A Pep Talk: 5 Advanced Speaking Tips to Supercharge Your Next Presentation

February 4, 2019


Few skills are more important than the ability to present our ideas in clear and compelling terms. A great presentation can help us pitch and win new business, get approval for programs and budgets, and strengthen our reputation in the marketplace.

So the stakes are high. Yet I find that too many PR pros take public speaking skills for granted — they assume that because they’re successful communicators, they must also be solid presenters. But not everyone is, as attendance at any industry event will reveal.

Moreover, the rules are changing. TED Talks have radically altered audience expectations and raised the bar for speakers of every kind. Audiences today demand presentations that are not just shorter and more visually interesting, but also more polished in their content and delivery.

Here are five ways to take your next presentation to a new level of professionalism that will help you get the results you want.

1. Beware of conventional wisdom.

Quick quiz: Are the following statements true or false?

  • We only use 10 percent of our brains.
  • Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
  • President Lincoln hastily scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train ride to the ceremony.

The answers? False, false and false. Here’s the truth:

  • Sadly, we don’t have a huge reserve of untapped brainpower just waiting to be unlocked with some secret key.
  • There isn’t any evidence that Oscar Wilde said anything of the sort. (If you know his work, then it doesn’t even sound like him!)
  • Even a master orator like Lincoln had to put in some work on his speech.

Yet factoids like these are repeated so frequently that we just assume they’re true, and we don’t hesitate to pass them along to others. But in an era of “fake news,” it is our duty as PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts.

So don’t be part of the problem. Google any claim you haven’t verified. Use sites like Snopes to sniff out urban legends and Quote Investigator to nail down those “too good to be true” quotations.

Our audiences deserve nothing less than the truth.

2. Start with a story

In the first minute of a presentation, audiences are making up their minds about whether to give us their full attention or tune out and return to their screens. Don’t waste those precious seconds with extraneous comments about the weather, the venue, your travel travails or a long list of thank-yous.

Grab their attention from the start with a story that underscores the theme or goal of your presentation. Multiple studies confirm that stories have the power to break down walls, build trust and influence people to act.

In my practice, I’ve found that clients are often uncomfortable starting immediately with a story. They feel they must first provide some background, context or other setup — whether it’s an agenda, their bio or directions to the buffet.

But you can cover all those details later. Instead, start with your version of “It was a dark and stormy night:”

  • “I’ll never forget my first day on the job…”
  • “My mother always told me…”
  • “You won’t believe what happened to me on the way here…”

And whatever you do, resist the urge to kick it off with “Let me start with a story” or “This is a story about…” Just start storytelling.

3. Practice your way to authority.

To earn a reputation as a reliable, knowledgeable expert, you have to demonstrate not just fluency with your subject matter, but fluidity in the way you present it. And that only comes with practice — hours and hours of practice.

Practice on your feet and out loud. Practice in your head, everywhere and often — in the car, on the train, at the gym. Internalize the ideas, plan the transitions, play with your structure. Practice, practice, practice.

How do you know if you need more practice? Watch for these signs:

  • Do you have to see your next  slide to know what you’re going to say?
  • Does your mind go blank at any point?
  • Is your delivery marked by fits and starts?

If you want to get better, try the five-step rehearsal process that I use. The goal is to get to a place where you can sustain consistent forward momentum throughout your presentation. That level of mastery signals authority, and it’s immediately recognizable to audiences.

4. Get physical.

Always remember that in an age of easy distraction, we need to use every tool at our disposal to convey our ideas. That includes the words we say, the slides on the screen and the gestures we use.

Participants in my workshops often worry that they’re gesturing too much. But the bigger problem is not gesturing enough. Expansive gestures are an outward manifestation of what we’re thinking and feeling inside. They indicate a positive mental and emotional state, and should flow freely.

On the other hand, it pays to be strategic in the use of our hands and arms:

  • When listing points, count them off with your fingers. (And if you have more points than fingers on one hand, then consider cutting your content!)
  • When comparing and contrasting two concepts, gesture from one side of your body to the other.
  • For a particularly important point or powerful personal story, step forward to create more intimacy and impact.

Though these tips may sound basic, keep in mind that audiences are only half-listening, so a few simple actions can go a long way toward improving understanding.

5. Master technology.

Don’t let all your hard work get spoiled by a technology glitch. More than half of the presentations I see are marred by some technical issue that wastes the audience’s time and embarrasses the speaker. 

Here’s how to avoid the most common tech mistakes:

  • To reduce the chance of a system crash or sluggish performance, reboot your computer before your talk.
  • Arrive early and test everything — projection screen, sound, video and microphone.
  • Never, ever rely on Wi-Fi (like playing videos straight off YouTube, for instance).
  • Buy a remote so that you’re not tethered to the lectern.
  • Position your computer screen in front of you so you’re not staring at the projection screen behind you.

Learn More

These tips just scratch the surface. For more, be sure to tune in March 28 for a PRSA webinar where I’ll be expanding on these lessons and offering a bunch more.

The webinar is free to members, and a smart investment toward improving your presentation skills and building your credibility as a trusted expert.

Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach works with leaders who want to persuade, sell and compel — anytime, anywhere, and in front of any audience. He’s helped hundreds of CEOs and other executives plan and deliver their most important presentations. He’s also an in-demand speaker and trainer, an award-winning consultant, a bestselling author and a Second City-trained actor.


Cynthia L. Price says:

I learned the hard way about a remote. I thought the organization would have one. Nope! Plus, the lectern was in an awkward spot. My presentation was good, but it was a challenge connecting with the audience when I was tethered to the lectern. And I was dinged for it in one of the comments. I went out that evening and bought my own. I now have my own go-to bag with the remote and necessary cables so I don't forget anything.

March 19, 2019

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