effort before your next presentation, you’ll also be a pro.

In practice, I mean real practice. Stand up, go through each slide, first to last, with no interruption, and no going back if you make a mistake. There’s no rewind on stage. Mentally, going through your slides is completely different from the real thing. So, stand up and speak before a crowd. Record yourself on video and screen it to see yourself and become aware of how you are doing.

It is often hard to convince senior, experienced executives to rehearse a presentation. The solution is to create a hidden, risk free environment, in which they feel comfortable to do a run-through once. The stuttering bound to happen on this one time, usually motivates them to practice more. Tell them about Steve Jobs’ rehearsal habits.

When you practice, place your computer screen in front of you so you do not have to look back at your screen to see what slide your on. Distance yourself from the screen so that the text is too small for you too read, and just use it to prompt you visually. 

Memory for spontaneity

It may sound counter–intuitive, but you need to know your story inside out to be spontaneous. You won’t be able to wing it, when it comes to presentations. Your audience notice everything, especially your “uh” and “oh”, if key messages are not narrated well they may be missed. Presenters who are not well prepared often repeat key messages over and over. Firstly, because they might have forgotten that they made the point already, and secondly, to gain time as they try to think what is the next thing that should be said. A presenter who repeats what is said bores the audience.

Begin by memorizing your presentation point by point. But that’s not enough. If an actor has to go rely on memory for every line in the play, their exhaust their energy and won’t convey the character. You too need to live and breathe your story, until it comes virtually natural to you. Only then can you feel free to improvise around it according to the reactions of your audience. Think of it like driving a car, you shift gears automatically, freeing up your mind to concentrate on the road and handling unexpected situations along the way.

Many high profile public speakers are so good at what they do because they give the same speech, revolving around the same story, over and over again. These people can now go on stage without any preparation at all, but remember that it took them dozens of performances to get there.


Webinars are slightly different from live presentations. Here, the audience cannot see you and you can probably get away with reading a presentation line by line off your screen. Yet, keep in mind that a good listener will pick up they are being read to, which places you in a less attractive light.

You see a different screen than the audience

Presenter mode

Both PowerPoint and Keynote have a Presenter Mode feature, which kicks in as you connect a second screen to your computer. The big screen is turned to face the audience, displaying the current slide in your presentation. The smaller laptop screen is different from the one the audience sees. It also presents the next slide, besides the current one, preparing you for the transition. Other items shown, are timers and a clock.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with Presenter Mode on your computer. Hook up your laptop to a VGA screen in an empty conference room at your leisure, not the minute before you are about to go on stage.

Configuring dual monitors can be a tricky IT challenge. Most VGA screens project a big image on the wall, but have very low resolutions. So when you plug it into your laptop, parts of your screen are often lost and you end up spending time looking for application windows. Or, despite configuration, your computer determines the main screen to be your laptop, and the VGA projector as you monitor. After years of practice, even I find it always takes me ample time to sort things out. Budget your time well and practice your dual monitor juggling skills.

Managing technology risks

Technology always goes wrong, so be prepared and line up multiple contingency plans.

  • Backup: email your presentation files ahead of time to the event organizer (if you can, and there is no confidentiality issue.) Subscribe to a cloud-based storage solution such as Dropbox, and even keep a third copy of your files on a USB stick
  • Laptop: bring your own laptop with all the available converter plugs (especially if you are working on a Mac), and a power extension lead. Make sure there are no embarrassing wallpapers or other personal images on your screen you do not want exposed to the audience. Switch off the screen saver, close any instant messaging programs and/or alerts. Mute the speakers. Charge your laptop.
  • PDF: PowerPoint is installed on any computer at presentation venues. Apple Keynote is not. If you are working in Keynote, and even if you made arrangements with the conference organizers, always bring a PDF version of your file, just in case. Another reason to keep a PDF backup is to hedge against a font disaster in your presentation when it turns out that a custom font is not installed on the machine from which you are presenting.

Appearances count

Sometimes it is the little details that boost your confidence. Feeling self-assured you’ll come across great ensures you will. Find out the dress code expected at the venue, and that of your client/investor. Always dress one notch up from this. Invest in a new suit or outfit, and ditch the old backpack for a new briefcase. Polish your shoes, check the buttons on your shirt, bring toothpaste or mints, deodorant, carry a tissue on your pocket. You do not want to worry about anything except the content of your presentation.

Budget time to prepare

Arrive early

Giving a presentation is different from attending one. Budget plenty of time to arrive way before your slot. There are just so many uncertainties that can cause you to be delayed. Traffic, parking, directions to the venue.

If you made it to the venue on time, you need to fiddle with the dual monitors, sort out font problems, get Keynote running, decide on the best position on the podium, test the remote control, fix the room temperature, test the microphone, check the lighting, eat a candy bar 30 minutes before the speech, arrange for a big glass of water on the podium. I usually end up going to the kitchen to find a replacement for the tiny glasses they put on stage.

Once all that is set up and preparation is complete, invest time in calming down to concentrate on your story, straighten your clothes, take a bathroom break, brush your teeth, top up that deodorant.

This way you will make a controlled appearance on stage, better than tripping over the microphone cord when you arrive at the stage in the nick of time, still wearing your rain coat, wet.

Stage terror

Every speaker, me included, is nervous before going on stage. That little nervousness can play useful, as a moderate dose of adrenaline makes your brain more alert and responsive. 

This high level of alertness comes at a price. You consume more energy than you do relaxed. That candy bar you had 30 minutes ago is sure to kick in at this stage and give you that extra power.

Too much stress though is obviously not productive. Stage fright usually only last the first minute of your talk, and once you are up and into the story you practiced so well, tension is released and you forget you’re on a stage in front of a big audience.

So, it is crucial you rehearse and practice your opening minutes, to deliver them with spontaneity instead of reading them out from a mental piece of paper.

The book Confessions of a public speaker is a great resource filled with lessons about how to deal with stage fright. The book cleverly points out the fact that, as much as you, your audience really wants you to succeed. No need to be afraid, then.

Connect with your audience

The first minute of the presentation is likely to be the only minute you have your audience’s undivided attention. Use it to convince as many people as you possibly can to stay focussed for the rest of your talk.

Tell an interesting story, highlight an issue of importance or a common idea shared by the audience, talk about a genuine connection you have with the place you are visiting.

Be genuine. It is very important. The audience can immediately sense you don’t favor them as the most fantastic audience you’ve ever had, or that you made up that story about visiting the tulip fields just outside Amsterdam. If your husband really proposed to you in Amsterdam, tell them, and create a genuine connection.

Keep the option to skip jokes if it just does not feel right

Opening jokes can be a good icebreaker with which to wakeup an audience, but they are also very risky. Not all jokes work, at all times or for all audiences, and extracting an awkward silence with your comic punchline is not beneficial to your show. Do not hardwire jokes into your slides, and skip them if you feel the mood in the room is not right. 

Throughout your talk continue to monitor the audience, and see how people are responding to your story. If you are presenting in a large room, you probably only see the front row, with the rest of the crowd obscured by the big spotlights directed at the stage. Allow them to be the barometer for measuring the entire audience’s mood.

Maintain eye contact with all the audience space before you. No one should feel left out. Practice staring into the black void of the entire auditorium, and locking your view on a certain point for a number of seconds to create the (one-way) connection with an anonymous audience sitting all the way at the back.

You can maintain eye contact with one person much longer than you think. When you are on stage it may feel embarrassing, but your audience does not perceive this. Think about how long you maintain eye contact with people in a one-on-one conversation.

In smaller rooms, you have a much better grasp of what is going on with your audience. If you see expressions indicating people are switching off, change your tactics or style. Direct a question to your audience if they prefer to hear about other aspects of your story/company. Be flexible and try something else to use up your time effectively.

Stick to your timeframe

People hate it when you flow over beyond your allocated speaking time. After a few warnings by the conference host, you’ll start skipping slides and rushing through your points, making your performance worse. The audience will long for you to end it already. Rehearse your presentation to make sure you finish early. A simple slide count is a very poor predictor to the time your presentation require. Time yourself when you have established a flow, in one of your more advanced practice sessions, and always, always, finish early.

Think about when to plant the crucial message of your presentation. If you put it on the very last slide, and the host cuts you off bluntly due to time, you might never be able to make that point. Shame.

End your presentation with a strong energetic statement, giving your audience the feeling you’ve come full circle. Looking back at the projector saying “Well, that’s it” is not best practice.

As you practice, remember, no audience has ever complained about a speaker finishing early.


Decide when to allocate time for questions. In small meetings, you can allow interruptions during your talk. For a larger audience, it is probably better to save time for this at the end. Let the audience know this on the onset.

If your audience fails to produce a question, do not consider this a sign your presentation was poor. Ask for questions, keep on smiling, and if there aren’t any, close up with an upbeat, positive, energetic statement. If there are questions, answer them briefly, keeping to the point. The audience just sat through your entire presentation, so there is no need to repeat content again. 

If you do not have an answer, simply admit it, instead of making something up on the fly. You could be proven wrong by someone in the audience. Earlier in the book, I illustrated the risk you run in bending the truth, and losing your audience’s trust.

The audience is your ally against hecklers

Do not get drawn into any type of (verbal) confrontation. Dodge hostile questions politely with curt answers. If someone in the audience insists on continuing the attack, try to raise sympathy for your side by saying you welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue one on one, off stage. You are likely to get support for this from others in the audience. 

The slide that stays longest on the projector is the one flashing during Q&A. It’s an important real estate piece. Instead of the title Q&A hovering on screen throughout the Q&A session, repeat a key visual or message already shown in your deck, and have it burn into the conscious of your audience’s during the whole Q&A session.

Quick sum up

Rehearse your presentation and allocate plenty of time for your stage show.