12 Ways to Give an Outstanding Presentation

Public Speaking and Debate summer school - Student speaks in front of other students

Learning how to give a presentation well is a significant life skill.

It’s valuable at school, where you may often be called upon to give presentations on something you’ve been learning about. The same is true at university. And almost any office job requires giving presentations, whether that’s to pitch to prospective clients or partners, or simply to keep your colleagues up-to-date with what’s going on it your team. Giving a presentation is frequently part of job applications as well, because it demonstrates a transferable skill without requiring you to know more of the ins and outs of the job itself than might be reasonably expected.
For all these reasons, it’s worth learning how to give a really good presentation – not just one that conveys all the necessary information, but one that keeps your audience engaged, rather than counting down the minutes until lunch. Unfortunately, the number of people giving bad presentations far outnumber the good ones – though this does give you an opportunity to shine if you hone your skills. Here are our top tips.

1. Check the technology

There’s nothing worse than showing up for a 15-minute presentation where the speaker takes ten minutes to get the projector working. Similarly, having great slides is pointless if the projector is so out of focus that everything is unreadable.
No matter how confident you are in the technology you’ve got available, it’s best to have backup options just in case. That might mean bringing your own projector, or at the very least having your presentation on a memory stick in case your own laptop won’t connect to the projector. You might even want to have a printed copy of your slides available for everyone in the audience just in case, especially if the presentation is for a job interview – while it’ll be disappointing not to have the proper presentation available, they’ll be impressed by your resourcefulness. If none of these options are possible, then try to show up early so that you’re not setting up in front of your audience and you’ll have time to call for IT support if needed.

2. Focus on what the audience needs to know

In a school context, thinking about what the audience needs to know can be tricky. Chances are you’ve been assigned certain topics that your presentation has to cover, and you’ll need to include all of them even if you know that the people watching won’t care, or might have covered the same material in their presentations too.
However, where it is possible, do try to select content based on what your audience needs to know and will find interesting. Hopefully these two things will overlap to a certain extent. Why are they there watching you? What are they hoping to find out? Do your best to answer any questions that you expect they might have, and do so clearly, to be rewarded with a more engaged and attentive audience.

3. Choose slides that complement what you’re saying

The biggest mistake that people make when giving presentations is creating slides that either distract from what they’re saying, or that simply repeat it. Your audience shouldn’t be sitting there wondering how on earth the photo on the slide is going to be connected to what you’re saying. They also shouldn’t be getting bored of hearing you talk because you’re just repeating the same things that they’ve already read from the screen in front of them.
So what does it mean for a slide to complement what you’re saying? It could be that while you’re talking through some statistics, your slide shows a graph to present the same thing in visual form. It could be that if you’re talking about a product, or a location, your slides include photos. If what you’re talking about involves names that are hard to spell, include those details on your slides. The key thing that all of these ideas have in common is that they are useful to your audience to have available and they make what you’re saying clearer

4. Use the ‘notes’ section if you have to provide slides

The above might seem difficult if you’ve also been required to provide slides that are fully informative for anyone who couldn’t be there. This requirement defeats the point of giving a presentation – if you just wanted people to read off a page, you should be writing a report instead – but nonetheless it’s often stipulated both at school and in the workplace.
The solution is to make full use of the ‘notes’ section in your presentation software. This is where you should put the text of what you’re saying in conjunction with that slide, which can then be provided as a handout or emailed to people who couldn’t attend. They can read it, without you needing to produced over-detailed slides in order to take them into account.

5. Concentrate on the key message

However much you might hope, the chances of everyone in your audience remembering every detail of your presentation is remote – especially if it’s only one of half a dozen that they’re going to be watching that day. But at a minimum, you do want them to remember something about what you said, and ideally not something irrelevant, such as the odd way that you pronounced a particular word, or that one of your shirt buttons was undone.
The way to ensure that the audience remembers the message that you want is to focus on it ruthlessly. Whatever that message is, come back to it several times over the course of the presentation, spelling out how the rest of what you’re saying ties in to it; don’t leave too much for your audience for work out themselves if you can’t be sure they’re paying attention.

6. Use the 10/20/30 rule

Guy Kawasaki has had a distinguished career in business, but his 10/20/30 rule might be his best-known idea. This is the rule that a PowerPoint should have no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes and contain no font size smaller than 30pt.
Of course, if you’re giving a presentation in a school context, you may not have any choice – you might be required to produce 20 or more slides, or talk for half an hour. But you might at least be able to honour the rule about font sizes, ensuring that your slides won’t be crammed full of excessive text. And if you do have any choice over how long you’re speaking for, then the rest of the 10/20/30 rule is worth heeding too. It keeps you from speaking longer than your audience’s concentration will last, and trying to boil down your message to 10 slides or fewer (and there’s no rule against using fewer) obliges you to be concise and think about what really matters in what you have to say. If this feels restrictive, remember that your audience is likely only to remember 10 of your slides anyway – even if you have 50.

7. Tell stories

Facts, figures and statistics are a necessary part of most presentations, but they’re also not usually very interesting – especially if they amount to things going as usual. What can make a dull presentation more interesting is finding a story to tell.
In some areas, this will be much easier than in others. If you’re in a history class, for instance, it’s easy to see how you could draw on the story of a single individual in your time period and use that to make the necessary but dull parts of your presentation more interesting. It’s rather harder if your presentation is on sales figures, but even then you might be able to say something about a customer that you’ve worked with to provide a human angle on the data. Anything that provides a break from graphs and tables can make a huge difference to your audience’s attention levels.

8. Use your voice

The illusionist Derren Brown gives the advice that if you notice that your audience isn’t paying attention – for instance, if you notice lots of fidgeting and coughing – one way to make them pay more attention is not to shout over their noise, but instead to speak more quietly. They’ll automatically become more engaged if they’re putting in the effort to hear you.
Pulling off this particular technique without considerable skills in showmanship is hard work. But it does illustrate the broader point that the way we use our voices can make a big difference to how much people listen to us. A monotone will always be soporific, even if the information conveyed is fascinating, so make sure to vary the way you speak, changing speed, volume and pitch as appropriate. You might feel silly doing it, but your audience will be more engaged.

9. Don’t try to answer every possible question

Whatever the topic is that your presentation is addressing – whether that’s the theme of revenge in Hamlet or why the sales figures this month are more optimistic than they seem – there will be a variety of possible questions that it could answer. It’s natural to try to cover every single thing that your audience might want to ask, because that’s why they’re giving you their time and attention, isn’t it?
In fact, your presentation will be much better if you cover what you think is important, rather than trying to cover every last thing. If you feel like some of your slides could be captioned ‘and another thing…’, that’s a hint that you might be trying to cover too many bases, and that will distract from the all-important key message we mentioned above.

10. Have a strong opening

The way most people begin a presentation goes something like this: “Hi, I’m Jane, and I’m here to talk to you about the theme of revenge in Hamlet.” It’s perfectly reasonable, but if it’s a warm room and after lunch, there’s a good chance that by the time you’ve got to the end of that introduction, some of your audience will already have fallen asleep.
Why not open with something more interesting? For instance, you could begin with a blank, black opening slide, and read, “Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift/ As meditation or the thoughts of love,/ May sweep to my revenge.” Your audience will be much more inclined to listen to the rest of what you have to say if you interest them and grab their attention from the start.

11. Use your body and the space

Some of the most interesting and inspiring examples of presentations out there are TED talks. One thing you’ll notice about them is that they very rarely stick the speaker behind a podium so that they can’t move – instead, they give them a microphone and a stage that they can walk on. This gives them much more range to express themselves through movement and body language.
You may not be so lucky with your presentation set-up, but do try to use the space as much as you can. You can walk forwards when you want the audience to pay more attention to you, and back when their focus should be primarily on your slides. Don’t be afraid to use big gestures, too – if the room is large, they might be the only thing that can be seen from the back.

12. Give your audience something to take home

You can give the best presentation imaginable, and there might still be some people in the audience who won’t take all of it in. Perhaps they’re tired or preoccupied with something else – or perhaps they found an early point of yours so fascinating that they failed to pay attention to anything you said later on in the presentation. You can have a second go at engaging with these people by giving them some kind of handout to take away with them. It’s best to hand this out only after your presentation if possible, so that the audience doesn’t focus on the handout instead of on you. It could be a printout of your slides and notes, or it could be a summary page that outlines your key messages again. Either way, it gives you another shot at engaging your audience – and if they really found it fascinating, they then have something they can pass on to friends who weren’t there, as well.