Do Your Homework for Great Presentation Skills

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    32149925Sam didn’t know what a great business presentation looked like. He had joined his organization right after leaving school, and when he presented, he was alone with his clients. Other than all-hands meetings, he just hadn’t been exposed to many presentations, so it was hard for him to evaluate his own presentation skills.

    Some of us learn what to do by observing great speakers, and seeing what they do well. If you are like Sam and don’t really have positive role models, imagine how powerful it would be to have some great examples of what to do for presentation success! You would be able to focus on the positives and build your own skills and confidence.

    It’s a little bit like watching lots of home-improvement TV before tackling your own project. You will want to get lots of great ideas, decide which ones fit your house and your style, and then adapt them to your situation.

    So, do your homework. See what great speakers do. Increase your level of self-awareness. Experiment. Get some feedback. Do lots of fine-tuning. In time, you will be a great speaker that others can learn from. Here are a few ways to get started.

    Watch your boss. He or she may or may not be the ideal presenter, but this is the person you will probably see presenting most often, as well as the person who will likely be giving you feedback on your own presentations. What are this person’s strengths? What habits can you pick up from watching this person? How do you want to be like your boss as a speaker? And how would you like to be different? These could be great discussions for you both to have.

    Watch your colleagues. They may be team members or people from other functional areas. If you get a chance to sit in on their presentations, do it. Again, what do they do well? Observe their presentation structure, their slides, and their delivery skills. How do they respond to the audience? Make note of 2-3 ideas you could “borrow” and adapt.

    Watch your competitors. If you get a chance to go to trade shows or conferences, you may have a chance to sit in and watch your competitors in action. What do they do differently than you do? Where are their weaknesses that you could exploit by building corresponding strengths in your skills? For example, if they tend to have weak openings, you might be able to craft and rehearse stronger openings to capture the audience’s attention faster.

    Watch TED talks. If you haven’t seen any TED talks yet, I recommend highly that you scoot over to and start watching. The topics are associated with technology, education, and design, and the speakers do vary, but generally, you will have a chance to see some great speakers in action. How do they command the stage? How do they use humor? How do they convey a lot of technical detail in just a few minutes? What do their visual aids look like? As a rule, these talks are extremely well designed and executed, and you could learn a lot here about what to do.

    Go to conferences. Whether the content is pertinent to your field or not, you can sit in on a large number of speakers and see how they are all different. Take a few notes about what appeals to you and what does not. For each speaker, look for at least one thing you like, and at least one thing that does not appeal to you. Keep notes, and look for trends. Remember, content, slides, delivery, and audience interaction are all great topics to evaluate.

    Go to webinars. There is no reason NOT to see speakers in action when you can sit in on free webinars day or night. Listen to the voices. Focus on the content and how it is presented. See how they engage their audiences, or not. Some webinars are extremely well-done, polished pitches. Others are home-spun and imperfect. But you can still learn from them without leaving your desk.

    See yourself. It is very hard to “see” yourself as others do, and just as difficult to evaluate your own skills. Many of us are way too hard on ourselves, others think we are better than we really are. The best way to begin to understand your own strengths and weaknesses is to video yourself, either in rehearsal or in the actual presentation, and then watch it with an unbiased eye. This is not easy, and you may need to get someone to help you through it, but it is critical to building genuine confidence tempered with humility.

    A few words of caution: if you have been learning how to give presentations by avoiding the mistakes others make, you may be overly focused on what NOT to do. With this mindset, it is easy for us to feel nervous or unsure of ourselves. So look for the good in your observations, as well as the not-so-good.

    You might also fall into the trap of observing a great speaker and then wanting to be just like them. Not a good idea, as you will fall short every time, and end up being less sure of your own strengths and abilities. The goal is to adapt, not copy, what you are seeing.

    That said, if we observe others who are good at public speaking, we can “try on” some of the behaviors that appeal to us and see what fits us and what doesn’t. By picking and choosing from a number of skilled speakers, you are more likely to find your own style. And that is something you can be confident about.

    Author Gail Zack Anderson, founder of Applause, Inc. is a Twin Cities-based consultant who provides coaching and workshops for effective presentations, facilitation skills for trainers and subject matter experts, and positive communication skills for everyone. She can be reached at

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    Twitter: @ApplauseInc