If asked to give a presentation, do not be so flattered that you
automatically accept, only to find a few days later that you are
panicking about the event.
First things first – make sure you know your subject and that you
have something worth saying. Being clear on what message you want
to put across makes planning your presentation much easier.
The better you know your intended audience the better you are able
to pitch your presentation. There’s little worse than having a
learned group of people switching off while you go through the
basics of a subject or confusing a novice group with overly complex
It is distracting to see a speaker rambling on obliviously while
the audience can see that the chairperson is desperately trying to
wind things up. So, plan for the time that you have, and run
through it in private where no one else will hear your first
efforts. Then practice in front of a critical friend or trusted
The structure of a presentation should be as simple as possible.
For example, start with an introduction (which plots where you’re
going and why), followed by the content – two or three simple
points or issues on which you can elaborate – and end with a
conclusion, summary, or some upbeat closing remarks.
The content and structure should be clear and simple. Do not use
abbreviations or jargon – you may know that Cats is an acronym for
Community Alcohol Treatment Services, but your erudite points on
home detoxification will be lost on those members of the audience
who are thinking fondly of their furry friends. You can also make a
presentation “visual” by painting pictures in people’s minds. Good
metaphors, stories, real life examples and images help give your
message some “stickiness” (as they say in the advertising
Do you want questions? If so, it is probably best to take them at
the end. So make this clear at the start so that an audience member
with a pressing query doesn’t interrupt your flow.
However, a question and answer session, which is more interactive,
is less predictable and you need some techniques for handling
things. For example, somebody beginning to make a lengthy speech
from the floor or somebody trying to ask an awkward question or
Of course, if you don’t like the question, try and move the answer
onto more favourable ground, or answer the question that you wish
the audience had asked. Or indeed have a well briefed person armed
with your question. Either way, it is a good idea to try and
predict any tricky issues in advance and have a response
The other unpredictability about leaving time for questions is the
all too familiar possibility of an embarrassing silence. So, keep
some time-filling extras back. Or ask a question yourself (of the
“You may well be wondering what if…?” school). Or indeed, again,
have a well briefed person armed with your kind of question.
If you are using visual aids, and they do make a difference and can
help to keep things moving and interesting, make sure you have
mastered these in advance. The audience do not want to see acetates
going on the overhead projector sideways, upside down, and then
back to front.
Remember, technology can fail. And thus will do so at the worst
possible moment, so never rely on it and always have a back-up
plan, for example, have hard copies of your material to distribute.
It is wise to arrive early to look at the room and the equipment.
Try everything out. You can guarantee nothing will be the same
brand, size or specification as anything you have rehearsed from or
ever used before.
Keep your visual aids simple. It is boring to have someone read
back to you what you can see on a screen. Only headings, bullet
points (but keep to six words at most) or basic diagrams are needed
in visual aids; the detail of the subject is for you to talk about.
The more text you use will inevitably reduce the type size and make
it harder for your audience to read it.
If appropriate, handouts are really helpful. This gives people
something to reflect on once your presentation is over and avoids
relying on their memories. It will also release the audience of the
pressure-cooker that is note-taking.
Do not give out handouts before or during a presentation if you can
avoid it, as these will become fascinating to the audience who will
stop listening to you and start reading them. It is better to let
people know that you will give these out at the end. Which is a
great place to finish.
Christine Doorly is regional manager, National Care Standards
Commission; Sheena Doyle is programme manager, Children’s Society;
Kathryn Stone is director, Voice UK. Additional material by Des
Kelly, director Bupa partnerships, and Mike Pinnock, policy,
planning and performance manager, North Lincolnshire.
Say it out loud to yourself and others.
- Rehearse it so well you could do it without notes (well,
- Type your notes in a large type size so you can see the words
- Avoid being distracted by those in the audience who don’t
appear to be listening or agreeing with what you say!
- Prepare a little biography for the chairperson so that you have
a proper introduction.
- Always start or end with a joke.
- Some people are natural presenters, others are not. The art of
presentation can be learned. Some people may have more of a gift
than others, but 90 per cent of it is training and practice.
- Be controversial to stir up the audience.
“When I was
… at a national conference a high-flying (but now lying-low)
director of social services spent the time during the previous
speaker’s presentation hand-writing out her overheads. She
confessed to this saying she had been too busy to do so beforehand.
As she hadn’t been bothered to prepare, I wasn’t bothered to
… bashing on for months about the importance of professional
presentations at meetings, it was hugely rewarding to hear a member
of staff say, ‘She was no speaker – she should have told us what
she was going to tell us, told us, and then told us what she’d told
us.’ I had previously thought this member of staff belonged to the
puzzled and bewildered school of presentation: write loads about
vaguely-related topics, produce four times as many Powerpoint
slides as needed and then talk quickly. She’ll be telling me next
that before I prepare anything I need to know the purpose of the
presentation, who the target audience is, and what I want the
outcome to be.”