This article was published on September 2, 2012

Here are the secrets to giving an engaging presentation

Here are the secrets to giving an engaging presentation
Mike Vardy
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Mike Vardy

Mike Vardy is a husband, father, independent writer, speaker, podcaster and "productivityist". He is also the author of the book, The Front Mike Vardy is a husband, father, independent writer, speaker, podcaster and "productivityist". He is also the author of the book, The Front Nine: How To Start The Year You Want Anytime You Want, published by Diversion Books. You can learn more about his other work at his website,, visit his blog at, and you can follow him as @mikevardy on Twitter.

Giving a presentation is as much an art as it is a craft. And it’s becoming increasingly important in today’s world of startups that those who are going to pitch and present need to have a sense of what to do not just when they’re up in front of everyone, but what to do before and afterward as well. There’s much to do when putting together a presentation that just can’t be covered up by the passion the speaker feels for their subject matter, and I’ve seen plenty of presentations and pitches both in large and small settings. Whether you’re going to present at a large conference or in front of a small group of venture capitalists in a board room, knowing how to give a presentation is going to give you a big leg up on your competition.

I’ve not only seen plenty of presentations in my time, but I’ve given many. Having spoken in front of hundreds of people at an event to facilitating a workshop with a small group of health care workers on how to be more productive, I’ve had to adapt and deliver on several occasions in differing speaking environments. In order to help you get the most out of yourself (and your audience) at your next presentation, I’ve come up with this guide to giving presentations. I’ve included a bunch of things to do and things to avoid, and by heeding this advice you should have a much better chance of connecting the next time you step up in front of a crowd and deliver the goods.

So let’s get started…

Be prepared on every level

Whenever you’re booked to give a presentation, make sure you go in prepared. That doesn’t just mean knowing your material and speaking points, either. You need to put yourself in a position that allows you to deliver what you’ve got to say with as little friction as possible.

What does that mean exactly?

First off, don’t rely on the gear. That means that you had best be ready in the event that there are compatibility issues with the devices available, or that you wind up in a room that has unreliable wireless access. While I’ve heard from other speakers that they like to bring their own gear, I’ve found that even if you do that there’s a chance that one dongle you don’t have is the one that will work on their projector (yes, it’s happened to me). And even if you’ve verified what equipment needs you have and what is available, things can change between that verification and the day of the presentation.

By preparing a talk that can connect with your audience whether delivered with our without the use of technology, you’re putting yourself in a position to succeed – and you actually end up focusing more on the content of the presentation than the context as a result. What I do is prepare a Keynote of my presentation for when I know that a Mac is available for use (PowerPoint for Windows), I prepare a version of my presentation on Prezi in the event that I don’t want to be platform-dependant (and know there’s a reliable Internet connection), and I also have a one-sheet to hand out at the end of my presentation that contains important points and URLs that serve to give the audience a chance to review my presentation at their own leisure later on. This way, I’ve got myself covered no matter what surprises may await.

Other ways to prepare yourself are more obvious, but just as important. Things like limiting the number of words per slide (as recommended by Garr Reynolds in the highly regarded book Presentation Zen) and making sure you know your material inside and out. Notice that I didn’t say “memorize” your material, which brings me to the next major area of focus….

Rehearse liberally

Sir Ken Robinson has said that while it’s important to know your material, there’s a danger in over-rehearsing it.

“…the danger in rehearsal is that it is possible to seem too rehearsed when you present. That is, we may seem too perfect, too inflexible, too unnatural, and though technically perfect, we may lose the ever important natural connection with the audience. And I say if there is no connection, there is no communication.”

By rehearsing liberally you are not only soaking in your material, but you are also keeping your presentation in a better state of “freshness”. Knowing your material and not being married to how it is going to come out of your mouth is freeing. It lets you be more relaxed and conversational (another key public speaking tip that Robinson has offered), so you’ll genuinely appear that way to your audience.

Give yourself some breathing room in your presentation, or you’ll find that you won’t be able to breathe very well during your presentation at all.

Be accessible

I remember doing a Pecha Kucha talk in front of a general audience on the topic of productivity a few years ago, and I decided to try to be really clever about it. The problem was that I was too clever. The audience wasn’t into productivity as much as I was and my entire talk didn’t resonate with them. I watched as the audience tried to get on board with me, but simply couldn’t because I took the wrong approach. I wasn’t accessible enough, and the talk flopped.

You have to remember that not everyone will know (or be as passionate) about what you’re presenting on as you are. Make sure that your talk is accessible to as many people as possible. Whether that means using a ton of layman’s terms or adding in touches of humour throughout, it’s important to make sure that what you’re saying is as engaging as it is informative. No matter how hard you try, without having a healthy dose of both of those qualities, you won’t have a successful presentation.

The focus is you

This leads back a bit to Reynolds’s point about limiting the words on a slidedeck: people should be focusing on you and your presentation, not your presentation alone. If you prepare accordingly and know your stuff, then the technology and slideshows you use will simply augment the presentation rather than overshadow it. You won’t have to worry about asking your audience if they can read the text on the screen (or, worse, have to read it out loud for them), they’ll be free to focus on you and what you’re saying. No matter how hard you try, people will filter your presentation, and each person will do it differently. Some filtering will be intentional, and some won’t. That’s why people take notes – to help them with both types of filtering (and it’s also why you should have a one-sheet at the ready for them when you wrap things up).

If you focus on you, then your audience will be able to do so that much better. How do you improve your chances of having the focus on you? Through preparation and rehearsal, that’s how.

Control yourself

Since the focus is on you, the control defaults to you as well. You don’t need to concern yourself with messing up lines and then apologizing for them during your presentation because no one will know that you did unless you tell them. As a former actor and comedian, I’ve dropped my share of lines during live performances. Rather than dwell on them and circle back, I just kept going…because that’s what professionals do. The audience is never the wiser unless you fill them in. So don’t.

Being as prepared as possible allows for more focus and control. Being mindful of the content of your presentation keeps you focused on what’s important and also lends itself to a sense of more control. You cannot control anything else in these situations other than yourself. How you prepare, how you perform, how you react – that’s all on you.

Image Credit: Ben Stanfield

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