The dos and don’ts of presentations

If you’ve been sked to give a talk or a presentation, the chances are you will be feeling nervous. This is very natural. The best way of calming down is to  be prepared and be in control. You have been asked to give the presentation, so your audience think you know more than they do.

Why are you giving this presentation?

What is the purpose of your speech? Ask yourself why you are giving the presentation to this particular group of people and be clear in your objective. The purpose of your speech will affect your delivery. Are you trying to persuade – are you looking for ‘buy in’? Is your purpose to instruct – and do you know enough? If your purpose is to inspire, and are you enthusiastic? If your purpose is to entertain, is this naturally you?

Who’s in your audience?

Find out the size of your audience, its background and level of understanding of the topic, who else is speaking on the same or similar subject (that will help you manage potential duplication or conflict of information presented). . Tailor your presentation to meet your objective and your audience. Make sure your subject is not too broad or too specialised for the audience. Be clear about what you want to achieve and what you want them to remember as key messages.

Where will you deliver the speech?

Check the venue and what equipment is available. Check that your visuals are suitable. Give yourself enough time to set up the equipment and make sure it is working. People need to be in receptive mode, so you need to check that the venue has the appropriate feel, ie is it too formal or not formal enough? The temperature needs to be comfortable and the seating needs to be arranged appropriately and also needs to be comfortable. If you are giving talks to older people, remember that they like it to be warmer than you do. Don’t focus all your attention on the staging and presentations – try being a guest. Walk though the arrival, refreshment and breaks. Familiarise yourself with the location of toilets and fire exits. Minimise distractions, otherwise key messages can be lost.

Think about the size and layout of the room. In a large room you will need to project your voice or you may need a microphone. Think about the acoustics. It is notoriously difficult to be clearly heard in a village hall, a church or a room with high ceilings and you may get echoes.  On the other hand, carpets and thick curtains muffle sound, so once again, you will need to project your voice. 

How long should it be?

Ensure you know how long you are expected to speak – and stick to that time. Remember we speak at up to 180 words a minute in conversation. Presentations should be given at an average of 100 words a minute.

Be aware of how long you have been allocated and make sure you stick to your timings, allowing time for questions if appropriate. This is particularly important if you are one of a number of speakers.

Most people find it difficult to concentrate for longer than 15 to 20 minutes so be ruthless with your content and keep presentations as short as possible. But, remember, the shorter it is, the more preparation is required to get the key points across. Allow enough time for people to ask questions as well as time to build rapport at the beginning. Put things as succinctly as possible and explain why the audience should be interested

When will you be speaking?

You need to think about your own comfort and that of your audience. If it’s summer, then you may have to open windows if possible which may mean more distractions from outside noise. Your audience will have a much shorter attention spa if they are uncomfortable.  Also think about the time of day you give your speech – the last slot in the day – ‘the graveyard slot’ is very unpopular as people are eager to leave or go home. If you are ‘on’ after lunch as well, then people are more sluggish and less able to concentrate, so you need to be livelier. Some people even doze off to sleep after lunch!

What is the content of your speech?

How to structure a presentation

First, brainstorm your ideas without evaluation or structure. Then select three or four key points, bearing in mind your objective and the needs and concerns of your audience. Think about your priorities – things you must say, should say and could say. Structure your material – think of the TV news – headlines (beginning), news in full (middle) and news round up (end). Grab attention at the beginning, promise great things to come and get them thinking. Use the middle to develop the argument, present the evidence and demonstrate the results. Structure ideas logically so they are easy for you to remember and for your audience to follow. Brief bullet points can provide you with a guide but avoid putting the entire presentation onto slides. Don’t waste the end: aim for a finish, not a stop.

Your script should have three basic sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. It should be written in plain English and contain examples to illustrate your key points.

Introduction: Tell them what you are going to tell them.

This section should be brief and clear – setting the agenda for your presentation. You should introduce your key points and engage the audience – excite them about what you plan to say. Remember to thank the chairman or whoever introduced you to the audience. 

Body: Telling them.

This is the heart of your presentation. Develop your key points and argument logically; use supplementary information, examples, statistics or illustrations. You will make most use of any audio-visuals in this part of the presentation. Make sure that any visuals you use to support what you are saying are legible for the audience – nothing too complicated or too small to read. Be careful not to stand where you will obstruct the view of any member or section of the audience.

Conclusion: Telling them what you told them.

Here you should draw together all the key points you have made in the body of your presentation. Use it to remind the audience and to recap. Reinforce your key messages so they are remembered. The closing section should be about the same length as the introduction.  Do not introduce new ideas at this point of your speech.

How will you deliver the speech?

Rehearsal and delivery

You will lose your audience within minutes if your delivery is poor. Prepare your final script in a large typeface (14 or 16 point ) onto card – A5 or A4. Print the script out in a large typeface so that it is easy to see at arm’s length. Number the cards and use a treasury tag to hold them together, rather than staples.

Keep your script and information simple with no more than four clear messages that the audience will remember. Always compose your speech in advance. Never be tempted to speak “off the cuff”. Structure your script into your clear subject areas with headings and then incorporate minor points. Think about the order of presenting information – is it making sense? Does it follow a natural argument?

Then present it out loud. Does it work in spoken form? A document that reads well on paper is rarely a good script for presentation. In a script you may need to use the same word several times to reiterate a point or even to repeat yourself.  You may also find that perfectly coherent sentences on paper, sound complicated out loud and will need to be simplified.

Research has shown that the average person in a conference audience has an attention span of up to six minutes – three if the presenter is not engaging! So, try to introduce a new element to your presentation every three to six minutes. This could be a new subject, a new visual, or a change of tone.

Refine your first draft script, print it, stand up, check the clock and present it out loud again. If you trip over any phrases or words, mark them and carry on with the presentation until the end. Check the time to see how close you are to the target time.

Unless you had an audience for this run through or are a very experienced presenter, you will have read out the script considerably faster than you should in front of an audience. Remember, too that this run through was without visuals that will also slow you down and add to the presentation time. Check at this stage that you really do have no more than four key messages in your presentation Now put your script away for 24 hours and look at it again tomorrow for final edits.

Pre-presentation nerves are normal. To control them requires confidence in what you plan to say and in your visuals. Try not to read from your script – use it to prompt you. Memorise the first two or three lines from your script to ease you into the flow of the presentation. If you are only using notes, then consider writing out the first two or three lines in full.

If using a screen for slides, overheads or computer projection of visuals, allow those visuals to act as punctuation to your voice – do NOT turn from the audience to the screen. Make eye contact with your audience. If using a flipchart, look from the audience to the chart and back again while speaking, as this will guide attention between you and the information.

Be enthusiastic about your subject! If you sound bored, your audience will quickly become bored.

Keep your breathing deep and controlled. Shallow breathing will affect the texture of your voice and cause you to rush and sound nervous. ‘Punctuate’ your speech. Pay attention to commas, keywords, paragraph changes and changes in tone. Do not be afraid of pauses – they may feel like long silences to you but for the audience they are part of the punctuation. Use your tone of voice to convey important messages. For example, if you have an important point to make then allow the audience a brief two or three seconds of silence to digest it before moving onto your next point.

Using Aids

Visual aids are excellent tools for adding variety and interest to your presentation, however, if we use them excessively, they can detract away from the message we are trying to convey. Use audio-visuals aids to support your presentation – not as a substitute for it.  Keep copy short on any visual so it is clearly and quickly legible for the audience. If you want them to read what is one screen, give them time to do so. Visuals should illustrate, enhance and punctuate what you are saying. Write them in bullet format from your script.

What do we have available?

  •  Flip chart
  • Whiteboard
  • Powerpoint
  • Video
  • Props
  • Handouts
  • Music – obviously not visual, but can be effective

 Consider some Dos and Don’ts…

  •  Flip chart / Whiteboard – *Do write clearly

                                                   *Do use bold colours

                                                   *Don’t use highlight

                                                   *Do check spelling


  • Powerpoint –                         *Do have fun

                                                            *Do use colour

*Don’t crowd slides – keep copy brief and always readable – use brief bullet points or brief sentences

* If you want them to read from the slide, give them time to do so

 * Don’t use too many animation or sound effects – it’s irritating and distracting

*Don’t allow the visual style, formats and presentation templates to dictate or override your content

* Use your notes to refer to, but don’t read them word for word – focus on your audience

 Video –                                   *Do use short clips

                                                            *Don’t allow it to dominate your presentation


  • Props / handouts –               *Don’t give out and then continue talking

                                                            *Do allow time for audience to look at

Make it clear to the audience that the slides are in the handout so they don’t need to make notes.                            

Whatever visual aids you use to enhance your presentation, remember, it is you the audience is learning from.  People don’t ‘buy’ from machinery – they buy from people – use yourself  to deliver your message with assistance from the technology and your presentation will be more effective.

Other key aspects of public speaking

1. Vocabulary

A good speech will use a wide range of vocabulary. The choice of words should be suitable for the audience to understand – ie plain English and no use of jargon unless the audience can understand it. Be careful with grammar and spelling on visual aids, as errors reduce your credibility and can jar on the audience – and, for this reason, it’s very important to fact-check everything closely. .

 2.    Use of the voice

You need to be able to project your voice so that the audience can hear and also be aware of the tone of your voice. Analyse your voice – how does it sound? You want it to sound friendly, sincere, strong, confident, persuasive and interesting. You don’t want it to sound monotonous, aggressive or antagonistic. It is essential that you vary the pace of your speech and the tone to keep the audience interested. You should pause at appropriate times – ie when punctuation marks appear, or for dramatic effect – eg after a joke. Pausing helps your breathing and ensures you don’t speak too quickly and can help you stick to your time. Watch your pronunciation of awkward works and make sure your enunciation is clear. Don’t worry too much about how you sound though – the most important thing is confidence and delivery.

 3.    Body language

Audiences warm to a speaker who has passion for the topic and enthusiasm is infectious. It’s almost impossible to believe someone who stands with their head and shoulders down, clinging onto cue cards for dear life and making no eye contact with the audience. At best, the audience will switch off, at worst they’ll think the speaker is lying. Stand tall with relaxed shoulders, arms and hands open with an easy friendly smile and lots of eye contact. Make eye contact with individual members of the audience, but don’t fix on one person as this makes them feel very awkward. Try to maintain eye contact with your audience – and this means reading your speech as little as possible – and this takes practice.  In a larger audience, make sure you look round the room and don’t focus just on one side of the room, as the rest of the audience feels excluded. Good eye contact is very important in the first few seconds of the speech. If you watch people on the back and they lean forward, then they probably can’t hear you and so need to raise your voice. Also establish eye contact with the front of the audience and smile as this helps to build rapport.

itch your presentation towards the back of the room, particularly in large rooms. Don’t fiddle with your hair, glasses, coins, jewellery etc as this is a distraction and betrays nervousness. A good stance is really important as it makes you look confident, stops you swaying around and enables you to make good strong gestures.

You should use a few well-chosen gestures to improve your speech if possible. These gestures must be natural and graceful and should support what you are saying. Gestures can add impact to a speech and make the speaker seems relaxed and confident. You should avoid irritating mannerisms like wringing your hands, playing with hair/glasses/jewellery and other distracting habits such as rubbing your nose/ears, swaying, saying um and ah a lot, and  clearing your throat a lot. Ask someone to watch you practising your speech and to tell you what your annoying habits/mannerisms are, so you can try and avoid them.

 4.    How to jazz up the delivery?

Stories to illustrate your points help personalise facts, build credibility and capture interest. Preparing cue cards and using props as reminders are all ways to avoid stilted, formal, monotonous presentations. But don’t use props just for entertainment – they need to support your message. The success of props depends on the links you make to the key points. It’s better to leave your audience with a lasting image towards the end of your presentation. Keep it short and simple.

5. Attention grabbing figures

Tell the audience the first, the biggest, the fastest, the most memorable figures first and concentrate on delivering these in the presentation, giving the supporting facts as handouts. Use images to humanise statistics, with easy to grasp similes and metaphors. One staggering statistic is more memorable than a dozen routine one. Colourful graphics are far more useful than lists or tables of figures, but vary them so the audience doesn’t come to expect another bar chart. Ask an engaging question, encourage a debate with the answers – presentations can be two-way.

6. Humour or colloquial language?

It’s important to know your audience and to monitor its reactions closely. If people respond to humour and informal language, then match their style. However, overuse can undermine credibility. If you are not funny in real life, then don’t try it in a presentation – it’s painfully embarrassing. Humour is a great way of building rapport with an audience and keeping a presentation lively, but it has to be handled perfectly.

 7. How to portray confidence

Projecting confidence is crucial to any presentation. Take your time, pause frequently, give your audience time to take in your words. Watch their response. Wait, smile and talk to them as you would a friend. Think conversation, not monologue.

8. Handouts
A summary of the script and copies of your visuals should be made available for distribution AFTER the presentation. If it is made available beforehand, you are likely to have the audience turning pages in unison every so often, orchestrating a ‘read along with me’ session. However, you can do nothing about this if delegate packs are given out before your presentation with your handouts in it.

9. On the day
Wear business clothes that make you feel confident and smart but comfortable  shoes. Avoid jewellery that may clatter against the lecturn or microphone. Make sure you have a handkerchief or tissue – just in case. Check that there is a glass of water at hand and securely located so that it cannot spill all over your script.

10. In-house courses

We run courses in public speaking and Powerpoint in-house. If you need these skills, contact Christine Bardsley on ext 577, or raise this issue with your line manager at your next appraisal review.


You’ll get a real buzz when you sit down after giving your first really successful speech – and you may even get hooked!



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