Presentation Skills

Last update: 21 August 2002

When people are asked what they are afraid of, the first thing that usually comes to mind is speaking before a group. [See, for example, Wallechinsky, D., and Wallace, A. (1977 and 1995) The Book of Lists.] Most people have at least some level of apprehension about public speaking, and yet most business careers require oral presentations at least periodically. Some jobs require oral presentations almost immediately; others may not require them until you’ve been on the job a while. If you are to advance in your career, however, it is certain that you will eventually be called upon to deliver an oral presentation.

For this reason, the more you know about what is required for an effective presentation, and the more practice you have had speaking to groups, the more comfortable you will feel when it comes time for you to deliver your first one to an audience of your professional colleagues. As is true for all communication, the two initial factors are your purpose and your audience: what do you need or want to say to whom. The third critical factor is the effectiveness of your delivery.

When you communicate in writing, you usually have ample opportunity to plan and revise documents to ensure their quality. Even when your oral presentation is well-planned and well-rehearsed, however, you still need to deliver the information one word at a time to an audience, and how well you do that may have a significant impact on your career advancement.

Presentation Types: Purpose and Audience

Like written messages, oral presentations can be designed to inform or to persuade. Informative presentations can convey neutral information, good news, or bad news. Persuasive presentations include a wide variety of messages from sales presentations designed to sell a particular product or service to messages designed to improve the public’s perception of the organization. Many oral presentations have more than one purpose, such as conveying information and creating goodwill. Also, most oral presentations contain at least some elements designed to entertain the audience to help maintain interest in the subject.

Presentations That Inform

Whether we recognize it or not, we all deliver informational messages on a regular basis. We run into trouble only when the information is fairly complex or when the situation is formal. Most informal presentations use a form of narrationstorytelling—and chronological and descriptive patterns of organization that conform to the way most people observe and remember things. This is essentially the form we use when we answer such questions as “How was your weekend,” or “What did you do on your vacation?” For this reason, narration and description are what we do naturally and comfortably.

Effective use of the chronological pattern, however, requires that we keep the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Include the Audience.  Because your stories are based on your own observations and interests rather than on those of the audience, you need to make a special effort to emphasize those points of greatest interest to the audience.

  2. Use Explicit Transitions.  Unless you make transitions between ideas and time references absolutely clear, the chronology will not be clear to the members of the audience. Use appropriate transitional words to clarify relationships for your audience (next, while, at the same time, two weeks later, etc.) so that your audience will be able to follow your story.

  3. Make a Point.  A story needs an identifiable point or message if it is to have meaning for the audience.

Effective description has two principal characteristics. First, it is specific in ways the audience can appreciate. Second, it uses analogies to compare what will be unfamiliar to the audience to something the audience will know.

  • Being Specific.  Whether you are conveying technical information, attitudes, feelings, or sensory experience, select words that will convey your meaning as precisely your audience requires. Some audiences will want exact measurements and details (3 feet, 2.7 inches), while others would prefer approximations (about 3 feet). Consider how your audience will use the information. If someone needs to follow your directions, for example, it would be better to say “Turn left at the third stop light,” than to say, “Go down here a ways and turn.”

  • Using Analogies.  When you are describing something that will be unfamiliar to your audience, begin by relating it to something familiar. Analogies are especially useful when you need to explain a technical subject to a nontechnical audience. Remember that analogies illustrate rather than prove, so you will need to provide additional evidence if you need to prove that something is true.

As the formality of the communication situation increases, the organizational structure of the presentation also becomes more formal; and, as it does so, its organizational pattern increasingly resembles that used for written messages.

When your audience will welcome what you have to say, use a direct form of presentation, stating your main point (which may be a conclusion or a recommendation) first, and then provide the supporting details:

Your efforts have made our organization first in the industry this year, and your annual bonuses will reflect that....

When the audience is likely to object to your message, use an inductive order of presentation, stating your facts and reasons first and saving your conclusions and recommendations until you have made your case.

The industry in general and our organization in particular have been feeling the pinch of the new economy for the past year. We have had to invest heavily to improve our Web presence, and we have increased our advertising budget by $200 million. In spite of these investments, sales have been flat. To ensure that we have sufficient capital to invest in developing new products and improving quality control, we are eliminating annual bonuses this year....

Presentations That Persuade

When the main purpose of your presentation is to persuade, use the same basic pattern that you would use in writing a persuasive message. The main difference between delivering a persuasive message orally and delivering it in writing is that your personal involvement and degree of conviction—your enthusiasm and congruence—are both more obvious and more important to your audience. It is far easier for most people to fake conviction when they write than when they speak.

Remember that persuading a group is different from persuading one person. In any group, the members are under internal and external pressure to conform. Zealots sometimes “plant” people in an audience so that when the appropriate time comes, they will encourage others to act. Although laugh-tracks on television comedy shows don’t work very well, they serve that same purpose: People are more likely to laugh when they hear others laughing.

Also, keep in mind that the setting and the circumstances are also important variables, so consider the size of the group in planning your presentation. The larger the group, the more formal you will have to be. With large groups, the presenter needs to assume the leadership role. Large groups also provide a special challenge in that, whatever the presentation topic, the presenter is more likely to encounter resistance to the message.

In any persuasive situation, end your message by asking for the most decisive action you can expect. If you cannot achieve full commitment in one message, strive for partial commitment, which frequently leads to full commitment with additional messages.

Presentations That Entertain

Speaking for the sole purposes of entertaining is not usually appropriate in business. Whether your purpose in speaking is to inform or persuade, however, a little “comic relief” almost always makes a presentation more enjoyable and therefore more effective.

Stories and jokes can help make the listener’s job easier. Humor is tricky, however. Not everyone can tell the same joke with the same success, and some people feel foolish telling stories. You will need to discover for yourself what works best for you, using the following hints as a starting point:

  1. Stories and jokes can be effective icebreakers.  When you begin your presentation with a story or joke, both you and your audience have a chance to relax and become comfortable before the actual message begins. Unless you are comfortable with telling jokes or stories, however, you will do well to avoid them and find another way to break the ice. The way the audience responds to your opening remarks will influence their response to your entire presentation.

  2. Make sure that your material is current.  Unless you can provide a new twist, an old joke is worse than no joke at all. It does not help to ask your audience to stop you if they have heard it before—even if they have heard it, they will not stop you but will let you tell it and then not respond, leaving you hanging. Use material that’s both current and appropriate for your presentation.

  3. Keep the entertainment material related to but separate from your main message.  Remember that any entertainment material is primarily filler, to be used to influence the mood of the audience. The point of your stories and jokes should relate to the topic of your presentation so that your transitions from the stories and jokes to the main points of your presentation can be clear. The emphasis belongs on your main points.

  4. Keep the material in good taste.  In addition to avoiding ethnic and sexist humor, be aware of the sensitivities of the group. Stories and jokes that center on sex, politics, and religion are almost guaranteed to offend someone in a large group and are usually best avoided. If you have any doubt about whether a group is “ready” for a particular joke or story, avoid using it.

The Audience

The audience is an important variable in any communication situation; as a rule, however, analyzing an audience for an oral presentation is easier than analyzing an audience for a written message. You and your audience are in the same place at the same time, usually for a specific purpose. You have at least that one interest in common.

You also usually have some information about your audience’s other interests, as well as their range in ages, educational backgrounds, and occupations. Based on your analysis of that information, you should be able to make some predictions about how the audience will receive you and your message.

The attributes of your audience that will have the greatest influence on your presentation are size, attitude toward you and your subject, and their previous knowledge about the subject.

Audience Size.  The size of the audience is an important influence on any presentation. In general, the larger the group, the more difficult it is to satisfy everyone. Sometimes, just gaining the attention of a large group can be a challenge. The three most important qualities of large audiences that cause problems for presenters are the following:

  1. The members of a large group are less cohesive—less willing to stick together—than members of a smaller group. The behavior of large audiences is less predictable than that of small groups.

  2. The members of a large group are likely to have less in common with one another than members of a small group. In any large group, some members of the audience will disagree with you.

  3. The members of a large group have a greater variation in attitudes, knowledge about the subject, and educational level than members of a smaller group. Large groups present greater challenges for finding the appropriate balance of technical and nontechnical information.

Audience Attitude.  The attitude of the audience toward you and your subject can vary in several ways. The audience may

  • Like you and like your subject.
  • Like you but dislike your subject.
  • Dislike you but like your subject.
  • Dislike both you and your subject.
  • Like or dislike you and be neutral about your subject.
  • Be neutral about you and like or dislike your subject.
  • Be neutral about you and your subject.

Previous experience is the usual explanation for audience attitudes other than neutrality. If the audience has a positive attitude toward either you or your subject, you are off to a good start. If your audience dislikes you or your subject, try to discover the source of the negative attitude. Have you made an unpopular decision? Is your audience known to oppose the subject you are advocating?

When you know beforehand that your audience has a negative attitude, make a special effort to be positive at the beginning of the message. If you have discovered the reason for the negative attitude, can you deal with it directly and eliminate it as an influence? Or can you overcome the negative attitude by focusing on the future rather than the past. The section on the Milton Model in Advanced Language Patterns provides suggestions for using language to help people change their minds and attitudes.

Audience Knowledge.  What does your audience already know about your subject? What is the typical educational level of those in the audience? The answers to these questions determine what you will need to do to adapt your presentation to fit a specific audience. When the audience is unfamiliar with the subject, or when the subject is complex given their educational background, you will need to make a special effort to help your audience understand:

  1. Use a vocabulary that everyone will understand.

  2. Explain technical terms.

  3. Make your organizational plan obvious, and make transitions clear.

  4. Repeat and emphasize key points.

Presentation Skills

Regardless of the variables in the situation, the techniques required for an effective presentation are essentially the same. You will need to plan what you will say, establish credibility, deliver the message, and obtain feedback.


How much planning you must do before you speak depends on the complexity of the subject and the formality of the situation. Complex subjects require more planning than simple ones, and formal situations give you less margin for error than informal situations.

At its most basic level, planning means thinking before you speak. At one time or another, we have all suffered the consequences of speaking first and thinking later. In interpersonal situations, it is a good way to lose a friend or make an enemy. In presentations, it can cost your organization thousands—perhaps millions—of dollars and may cost you your job. Those who say too much without thinking are often called “blabbermouths” or worse.

On the other hand, those who are too careful about what they say earn a reputation for “never saying what they think,” which suggests that they have something to hide. Adequate planning includes the following steps:

  1. Know Your Subject.  People are usually asked to speak about things they know. Other than impromptu speeches, however, presentations will require at least some specific preparation to adapt material to the audience and occasion and to ensure that the most important points are covered in a logical order. Being thoroughly familiar with your subject and what you intend to say about it is the best antidote for presentation jitters and the best guarantee for a successful presentation.

  2. Be Positive.  In previous times, military commanders who did not want to hear that the battle had been lost often put bearers of bad news to death. This is the origin of the expression, killing the messenger. Although there may be times you have no choice but to deliver bad news, people tend to associate those who present negative messages with the bad news. For this reason, when possible, avoid saying negative things about people, organizations, or ideas presented by others. Another reason to focus on the positive is that people process positive language more quickly and easily than they do negative language. See “Negative Language and Positive Tone,” in the section on Language and Meaning.

  3. Rehearse.  How much time you should spend rehearsing what you want to say depends on the importance of and complexity of the situation. Some complex situations may require months of research, preparation, and rehearsing. Rehearsing can be tricky, however. You should rehearse enough to be familiar and comfortable with your message, but not so much that your delivery is stiff and tired. To be effective as a presenter, you must know what you want to say well enough to say it without reading it or memorizing it.

  4. Be clear, truthful, and interesting.  You can’t be perfect; nobody is. You cannot prepare for every contingency; and you cannot know everything about your subject, the circumstances, or the audience. You do, however, owe it to your audience to present what you do know in a clear, truthful, and interesting way, and that’s all they will expect.

Establishing Credibility

Your credibility as a message source will have an important influence on the reception the audience gives your message. You can establish long-term credibility only by becoming a recognized expert in a given area. Once you have established yourself as an authority, you carry this credibility with you into new situations calling for your expertise. Long-term credibility in one area has a halo effect or carry-over credibility that increases the perception of your credibility in other areas as well.

Audiences tend to assume that if you have always been truthful and knowledgeable in one area, you will probably be truthful and knowledgeable in other areas as well. Movie stars and athletes, for example, often become spokespersons for political causes, such as the National Rifle Association, and a variety of commercial products and services. The halo effect is not always rational—it is logical for a tennis player to recommend a brand of tennis racket, for example, but why would people expect a tennis player to make good recommendations about automobiles or soft drinks?

Even if you possess long-term credibility, you will still need to establish short-term credibility with your audience each time you speak. To help ensure high short-term credibility, make clear distinctions among facts, inferences, and value judgments (opinions) and by telling your audience how you know what the facts are. For more information about credibility, see the section on “Reader Resistance and Appeals” in Understanding Persuasion.

Delivering the Message

In addition to the structure and content of your message, the way you deliver it will also have an influence on its reception. Whatever the size of your audience, the skills you need to make an effective presentation are essentially the same as the conversational skills you have been using all your life. Anything that makes your communication effective in one-on-one situations will also make it effective with larger groups.

Unfortunately, the larger the size of the audience, the easier it is to forget the basic conversational skills. Most people find large audiences at least a little intimidating. The fundamental rules for delivering a message to a group are the following:

  1. Relax.  One of the things effective presenters have in common is that they are relaxed and comfortable while speaking to a group. You will recall from the discussion of “Establishing Rapport” in Relationships and Rapport that people tend to match one another in social situations. If you appear nervous and uncomfortable, your audience will become nervous and uncomfortable as well.

    Use natural gestures and movements, but avoid pacing and other rhythmic movements and nervous mannerisms. See the section on stage fright later in this section for ways to overcome feeling nervous about a presentation.

  2. Involve everyone.  Whatever the size of the group, take a moment before you begin to speak to establish eye contact with as many people as possible. To “pull” the audience in to you, glance at those seated on the left side of the room, then look at those seated across the back of the room, and then move your gaze back toward the front of the room, looking at those seated on the right. Make sure that everyone can hear you. When people have a problem hearing a speaker, they will tune out rather than struggle to hear. If the group is large, use a sound system.

    Think in terms of speaking to individuals rather than to the group as a whole. When the situation permits it, encourage people to move in one way or another, by having them introduce themselves to those seated close to them whom they don’t already know each other or by having them applaud someone in the group or a recent organizational success. Ask questions. Ask them for a “show of hands” in response to a relevant question about the subject of your presentation (such as “How many of you own a digital camera?”). If appropriate, ask for a volunteer to take part in a demonstration. After the demonstration, have the audience applaud that person.

  3. Be enthusiastic.  If you are interested in and enthusiastic about your subject, you increase the level of interest and enthusiasm in your audience. Your voice and your physiology should indicate your level of enthusiasm. If you say, for example, that you are “glad to be here,” your voice and your body should show that you truly are glad. If you look depressed and speak in a small, shaky voice, your audience will believe your appearance rather than your words.

    Even when you must convey bad news, your audience will appreciate it if you seem confident that you and your organization are doing everything possible to ensure the best possible outcome for everyone involved. See the section on “Nonverbal Communication” in Communication and Behavior for more information about the influence of nonverbal communication on the communication process.

  4. Stick to the subject.  Entertainment material is useful only if it helps you convey your message. Jokes, stories, and other material inserted for entertainment purposes must be related to your message closely enough to ensure that the audience can see the connection. Remember that you have a purpose in speaking and that your principal objective is to accomplish that purpose.

Obtaining Feedback

You need to obtain feedback from your audience for two distinct reasons. First, you need feedback to make sure that your audience is hearing and understanding your message. Second, you need feedback to help you do a better job on your next presentation.

To ensure that everyone is hearing and understanding you, maintain eye contact with your audience and invite questions.

To obtain feedback for the second objective of doing a better job with your next presentation, do the following:

Preparation and Support

Formal presentations differ from other kinds of oral communication primarily because one person speaks for an extended time without receiving much oral feedback. In most other communication situations—from interviews to group meetings—the participants exchange a series of short messages and comment on what others have said. In a formal presentation, the speaker is expected to deliver a fully planned, well-organized, extended message on a topic usually announced in advance to the audience.

Restricted oral feedback is a criterion of a formal presentation. Sometimes the medium used for the presentation, as would be the case with a televised presentation, may make feedback virtually impossible. Other formal presentations may permit questions and answers during the presentation itself, but even in such cases, feedback is restricted to help ensure the orderly presentation of ideas.

Formality and Expectations

Planned presentation and restricted feedback are among the characteristics that make formal presentations formal. Contributing to the formality are the serious intent of both the presenter and the audience, the distance maintained between the speaker and the audience, and the fact that the presentation will take place at a specific time and place.

The degree of formality can vary greatly, however. The most formal kind of presentation, the reading of a paper, is rarely used in business. Presenters at academic conferences and scientific gatherings may read papers to ensure that complex information is conveyed accurately. To help ensure the accurate transfer of the information, members of the audience are typically given copies of the paper, either before or following the reading. (Also, most academics and scientists are not known for their presentation skills and reading the paper precludes certain kinds of problems with delivery.)

In business, the following kinds of presentations—listed in order of decreasing formality—are most common:

  1. Public speech or lecture.  Public presentations are prepared in advance and typically delivered with the aid of notes. Oral feedback is usually restricted to the end of the presentation, if any is permitted at all.

  2. Sales presentation.  Sales presentations may be invited or uninvited, with invited sales presentations being the more formal of the two. In an invited sales presentation, the speaker has been specifically invited to present his or her product or service to those who will make the purchasing decision. In an uninvited sales presentation, the speaker takes advantage of an opportunity to describe a product or service. In either case the presenter must prepare a wide variety of material in advance and then select the most appropriate material for the situation and audience. Most sales presentations include time for questions and answers, but because the decision-making group may elect not to ask questions, the sales presentation needs to be complete by itself.

  3. Education and training presentation.  Education and training presentations combine the characteristics of lectures and discussion sessions. The speaker must be fully prepared both to deliver a specific message and to deal with a wide range of questions about related subject matter. Oral feedback is encouraged during and after the presentation and, sometimes, even before it.

  4. Discussion sessions.  Because they permit the most interaction between the speaker (or speakers) and the audience, discussion sessions are the least formal of formal presentations. Even for these presentations, time, place, and topic are determined in advance, however, and the speakers must prepare an organized message.

  5. Informal oral reports.  A common occurrence in business is for managers to ask members of their staffs to report on their progress with a particular project or a solution to a problem. At any staff meeting, you may be called upon to brief your department or committee on something you have been working on. Although the situation is much less formal than most other presentation types, others will be judging you on the quality of your presentation, so be prepared.

Note that, in general, as the formality of the presentation decreases, the responsibility of the presenter also decreases, while the responsibility of the audience increases. In a public speech or lecture, the audience is characteristically responsible only for listening; whereas in discussion sessions and for most informal oral reports, the audience is expected to participate by asking questions and making comments.

Presentation Support

In formal presentations, the sender of the message is either trying to inform the audience or to persuade the audience to change an attitude, belief, or behavior. The presentation should be organized to meet its objective in the same way written messages are organized to meet their objectives. Because the message is delivered orally, however, the presenter needs to take additional precautions to help ensure that the audience receives and understands the message. Preparation is the key to success in attaining the objective of an oral presentation.

For most formal presentations, you will need two kinds of support: notes and visual aids, which typically depend on equipment of one type or another.

Notes.  The kind of notes you will require will depend on the situation and your familiarity with the material. The audience will expect you to be sufficiently familiar with your topic that you can move from point to point without excessive reliance on notes, but they will expect you to need to check notes for certain specifics, such as the technical details of a complex product.

Students in high school and college speech classes are frequently taught to put their notes on note cards (3X5 or 5X7 inch, U.S.). This strategy, however, is rarely (if ever) used in business. It’s easy to drop note cards, and notes on small cards are often difficult to read. The audience will be aware that you are relying on notes anyway, so you are inviting a presentation disaster without gaining the advantage of having usable notes.

Experienced presenters typically prefer to put their notes on full-size (8.5X11 inch, U.S.) sheets or to speak from an outline shown by overhead projector or computer-based display. Although some presenters put their entire presentation on their notes pages, inexperienced speakers tend to rely on them too heavily and end up reading rather than presenting the material. Once a speaker begins reading, he or she tends to focus exclusively on the notes, losing eye contact with the audience. The other problem with having your notes contain the complete text of your presentation is the possibility of getting lost and having to take time to search through your notes for what you want to say next.

If you feel the need to have your complete text available, emphasize the outline (by using a large, bold font or highlighter). Know your material well enough that you can move about naturally, referring to the text only when you need to provide the audience with a specific detail or need to refresh your memory on a particular point. Your notes should give structure to your presentation and allow you sufficient flexibility to adapt to the needs and interests of a specific audience.

Paraphernalia.  When a presentation contains complex information, speakers typically rely on communication aids to help an audience follow and understand the information being presented. The most common supplements to an oral presentation are chalk and white boards, display boards, flip charts, projectors, handouts, and models.

  • Chalk and White Boards.  Whether black or green, chalkboards are the oldest and best known communication aids. Because they are relatively inexpensive and inexpensive to use, virtually every schoolroom has at least one. The modern equivalent, a white board, has the same advantages and disadvantages, with the principal difference being that, instead of chalk, special felt-tip markers are used to write on the board. Boards may be prepared in advance or used at any time to illustrate or emphasize a point. The basic rules for using chalk and white boards are the following:

    1. Write legibly.  Your writing should be big enough and dark enough for everyone in the room to read. Start at the left side of the board (as you are facing it), and work to the right. Writing something on the board doesn’t help if you have to read it for the audience.

    2. Keep the message simple.  Too much information clutters the board and confuses the audience. Unless messages are related (such as these four points about board use), replace old messages with new ones so that at any one time the board contains a single, unified message. Use chalk or markers of different colors to emphasize different aspects of a message.

    3. Stay out of the way, and speak to the group.  Make sure that the audience can see what you have written or drawn. Stand to one side when you are referring to information on the board, and use a pointer if one is available. Speak to the audience rather than to the board. One of the most common mistakes presenters make is turning their backs on the audience and then reading from a board or projector screen. Face your audience when you are speaking.

    4. Erase the board when finished.  When you have finished with the information on the board, erase it. Also, erasing the board before leaving the room is known as the first rule of teaching because it is a courtesy for the next person who will use the room. Even in the organizational setting, it’s a good habit to have to help ensure the confidentiality of proprietary information.

  • Display Boards.  Felt or magnetic display boards, or special displays are used primarily for sales presentations to small audiences. They are typically used to present photographs and other information that will remain constant throughout the presentation. Their main disadvantage is their lack of flexibility. They are prepared in advance and are difficult to change. Their size is fixed, so the audience has to be close enough to see the information, so if the audience proves larger than anticipated, not everyone will be able to see the board at once.

  • Flip Charts.  A flip chart consists of a pad of paper (usually 28X34 inches) mounted on an easel. Like the chalkboard, a flip chart is inexpensive and can be used spontaneously. The main advantages of a flip chart are that they require no erasing and different color markers can be used to help create visual interest. Flip charts may also be prepared in advance. The principal disadvantage of flip charts is that their small size makes them inappropriate for large audiences.

  • Projectors.  The most common projection device is the ubiquitous overhead projector. It is currently the standard device for visual support. Virtually every classroom and conference room has one. It is the one piece of equipment presenters can count on being available wherever they go. Other projector types include computer-based projection systems, opaque projectors, slide projectors, VCR and TV systems, and film projectors.

    • Overhead projectors.  Overhead projectors remain popular because they have a well-established base, and they continue to work for years with very little maintenance. Transparencies for overhead projectors are relatively inexpensive. Transparencies can be prepared in advance, or (using special pens made for the purpose) blank transparencies can be used spontaneously to record notes or illustrate concepts. Almost anything that can be printed on paper can be printed on a transparency for overhead projection. Overhead projectors work well with only a small reduction in normal lighting, so members of the audience can see to take notes.

      For effective use of the overhead, organize your transparencies in advance, and keep transparencies simple and easy to read. Use 18 point type or larger for anything printed on a transparency, and use landscape format. Talk about—rather than read—the transparency. Use a pointer on the projector rather than on the screen to draw attention to a specific point on the slide. Turn the projector off when you are not using it, and be sure to keep a spare bulb handy.

    • Computer-based projection systems.  Computer-based projection systems will do everything an overhead projector will do, and more-—when they work. At their best, they project a bright image and can use thousands (if not millions) of colors, and include both sound and animation. They will do so much, in fact, that presenters may rely on the “bells and whistles” of the equipment to the detriment of the message.

      Computer-based presentations require special software (such as Microsoft’s PowerPoint), and learning to use it effectively will require some time. Also, setting up the equipment may prove difficult. Not every computer will work with every projection system, and special interface cables and cards may be required. Even when you are absolutely sure that your equipment is compatible and that everything will work, have a back-up plan. Take a set of printed transparencies and/or handout package containing the essential points of your message.

    • Opaque projectors.  Opaque projectors do everything an overhead projector will do using plain paper rather than transparencies. Modern opaque projectors (such as the Elmo “Visual Presenters”) are extremely versatile and are capable of showing not only documents of a wide variety of sizes, including the ability to zoom in on specific points in a document, but also three-dimensional objects.

    • Slide projectors.  Slide projectors are useful primarily for showing photographs of people, events, and objects. When your presentation will include a variety of photographs, consider photographing the material that would normally be presented by overhead projector and using the slide projector as your main visual support. The principal advantage of slide projectors is that the resolution of the image is typically much higher than that afforded by other projection systems. The disadvantages are that the room needs to be darkened, which makes taking notes and observing audience feedback difficult.

    • VCR and TV systems.  Videotape can be used to present a wide variety of material, including stand-alone presentations. If you need to deliver a specific message to groups of people separated by time, distance, or both, a videotaped presentation may be the most effective way to do that. The principal disadvantages of videotaped presentations are the relatively high cost of producing quality video and the size of typical TV monitors. Producing high-quality video requires time, experience, and special equipment, and the size of most monitors limits the audience for any given viewing to a fairly small number.

      Nevertheless, once produced, videotapes may be reproduced at low cost and sent to a wide variety of locations for viewing by small numbers of people over an extended time. For this reason, video may prove an effective means of distributing certain kinds of information to well-defined audiences.

    • Film projectors.  Since the advent of high-quality videotape, film projectors have lost favor as a source of business presentations. Films are expensive to prepare, so most of the films now used in business presentations have been prepared by companies marketing the films for commercial purposes. Most of them are training films featuring actors hired to role play such common business situations as sexual harassment or interviewing candidates for purposes of hiring or firing.

  • Handouts.  Handouts are written supplements that a presenter distributes to the audience. They can be anything from a single page of material to copies of books or magazines. Handouts have a wide variety of uses, including the following:

    1. To provide details you don’t have time to cover.

    2. To illustrate specific points of your presentation.

    3. To serve as worksheets for your audience.

    4. To outline the key points of your presentation and thus help your audience follow your message more easily.

    5. To provide a summary of your presentation.

    6. To provide statistical data or other information that supports your generalizations.

    7. To present information that is too complex to present with other special techniques.

    8. To obtain the feedback you need to determine whether the audience understood your message or to help you do a better job with your next presentation.

    When you use handouts, remember that too much information frequently has the same effect as too little. If you distribute too many handouts, your audience will not separate the important from the inconsequential—it will all be thrown out together. When you are distributing several items, color-code them to help your audience keep track. Avoid the temptation to read handout material; your audience can read the information for themselves.

    Use the handouts to supplement your presentation, to provide illustrations, or to remind the audience of the presentation. Distribute handouts in advance only when the audience will need to use the materials as you make your presentation.

  • Models.  A model is a symbolic representation. Models used in presentations are typically constructions that illustrate the real thing. (Some presentations, such as automobile sales, may require the real thing to be effective.) The use of models in presentations is limited primarily to special applications familiar to those who need them—including certain areas of advertising, sales, architecture, and engineering. Architects, for example, often make scale models of buildings they are designing so that those not familiar with viewing architectural drawings can obtain a better idea of what the completed building would look like.


It should be obvious that to give an effective oral presentation, you need to know what you are talking about. The first step in delivering an effective preparation is to make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with your subject. Second, to the extent that it is possible to know such things in advance, you need to have a good understanding of your audience and the context in which you will be speaking.


The audience for a formal presentation is invariably a select group. Formal presentations are always announced in advance, so the audience arrives with certain expectations. These expectations depend primarily on whether attendance is required and on the nature of the subject. The degree of interest the audience has in the subject may vary from intense enthusiasm to complete apathy. The audience may know a great deal—or nothing at all—about the topic. The audience may already have strong beliefs about the topic, or it may have a neutral attitude.

Because these factors determine what a speaker must do to communicate effectively with an audience, before you speak, you should do everything possible to discover your audience’s expectations, degree of interest, and knowledge and current beliefs about the topic. Although the presentation must usually go on even if the audience is openly hostile, with opinions diametrically opposed to the position you will present, it’s best to know what kind of reception to expect from the audience and be prepared to take advantage of it—or deal with it.

The three cornerstones of preparation are to know your material, know your audience, and know your objective. Knowing your material, however, does not mean that you should memorize what you are going to say. Memorized presentations sound stilted and awkward, and you risk having your memory fail. When that happens, you are left with nothing to say and nowhere to go. The best preparation is to know your material well enough to be able to speak from an outline.

Also, part of your preparation should be to cultivate a good speaking voice. Use a tape recorder to record and listen to your own voice. You do not actually hear your own voice the way others do when you are speaking, because the sound travels from your mouth to your ears by bone conduction. Others hear the sound waves that travel through the air. A tape recorder will let you hear what others hear when they listen to you. Your tonality is extremely important.

Your voice will be easier for others to listen to when you generate it from your chest cavity rather than from your throat or nose. If you sound nasal (like you have a cold) or whiny (the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard), practice saying the vowel sounds—especially ah, oh, and oo—until you like what you hear when you play it back on the tape recorder. Then talk like that all the time.

Also, tape your presentation as you plan to give it, and check the tape for the following:

  1. Enunciation.  Are you pronouncing all words clearly and distinctly? Check words you are unsure of in the dictionary. Be especially careful with words ending in ing—doing sounds more professional than doin’.

  2. Modulation.  Your voice should rise and fall in both volume and pitch naturally, increasing in volume to emphasize important points, and decreasing from time to time to provide variety.

  3. Paralanguage.  Paralanguage consists of all vocalized sounds other than words, including laughter, throat-clearing sounds, and such fillers as uh, um, and verbal tics (OK, you know). Make sure that you are speaking at a moderate rate, neither too fast nor too slow. Compare your rate of delivery to that of the best-known television newscasters. If you speak at about the same rate, others will find it easy to listen to you.

  4. Projection.  Does your voice carry well enough for you to be heard at the back of the room? If not, use a microphone. It is better to use a mike than to strain your voice.

Coping with Stage Fright

Virtually everyone is nervous about speaking in front of a group at least the first time. Fear of public speaking—stage fright—is the most common type of performance anxiety. Getting up in front of an audience the first few times is unpleasant for some, difficult for most, and nearly impossible for a few others.

Practice is the most reliable cure for stage fright. The first presentation is the hardest; each subsequent time will get a bit easier. You will, of course, need to rehearse for all your important presentations, but practice is especially important before your first professional presentation. Use your imagination to picture yourself in front of your audience, speaking and moving naturally. As you gain experience speaking to groups, you will need to spend less time on rehearsal of this variety.

While you are rehearsing your presentation, keep the following points in mind:

  1. You were asked to make the presentation because you know something about the subject that the audience does not. Focus on that aspect of the subject, and give the audience something that will benefit them.

  2. Your subject and your audience are more important than you are. Think about your audience and your subject rather than about yourself.

  3. No presentation is perfect. You are bound to make a mistake or two—everyone does. If you make a mistake, you can correct yourself and move on. Keep going forward rather than looking back.

  4. You cannot please all the people all the time. No matter how well (or poorly) you actually perform, someone in the audience will think you were wonderful, and somebody will think you were awful. Do not let the one who thinks you were wonderful blind you to your mistakes or let the one who thinks you were awful undermine your confidence.

One last thing to do is create a Circle of Excellence for yourself. The Circle of Excellence is a technique used by a number of professional speakers and is the equivalent of what athletes often call The Zone. The Circle of Excellence makes use of stimulus-response conditioning to create an anchor for feelings of confidence and competence so that when you are in your Circle of Excellence, you will be able to perform at your best.

Note that confidence and competence are not necessarily the same. Confidence is the feeling of assurance, a belief in one’s own abilities. Competence is the actual ability or skill to do something. For one reason or another, some people are supremely confident even though they may lack competence. You may know people, for example, who think of themselves as wonderful drivers or athletes, when in actually they are not very good. When it comes to presentations, you will want to be both confident and competent.

To create your Circle of Excellence, do the following:

  1. Visualize a circle on the floor in front of you. Make it large enough for you to step into it comfortably, and picture it as a color that appeals to you (such as red for power, blue for clarity of thought, yellow for energy—whatever color seems right for you).

  2. Think about a specific time you felt completely confident. It doesn’t matter what you felt confident about so long as you can recapture the feelings of that particular time. The effectiveness of this procedure is based on the degree to which you can associate into the feelings of confidence you had at previous times, so take all the time you need to recapture those feelings. When you can remember exactly what it felt like to be that confident, step into your Circle of Excellence, and, using a loud internal voice, anchor the feelings with a code word, such as   Now.

  3. Hold those feelings for a moment, and then step out of the Circle of Excellence, and think about something else for a minute.

  4. Recreate your visualization of the Circle of Excellence, and repeat Steps 2 and 3 using a different time you felt completely confident. Use the same code word to anchor your feelings into the Circle of Excellence.

  5. Repeat Steps 2, 3, and 4 using feelings of competence—recapture the feelings you associate with doing things very well. Use the same code word to set the anchor for feelings of competence.

  6. Take a break for a few minutes and then test your Circle of Excellence by visualizing the circle and then stepping into it while saying your code word. You may strengthen the association among the Circle of Excellence, your code word, and the feelings of confidence and competence by repeating the exercise at intervals.

When the time for your presentation arrives, visualize your Circle of Excellence, and step into it while saying your code word to yourself.

Delivering the Message

When the day and time of your presentation arrives, arrive sufficiently early to check the room and equipment—or to set up, if you have that responsibility as well. In particular, check the following:

  1. The room arrangement.  Are the chairs for the audience arranged appropriately for your presentation? Will those seated in the back be able to hear you and see you and your visual aids?

  2. The lighting.  Will you need to adjust the lighting in the room (either by opening or closing curtains or by adjusting the lights)? If the lighting will require adjustment during your presentation, do you know how to do that, or will someone be available who can help?

  3. The sound system.  If your audience will be large enough so that you will need a sound system, check to make sure that it works. If you have a choice of microphone, request a lavaliere. A lavaliere mike will allow you to move around while speaking. A hand-held mike is second best because it limits your gestures and needs to be held at a fairly constant distance from your mouth so that your voice hits the “sweet spot” on the mike that allows for the cleanest sound. Because a stationary microphone attached to a lectern increases the physical and psychological separation between speaker and audience, consider them a last resort to be used only for speaking to large audiences when you have no other options.

  4. Audiovisual equipment.  What kind of audiovisual support will be appropriate for your presentation? Is the equipment there, and does it work properly? Computer-based projection systems in particular require additional time to set up, so make sure that you will have sufficient time to ensure that the system is working (and have a back-up plan in case it doesn’t). If you are using an overhead or slide projector, make sure that a spare bulb is available.

  5. Your appearance.  Before your presentation, check yourself in a mirror to make sure that your appearance is acceptable. Men should make sure to check the zipper on their pants. It’s awkward to have someone in your audience point out that your pants need zipping. Women need to check their make-up and jewelry. Knowing that you look acceptable will help provide the additional confidence required for an effective presentation.

If you find that you are still nervous when you begin speaking (in spite of your rehearsal and Circle of Excellence), do not apologize for it or make any comment that suggests that you are inexperienced or poorly prepared. Concentrate on your message and your audience. If your throat gets dry, drink water rather than coffee or carbonated drinks, which may make your throat feel even drier.

When your time to speak arrives, walk confidently to the lectern without speaking. Create your Circle of Excellence as you approach the lectern, and then step into it, and say your code word to yourself. Plant your feet firmly, with your left foot pointed straight ahead and your right foot with your toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle. This will help you avoid the common random movements that audiences find distracting.

Before you speak, look at the audience, starting by looking at the people seated in the front on your left. Let your eyes gaze down the left side of the audience, across the back row, and then back to the front along the right side. This will pull the audience into you before you begin.

If you have been introduced, be sure to thank the person who introduced you. Express appreciation for the opportunity to speak and, perhaps, the importance of the occasion. While you speak, watch the audience for signs that everyone can hear you and follow what you are saying. Move naturally, but until you are an accomplished speaker, avoid moving and talking at the same time. Use natural pauses in your presentation to move from one location to another, plant your feet, and begin speaking again. Gesture naturally, but remember that the larger your audience, the bigger your gestures need to be for everyone to see them.

A presentation, like all communication forms, requires a specific organizational pattern to be effective, and just as letters, memos, and reports follow certain conventions formats, presentations also follow certain conventions influencing the delivery of information. These include the following: