Strategies for Giving a Successful Presentation
Dress the part

Designer Coco Chanel once said, "Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman." Understanding what constitutes impeccable and shabby clothing has become a bit more complicated than it was in Chanel's day, but there are still some basic rules that apply. First, you don't want anything you wear on presentation day to be more interesting than what you have to say. Nothing should compete with your message and your visuals. Unless you are speaking at a Luau, something like a Hawaiian shirt or brightly-patterned dress offers too much visual distraction. You don't have to wear a suit, but consider going neutral--wearing subdued patterns and muted colors.

Fifteen years ago, college professors trained students always to wear a suit for any presentation or job interview. Blindly following that rule today could make you look out-of-place, and might also make you feel constricted and false if this is not your normal "uniform." As with all other aspects of presentations, consider the situation. Who are you presenting to? Is this an audience of your peers, subordinates, management, potential clients, law enforcement, or a judge? How do they dress on the job? In general, you want to shoot for just a slightly-more-formal level of attire than your audience, but not so much more formal that you look out of place. If it's an all-jeans office, khakis would work and a sport coat might be okay, but a suit would be overkill.

Your subject matter is another clue to appropriate attire: Are you discussing investment banking, quantum physics, or why your department lost $30 million? The image you need to convey in each of these situations is very different. If it helps, consider your presentation as a play and you are the lead character. Dress that character to illustrate what your audience needs to see: stability, creativity, reliability, intelligence or trustworthiness.

Other factors that determine appropriate dress:

  • The tone of your presentation: is it formal, humorous, relaxed, authoritative?
  • The purpose of the presentation: Are you trying to convince them to give you millions of dollars? Are you trying to teach them how to use Windows? Do you want them to donate to your charity?
    • In general, when money is involved, your character needs to be perceived as stable and reliable. This is where that suit comes in.
    • For charity solicitations, dress down a little. Wearing a $500 suit only makes it look like your institution can afford to pay you very well.
Arrive early
No matter the situation, you need to arrive early and be ready to start at the appointed time. Once at the helm, you may decide to wait a few minutes if some of the principals are running late, but you should never, ever, leave your audience waiting on you. Even if the abandoned attendees don't give up on you and leave, they will be taking mental notes that may hurt your credibility. If you are traveling to a different site, give yourself about double the travel time you think you'll need to allow for delays. So if you have a job interview and it should take you an hour to drive from your location, schedule two hours. You will be much more relaxed if you aren't freaking out about traffic and running late, and your happy "I'm early" karma will help you start out on a better note.

That kind of time cushion may not always be possible, but think of it as a gold-standard and always build some flexibility into your schedule so that you don't have to sweat and get hypertensive while sitting in unexpected traffic.

Deal with stress
There is one stress management strategy that works so well, it simply buries all the others. And it's so simple; you aren't going to believe it actually works until you try it.

Breathe. That's it. Just breathe. But breathe deeply and slowly. Let your breath come in and fill your lungs as far as they go. Take the breath in until your belly expands and your ribs grow, and then let it out slowly, little by little. Do it again, may be three or four times. Be careful to let the air out slowly, or you will hyperventilate. Some people like to visualize things while they are doing this--they think about lavender fields or imagine themselves standing in front of the room while everyone applauds. If you think that requires a little too much imagination at a time when you're trying to focus on the present, just stick with the breathing.

Why this works

Your body is designed to react to stress in certain ways. It produces more adrenaline and your heart speeds up. You might start to tremble. Your shoulders contract in order to protect your vital organs, and your breath comes faster and shallower. That shallow breathing will make it very hard for you to speak loud enough that other people can hear you. Consciously breathing deeply and steadily shows your body that everything really is okay. This signals your heart to go ahead and slow down. It is impossible to stay stressed out while taking deep, cleansing breaths. This is exactly why breathing is a central part of yoga, and why they teach it to new mothers getting ready to have babies. If people can use it to help with childbirth, certainly it can help you settle down before your presentation.
Introduce yourself
If it's a very small group and you know everyone well, you can skip this step. But if there is anyone you don't know or who you think may possibly not know you, make sure you do a brief 10-second intro.

Example: A local Chamber of Commerce has a member lunch every month. At each lunch, the President makes sure to state her name and job title as soon as she takes the podium. Later on, each member in turn stands up and introduces themselves. There could be 200 people at this meeting, so it is critical that each member restrict himself to name, company name, and a 10-word power blurb. Listeners count words, and if the member goes over the limit, the audience will actually start to "boo" (in a very jovial manner).

The power blurb is a great exercise in introducing yourself and what you do very concisely. Try it at your next meeting, and make sure you keep it under 10 words!
Eye contact

A lack of eye contact is another presentation trait that will distract from your ideas. We tend to distrust those who can't meet us in the eye. Instinct suggests this person has something to hide, or is so lacking in confidence that he has to stare at the ground. It is also difficult for an audience to relate to a speaker who is not relating to them, so keep your eyes up and open.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Effective Presentations course?

When you first start speaking, scan the crowd and pick out a few faces in different sections of the room. Look for friendly faces--you know the type: can't stop smiling and always looks encouraging. Think of them as eyeball buddies. Try to avoid scowlers or people who look angry to be there, but perhaps looking right at that guy might draw him into the presentation a little more.

As you speak, visually check in with your eyeball buddies. You don't want to stare at them because then you'll like you are obsessed with them and they might end up being afraid to blink. Also, the others will get jealous. Shift your gaze from one buddy to another, and make sure you connect with a few different people now and then.

In order to make eye contact, you must actually be facing the audience. This makes it very difficult to sit at a computer or to turn toward a projector screen and turn your back to your listeners. Think about it this way: if you went out for a beer with a friend (or whatever other beverage you would like to enjoy with another human) you would not sit at the bar with your back to your friend and talk to the empty seat next to you. Your friend would think you had gone crazy and he would never go out with you again. However, every day in meetings, we turn our backs to the people we're trying to connect with and show them what is (for most of us) our worst side.

The audience can't hear you very well if you aren't turned towards them. They can't see your face, they can't connect with your energy, and they can't catch a glimpse of your enthusiasm, which brings me to my next point.

Bring your enthusiasm. Whatever your subject is, it must be important if you spent so much time researching it, studying it, and becoming an expert in it so that you could be qualified to stand in front of a group and people and sell it. Some people forget how exciting their topic is, or could be, and mistakenly think that others are bound to find it dull.

Example 1: Two Russian cosmonauts addressed about 400 high school seniors at a magnet school for science and technology. This event had all the makings of a truly great presentation: highly qualified speakers, an intelligent and enthusiastic audience, great visuals (space photos), and excellent subject matter (what the future holds for the space program).

Instead of filling these science and tech students with enthusiasm and wonder, about 30 percent of the students were asleep and drooling by the end of the hour. Why? Because the cosmonauts forgot to bring their enthusiasm. They spoke in monotones and flashed picture after picture without constructing a story about The Future, What it Can Be, and Where is Your Place in it?

Example 2: A required hour-long corporate training session. Unlike Example 1, this presentation seemed doomed to boringness. The objective was to explain the manufacturing process in one department of a semiconductor plant. This was a required course; it was only available at 7 p.m., so most people were compelled to linger at work long after they would have rather been at home with their families. It was about a highly technical and specific process. Add to this that it was one of a series of 12 similar courses covering all the other departments in the plant, and the attendees had come to expect a full hour PowerPoint filled with nothing but random snapshots of machine tools on the production floor and a highly technical description of the function of each. However, the presenter for this class happened to love science, and loved teaching. He brought all kinds of props to the class to illustrate the complex concepts in ways a non-technical audience could understand. He conducted experiments. He told stories about melted walls and trips to the emergency room. The audience laughed. They gasped. They asked questions. They stayed after. They actually enjoyed themselves.

What's the difference? In example 2, the presenter shared his enthusiasm about his job and his department. On paper, the subject matter was less interesting, the presenter less glamorous, the situation less favorable, but it was just the presenter's energy that made it all work.
Bring your personality

Keep that self-knowledge in mind as you start to present. Be alive while presenting, but be yourself. You don't have to be Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld to earn the audience's interest, but you do have to show that you care about this topic to sell its importance.

Watch your audience

If you focus on facing the audience and on making eye contact, you will have a much easier time reading their reactions to you and what you are saying. This skill does require a little sensitivity: you have to look for clues in body language and facial expression. Are they snoring? Fidgeting? Looking angry or bored? This is real-time feedback: use it now to make immediate adjustments and remember it for next time so you can improve your overall structure.
Involve the audience

Some of the best presentations start with the simple realization that you (the presenter) are not the smartest person in the room. Even if it's a room full of kindergarteners, assume that you have something to learn from every person assembled and make the most of this presentation as an opportunity to gather their perspectives and expertise. This is especially true when addressing working adults. Encouraging your audience to ask questions not only keeps the audience engaged, it helps you make sure that you are giving your attendees what they need. So make time to answer questions. When you don't have exact answers, don't make up a plausible-sounding answer or supply an "I'm not sure, but here's what I would guess" answer. Write down the questions you aren't sure about and be sure to follow up with an answer within a few days.

Put it in writing

Make sure you provide written materials as take-homes for your audience. This is a fantastic sales opportunity, so don't forget to put your name and contact information at least on the front and back cover of any print matter you give out.