Learning to Give Great Presentations

Giving great presentations of any kind, is an invaluable skill to have. It was with pride that I achieved my Advanced Communicator Gold award at Casterbridge Speakers this week, as part of the Toastmasters International programme. There has been much learning as I reflect on my journey to this point, which I would like to share with you. This can be for formal presentations, networking events, one-to-one’s or family occasions.

Face the fear and do it anyway

Many people are nervous (or even terrified!) of giving a speech. The key is to harness that adrenaline to work in your favour. As a good friend said to me “When you have butterflies in your stomach, you need to get them to fly in formation!” You can use that adrenaline to provide the passion, energy and movement for an impactful speech.

mental wellbeing
Our fears can create our prison

We need to understand what it is we are fearful of. Is it fear of:

  • Looking foolish?
  • Being rejected/criticised?
  • Making mistakes?
  • Forgetting what to say?

Fear can be described as False Evidence Appearing Real. What evidence have you got to back up your thoughts? It is only our imagination most of the time.  It is important to remember that the audience is not the enemy. They want you to do well as it’s in their interest for you to.

I used to say ‘I hated public speaking’ but when I changed that to ‘I love it’ my whole approach changed. If you are enjoying your speech, your audience will too. Your thoughts impact on your behaviour, so I would recommend being careful about what you think. You will be amazed what can happen if you keep telling yourself you are confident and ready to deliver a brilliant speech which the audience will love. If necessary, fake it until you make it!

However good you think you are; you can always be better.

You can never stop learning about how to give great presentations because to coin a cliché; you are only as good as your last speech. I joined Casterbridge Speakers in 2008, when there were only 8 members and we were trying to charter with Toastmasters International. I had over 18 years’ experience as a trainer and public speaker, but this was the first time I had constructive and comprehensive evaluation of my skills.

I learnt traits that I had from the feedback and recommendations given to me. For example, how I stood with one hip bent or walked aimlessly about the stage (still struggling not to do the trainer’s walk!) or I was too quietly spoken. You can also gain from watching others, whether good or bad, and adapt this learning to your own speeches.  

There is no room for ego.

In those early Casterbridge days, with all my experience, I thought I could deliver great presentations and I brought my ego to the room. I quickly learnt that there is no place for ego in public speaking. We only have to look at some of the political leaders or presenters at award ceremonies to see this!

It is not about you and is all about the audience. I now believe you need to respect and serve your audience, because the message is more important than you are.

There is nothing like constructive feedback to help you learn.

Not everyone will react in the same way to what you say.

My advice is to seek out feedback on your performance as that is how you improve. What is fascinating is how different people perceive you and you are not going to please everyone. As well as the verbal feedback from a nominated evaluator, at Toastmasters, you also get written feedback from every member of the audience. I have kept each of these to remind myself what I need to do. I want to now go back through all of these before I start on my new Pathway of Dynamic Leadership.

I have learnt how to give constructive feedback whether positive or negative. For example, saying that was a great speech is not helpful – what was great about it (or not)? One of my favourite phrases I heard used was ‘where your speech could be even better is if you…’, which is so much more positive than saying something was wrong.

It is not just giving feedback but knowing how to receive it, accept it and apply it. This is a skill for all aspects of life and work.

Speaking impromptu is an essential skill.

Delivering a prepared speech, which you have planned, prepared and practised is very different from having to speak off-the-cuff. That has been one of the biggest challenges for me (and many others). Yet it is a vital business skill to have. Through the Table Topics sessions at our meetings, I have been able to practice this art.

The key thing is not to panic. Get outside your own head and focus on the message. Like any speech, you need to have a purpose or message to convey, be structured with a start, middle and end; and deliver it with credibility.

Many people will launch into a reply immediately. It is perfectly OK to pause and consider your response. If you can think about what you want the audience to do, think or feel by the end of what you have to say, this can often provide the structure you need.

Passion over PowerPoint.

Don’t you just love it when someone puts up a PowerPoint slide and says, ‘You probably can’t read this at the back’? So why put it up there? Nothing disengages the audience more than ‘death by slides’. They have their place, of course, but not at the exclusion of other aspects.

If you are not passionate about your message, why should your audience be? The best aids you have to capture and keep your audience’s attention are:

  • Credibility and trust.
  • Passion and energy for your message – emotional impact.
  • Vocal variety
  • Body language.
  • Hand gestures.
  • Stories and anecdotes.
  • Humour (appropriate)
  • Involvement – Using Pinpoint for example as in the picture

Don’t forget to breathe!

You may not believe it but a very important lesson for me was to breathe! I didn’t realise that I wasn’t breathing very much as I spoke, so my voice got shakier and shakier. People thought I was nervous, but I was just running out of breath. You need plenty of air to work your vocal chords and get your message out there.

Beverly Hepting, acted as my voice mentor (free mentoring is another asset for Toastmaster members), and taught me about breathing and voice projection. Having an expert help you in certain aspects can add a huge amount to your capabilities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There is so much more to giving presentations than I can cover here, but I am happy to talk to you about your specific concerns. You can also download our guide.

Please let me know if I can help or you would like to attend our High Impact Presentations course.

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