TLDRoff
Many of us find standing up in front of an audience and presenting our thoughts and ideas embarrassing and stressful. Being able to address a large group is a valuable employability skill.

It is a strange fact about most of us that although we hate being ignored and unrecognised, for the most part we don't like drawing attention to ourselves either. Preparing to stand up in front of a group of strangers, or even friends and colleagues, so as to explain ourselves, or our ideas, or perhaps defend a point of view, can cause us many sleepless nights as we anticipate the worst possible scenario - usually one that ends with the audience pointing at us and laughing. We convince ourselves that we will sound foolish, or that we will not sound intelligent enough, or that we will have a big piece of spinach stuck in our teeth, or that our hair will mysteriously turn against us, or that our legs will give way or, worst of all, that we will freeze up. 

In practice, these things rarely happen and almost all audiences are supportive and encouraging, even if they are rigorous and professional. As with most activities preparation is the key to a successful presentation. If anything is likely to get you laughed at it would be turning up to a presentation and trying to wing it. We have all seen the amusing X-Factor performers whose act goes viral on YouTube for being delusional and ill prepared. Whether you are singing, dancing, telling a joke, presenting a pitch to a client, or a report to your team colleagues, careful planning will provide you with the confidence to feel that you 'own' your topic and this confidence will help you to deliver a calm and effective presentation.

 

Checklist Guide

There are a whole host of text books, online resources and courses designed to help you improve your presentation skills and if presenting in public on a regular basis is likely to be part of your future career, then you really ought to check some of these out. However, for right now let us just focus on a few useful tips to help you better prepare for a short presentation, perhaps for one of your courses, or possibly even for a job interview.

  • Keep focused: Your presentation needs to be clear, to the point and ought to only tackle a few themes. A presentation is not an essay, dissertation, or a report. In most cases a presentation is designed to support a larger piece of writing by introducing the audience to the key themes and ideas. If members of the audience want all the details then they can refer to the more substantial written document. Don't try and present too much information.
  • Keep it brief: It is a well-known fact that audiences have short attention spans and this is increasingly so in the digital age. For example, the Nielsen Norman Group have conducted research which suggests that most people only spend between 10 to 15 seconds on any given web page while the Telegraph claims that smart technology has reduced the average human attention span to around 8 seconds before their minds begin to wander. Try and get your point across as efficiently as you can and with the maximum impact per section of your presentation. It is well worth taking a look at the increasingly popular Pecha Kucha technique which adopts the approach of 20 slides with only 20 seconds presentation time per slide.
  • Keep it visual: A presentation is a visual medium; it is you standing in front of people, quite often with a digital display such as PowerPoint or Prezi behind you. Don't make the mistake of cutting large chunks of text from your essay or report and simply pasting them in to a series of slide. If people want to read your work then give them a print out. Keep your presentation visually engaging, people don't like to read lots of text from a slide. Try and make use of at least one visual clue per slide, an image that people can latch on to that gives them an immediate idea of what you will be talking about at that point in the presentation.
  • Keep your notes to a minimum: There is no substitute for a detailed knowledge of your subject matter. Knowing your topic well comes across very clearly in a presentation as you will be speaking with confidence and are less likely to feel lost or caught out by a question from the audience that you have not "revised". People who rely on substantial notes to guide them through their presentation can often get flustered if they lose their place and feel unable to continue until they find it again. Being tied to extensive notes that are, in effect, being read out will also force you to break eye contact with the audience for overly long periods of time which is never a good thing, as we shall see. So, know your topic, be able to talk about it even before you create your presentation, try and limit yourself to one side of notes that simply provides you with the key themes and ideas you wish to present. In fact, being able to use the presentation itself as your guide, without a separate set of written notes is something to aim for.
  • Keep your audience in mind: An effective presentation is one that communicates to a specific audience. Make sure you are aware of who you are presenting to before you begin work on creating your presentation. There are many factors that will affect the way in which your presentation will be received - Are the audience experts in the field? What age group are they? Is gender an issue? Is level of education an issue? If nothing else a familiarity with your audience ought to effect the language and examples you use to communicate appropriately with them.
  • Keep your surroundings in mind: Wherever possible try and visit and even practice your presentation in the actual room in which you will be presenting for real. Being familiar with the equipment available, the acoustics, the lighting, the size of the venue and where you will be positioned relative to the audience can have a real impact on the effectiveness of your presentation. Everybody performs better on home, or familiar ground.

As it is you who are on show during a presentation, there are a number of personal factors that need to be kept in mind as you prepare and present.

  • How do I look? You will often find advice about how you ought to look for professional presentations. However, as we mentioned earlier, an awareness of your audience ought to influence how you present yourself and this means your visual appearance, as well as what you say and how you say it. A simple guideline would be 'if you look like a bank manager then you will be treated like a bank manager'. Now, in a number of instances creating a traditional formal image for yourself will work very well as it can promote you as mature, professional and corporate. However, it is always possible that this is not the image you want to project. Consider the founder of Apple Steve Jobs, his signature 'look' when presenting was jeans and a black top. He was well aware that his audience was largely made up of techno-geeks and people from the creative industries people for whom a traditional, possibly backwards looking image, would not be considered attractive. Whatever you do, make sure that your visual appearance does not distract from the actual message of the presentation.
  • Where should I look? Maintaining eye contact is vital to keeping an audience engaged. In a presentation you are trying to create the illusion of a conversation with every individual in the room, break eye contact for too long and your audience start to feel excluded. Most of us know at least one person who, when they are supposed to be having a conversation with us is looking over our shoulder or out of the window or at their phone and we don't like it. It has become tradition on public transport to avoid eye contact so as to deliberately not engage personally with those around us - you do not want to do this in a presentation. Looking around the room at the audience rather than having your head down buried in your notes, or having your back to the audience talking to your PowerPoint slides, will have a powerful effect on your audiences reaction to you. They will feel drawn in and part of the conversation. For this same reason it is important not to simply fix your attention on one section of the room, or a particular individual, a friend or your tutor, as this will end up making the rest of the audience feel neglected and uninvolved.
  • How should I stand? Often, if we are unused to presenting to a group, it is our bodies that concern us most. We all know how to speak and how to write, but how are we supposed to stand? Do we move around, or stand still? Do we keep our hands by our side, or wave them about? What happens when your knees start to shake? As we have already mentioned a presentation is very much a visual experience, the audience are looking at you, not just at a body of text. That said this does not mean that a presentation need necessarily be a performance. Moving around a bit does give the presentation a more dynamic appeal that helps the audience stay focused, but you are certainly not required to dance or do acrobatics. Similarly, gesturing with your hands can help to emphasise a point, but you do not need to look as if you are casting a spell at Hogwarts. As a basic rule try not to over do anything - standing completely still with your hands rigidly at your side, or clasped tightly in front of you will make you look remote and cut off from your audience. Keep an open stance, with your hands behind you, smile, shift your position slightly from time to time, that should be quite enough. Finally, don't worry about the knees. You may feel as if your legs have gone to jelly, but the simple fact is that nobody else will notice.
  • How should I speak? As a rule, we tend to speak fairly rapidly when in conversation and once we start a presentation the danger is that we speak as fast as possible to get the whole thing over with as quickly as we can. Remember that you are primarily trying to communicate with your audience, so try and speak more slowly than usual to give them time to take on board what you are saying. Time moves much more slowly when you present, so often everything looks as if it is dragging and, again, you will want to speed up. Don't be afraid to stop and catch your breath, or organise your thoughts, the audience will barely notice. It is often quite useful to ask a rhetorical question at the end of each slide simply to give yourself a small break. Asking the audience "is everyone with me?" or "did everyone get that?" is unlikely to actually prompt a response beyond some slight nodding, but it will help you prepare yourself for the next slide and break the presentation up for the audience. 
  • How do I respond to questions? The simple answer to this is 'honestly'. To be perfectly frank here, most people who ask questions at presentations and conferences do so because they want to express an opinion of their own and in that case you don't need to provide any sort of answer and a simple acknowledgement of their contribution will do. If you are asked a question that you feel you have an answer to then respond confidently. If you are asked a question and you have no idea how to answer it don't try and blag it. Confess that this is something you still need to do some work on and open it up to the floor for comment - you will have no end of people queuing up to offer their opinion. Nobody expects you to have all the answers.

Final Comments

One of the most important things to remember when presenting to an audience is that nobody expects a perfect performance. If you lose your train of thought, or stumble over your words just stop, take a breath and carry on, nobody will judge you, if they notice at all. If you are presenting to an academic, or professional audience then the chances are everyone has been, or will be standing where you are and will be sympathetic and supportive.

Further information

20 Ways to Improve Your Presentation Skills

Present like Steve Jobs