Anatomy of a Great Presentation

Who loves giving speeches and presentations? Okay, don’t all raise your hands at once. Although public speaking can be intimidating, acing a big presentation can earn you valuable points toward a promotion, help you close a deal and open up career opportunities—not to mention put a kick in your step. And when you make a fabulous and compelling speech, the listening audience wins, too.

Giving a well-composed and effective speech isn’t impossible. John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, authors of “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential,” have coached Fortune 500 executives, political candidates and members of Congress on speaking effectively in front of high-stakes audiences. Here, seven ways to perfect your presentation. 

Capture Their Attention

Capture Their Attention

Who loves giving speeches and presentations? Okay, don’t all raise your hands at once. Although public speaking can be intimidating, acing a big presentation can earn you valuable points toward a promotion, help you close a deal and open up career opportunities—not to mention put a kick in your step. And when you make a fabulous and compelling speech, the listening audience wins, too.

Giving a well-composed and effective speech isn’t impossible. John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, authors of “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential,” have coached Fortune 500 executives, political candidates and members of Congress on speaking effectively in front of high-stakes audiences. Here, seven ways to perfect your presentation. 

Determine Your Story

Determine Your Story

“The first thing we ask clients is ‘What’s the story?’” says Kohut. “There’s always a larger narrative framework and illustrative stories that bring the ideas to life.” Think critically about the purpose of your presentation and what you hope to accomplish. Spend some time identifying the broader problem or subject in context, then consider what solutions you’re offering. Is there a hook or an anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake? What’s the “ask” — what do you want people to do after the presentation? Your presentation should take the audience on a journey, from feeling the problem in the gut, to seeing a solution and being ready to help, says Kohut.

Include an Anecdote

Include an Anecdote

Stories or anecdotes capture the audience’s attention. People love to hear stories, and telling one is a great way to get everyone on the same page. Once Kohut and Neffinger were coaching the head of a nonprofit who had to present to prospective funders. “She could rattle off all her organization’s metrics without notes, but she overlooked the importance of providing a context for those facts,” says Kohut. “Then she told us a story that clearly moved her.” A boy she’d met at one of her program offices would walk a couple miles on a hot summer day while both of his parents were at work for a free meal. She led with the anecdote, and after it, the funders hung onto every word she said.

Know Your Content

Know Your Content

Nervous? “When you’re at the front of the room, your nerves will shrink your mental bandwidth,” says Neffinger. “It will be hard to remember the content, watch the audience and think on your feet.” But if you know your content well, you can put that on autopilot; you’ll use up less of your energy while reading your audience to see if they’re engaged. Study your material backwards and forwards. Write it down on notecards if that works for you. Practice reciting facts, figures or anecdotes aloud and in front of a mirror. If you can, make a video of your practice sessions so you can see and hear yourself.

Bear the Bad News First

Bear the Bad News First

Fear focuses the mind, says Neffinger, so if your presentation involves bad news, discuss and address it upfront. Say, “Here are the stakes,” or “I’m worried about where we’re headed.” People will listen. If you are mad about something — employees’ (lack of) performance or the unenviable state of affairs in Washington — make sure your expression matches the severity of the topic. When your face shows the emotion you want your audience to feel, you’ll get — and keep — people’s attention.

Strike a Power Pose

Strike a Power Pose

There are physical ways to dampen down cortisol, the hormone that prompts the fight-or-flight response. Before the presentation, strike a power pose. Become as big as you physically can: Raise your arms and stretch your chest open, stand with your legs slightly apart and firmly planted. “You see military people often in this pose,” says Kohut. “And it works.” 

A study conducted by Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney at Harvard University revealed why. The researchers had one group of people spend two minutes in constricted poses and another spend two minutes in expansive poses. After, the groups were given a gambling test, a deliberately stressful job interview and a blood test. In the gambling test, the expansive-poses group was much more willing to take risks. They were also more confident, engaging and persuasive in their interviews. And they had much higher testosterone and much lower cortisol levels in their blood than the group that spent time in the demure, constricted poses. 

Another way to counter the cortisol before you speak: Warm up. “We get our clients to develop their own personal mental warm-up routine,” says Neffinger. How? Imagine you just received good news. You just won the lottery! You get an extra two weeks off — paid! What would you do? Run around? Do a little dance? Shout out ‘yee-haw!’? “A good warm-up routine is what you would be doing if you were jumping for joy,” he says. 

Everyone gets butterflies; the trick is to teach them to fly in formation. 

Picture Your Pitch — Then Practice It

Picture Your Pitch — Then Practice It

Visualize the presentation before you walk into the room. Imagine the whole thing, from your first gesture to your closing remarks. If you can, go into the ballroom or conference room and walk up to the podium. The brain remembers routine; the next time you get up there — on presentation day — it will be easier to calm your nerves and build up your confidence. “Athletes, musicians and dancers often do this,” say Kohut, “and it really works.”

Many people put so much effort into making the slides for their PowerPoint, but that’s often not what the audience will watch or remember. As painful as it may be, practice your opening story, stand firm and walk the audience through your points. It is unnatural to stand up in front of people or a camera lens of a video conference, but going through the motions truly helps.

Believe in Your Own Message

Believe in Your Own Message

Looking and sounding authentic is often the hardest things for speakers to do, says Neffinger. “When you’re in front of the room, the energy you project will be felt by everyone. You have to believe what you’re saying, or at least the story you’re telling. If you don’t, you’ll come off looking canned,” he says. “Sometimes you have to fake it ’til you make it.”

What if you don’t believe in your speech topic? Incorporate something you do believe in. Kohut and Neffinger once coached a political candidate who had ample qualifications, but polls revealed voters didn’t believe he share their concerns. “He had a warmth problem,” Neffinger says. But when the candidate talked about his son, his face lit up. He began his next speech with a story about his son’s baseball game. As a result, he smiled more, and the tone of the speech became more empathetic.

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