The absolute best way to reduce the fear of public speaking is to just improve your presentation skills. Think about it. Anytime you get really good at doing something, your confidence in that area will soar. When we teach the Fearless Presentations course, we spend the first couple of hours helping the audience members get comfortable. Then, the remaining three-fourths of the class focuses on improving public speaking skills.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen thousands of different ways to practice public speaking. So, in this episode, I thought I would summarize the absolute best tips to improve your presentation skills. Focus on these things, and you will gain confidence in a very short time.
7 Simple Ways to Improve Presentation Skills
There are thousands of ways to reduce stage fright and get better at public speaking. The seven simple tips below, though, will give you the most bang for your buck.
- Narrow Down Your Presentation Topic to a Single Result that Interests Your Audience.
- Organize Your Presentation into Just a Few Main Points.
- Gain the Audience’s Attention by Focusing on What They Want.
- Improve Presentation Skills by Improving Your Visual Aids. (Do This and You Will Not Have to Memorize Anything.
- Make Stories and Examples the Backbone of Your Next Presentation.
- Use Some Subtle Audience Participation to Make Your Speech More Enjoyable (for You and Them.)
- Practice Your Presentation with a Partner or Family Member.
We will cover each in a little more detail. However, before we do, let’s cover a few things about public speaking fear. If you are new to speaking in front of an audience, you may feel a little anxious. That is normal. Just before you stand to speak, take a couple of deep breaths. This will calm your heart rate down and relieve some of the symptoms. The faster you get into a story, the less nervous you will be. (More on this later.)
Narrow Down Your Presentation Topic to a Single Result that Interests Your Audience.
The first thing, really the most important thing that you want to do is narrow down your topic. The more broad your topic, the more boring and harder to deliver your presentation will be. Effective presentations solve problems for the audience. So before you start designing your speech, ask yourself, “Why would the audience even care about this topic?” Whatever answer you come up with will likely be a more focused topic.
For example, let’s say that a High School student gives a book report on Huckleberry Finn. Unless you as good a storyteller as Mark Twain, a general report about the entire book will likely be pretty boring. So, a great way to start organizing the report is to try to figure out why other High School students would care about the report? Perhaps they may relate to the fact that an uneducated teenager outsmarted all the adults in the book. Or, maybe how Twain used humor and absurdity to call attention to political injustices of the time. Either of those topics would likely go over well to young folks.
On the other hand, let’s say I’m delivering a project report at a team meeting. You will want to ask yourself what is the most important thing that has happened on the project since we last met? Perhaps inflation in the price of materials is likely to push the project over budget. Or, maybe the second shift has increased efficiency allowing the anticipated end date to be moved up.
The point is that “A book report on Huckleberry Finn” will be boring. It will also be hard to deliver. As will “Project Update.” Narrow down the focus of the presentation, and you will make it much easier to create and easier to deliver.
For additional details, see 5 Ways to Design a Presentation.
Improve Presentation Skills by Organizing Your Presentation into Just a Few Main Points.
Every great public speaker knows that “less is more.” As a general rule, bad presentations often just have too much information. You will do better if you cover a few key points very well than if you cover a lot of points very poorly. When you do the former, by the way, you will have plenty of time to cover everything. Most people do the opposite, though. They organize their presentations by making a list of EVERYTHING they know about the topic.
Then, once they have all the content down, they realize that it will take too much time to deliver that content. So, now they start to cut items. This ends up with a Swiss Cheese presentation. Even a good presenter will have trouble delivering it.
A better way to organize your material is to start by asking yourself what is the most important point that you need to cover. Identify the one major point that absolutely has to be in the presentation. For instance, going back to the earlier examples, Mark Twain uses satire as humor in his book. If you design a presentation about humor in Huck Finn, you will likely need to cover satire. If you are designing the project update presentation, focus your main point on the project materials that have increased the most in price.
Once you have the most important point identified, next, focus on the second most important thing. Then, focus on the third. Organize your key points into the five most important items to cover. This will give you an easy presentation outline.
Gain the Audience’s Attention by Focusing on What They Want.
Let’s be frank. Most audiences are pretty self-centered. Most people are pretty self-centered. So if you want to gain favorable attention from the audience, help them solve a problem. Show the audience how they will benefit from understanding the content of your presentation. When you take this extra step, you will become a better presenter. Most presenters focus on themselves. This causes a lot of the presentation fear by the way. When you focus on the audience, though, you improve your presentation skills to an entirely new level.
Basically, think about the key takeaways that each person will gain by understanding your presentation. Then, add the key takeaway to the end of the bullet point. Here are a few examples.
- Original Version of the Bullet Point: Mark Twain Uses Humor in the Book.
- Add in the Most Important Concept: Mark Twain Uses Satire to Add Humor to the Book.
- Add in the Key Takeaway: Mark Twain Uses Satire to Add Humor and Encourage the Reader to See a Different Side of Controversial Subjects.
The subtle takeaway to the audience is that they can use humor and satire to be more persuasive.
- Original Version of the Bullet Point: Materials are More Expensive.
- Add in the Most Important Concept: The Lumber that We Need to Complete the Project Has Increased in Price.
- Add in the Key Takeaway: The Lumber that We Need to Complete the Project Has Increased in Price. So We Need to Cut Cost Elsewhere to Stay on Budget.
Yes, these bullet points are wordier. However, they better inform the audience. They also make the audience want to pay attention to the content.
Improve Presentation Skills by Improving Your Visual Aids. (Do This and You Will Not Have to Memorize Anything.)
After you create three or five great points, you can turn the points into really effective PowerPoint presentations as well. I’m going to do a session on how many slides you actually need for a good presentation. However, the short answer is… well… just one.
Yup! Successful speakers start by designing a great presentation. Then, they add visual aids to help the audience better understand the content. The great thing about this technique is that if you design a few really good points, just type those points up into a single slide. You can then just use your outline as a way to start your presentation. Just by reading the slide, you will give your audience a good overview of the content. You will also be able to tell the audience at least three reasons why the presentation is important to them. (You added the key takeaways into each bullet point.)
Between you and I, though, I will typically create a separate slide for each of my key points as well. However, I often only put a nice image on each of the internal slides. Whether or not you feel like you are a great presenter when your audience realizes that your content is important to them in the first few seconds of your presentation, they will see you as a great presenter. Just doing this simple thing can improve presentation skills very quickly.
Make Stories and Examples the Backbone of Your Next Presentation.
The absolute best way to reduce nervousness when you stand in front of a group is to tell a story right away. When you tell a story from your own experience, all you really have to do is play the video in your head of what you remember. Then, just explain to the audience what you remember. When you tell a good story, you will naturally use great hand gestures. The audience will see you use confident body language. This happens naturally. You don’t need to force it. In fact, the more details that you put into the story, the easier it is for the audience to experience the memory with you.
“I’m kind of embarrassed to say, but when I got to the part of the book about the Duke and the Dauphin, I was in study hall. At one point, I broke the silence with a subtle laugh. Coach Adams looked up at me quickly as looked like he was about to stand up. That is until he looked at the book in my hand and kind of smiled. Twain uses satire in this part of the book to add absurdity.
“The two so-called royals are actually conmen. These two swindle adults day after day but the uneducated teenage Huck figures out their game right away. What makes the two funny is that every time they try to swindle people, they ultimately fail. However, they never learn from the failure. In fact, they double down the next time. They do the same behavior even more. Twain uses this story to point out how most people never learn from their mistakes.”
Here is another example…
“My cousin sent out a Facebook post yesterday with two images. The first image was a pallet of lumber that was pretty full. The caption said, ‘What $1000 bought 12 months ago.’ However, the second image showed the same pallet with about 1/10th the amount of lumber. This caption said, ‘What $1000 buys today.’ We are seeing the same thing happen on this project. The cost of lumber has skyrocketed. As a result, we need to watch every cost to make sure we don’t go over budget.”
Both of these examples are personal stories. I didn’t write Huck Finn, but I can relay a story about where I was when I read it. I can just insert the Facebook post onto a slide, but if I tell the story, it is more engaging.
Use Some Subtle Audience Participation to Make Your Speech More Enjoyable (for You and Them.)
One of the main things that people want to do to improve presentation skills is to get better at audience participation. I did an entire session on this skill, by the way. You can find it at Adding Audience Participation to a Presentation. However, let’s cover a few simple things that can elevate your public speaking skills.
For instance, an easy way to do this is to ask an open-ended question to your audience.
So what are a few ideas you guys have for cutting costs in other areas of the project?
This question is just asking for the opinion of participants in your audience. Everyone has an opinion. So you are likely to get better participation. The goal is to try to get the entire group to give you at least one answer. When you do this, you now create a dialogue with your audience versus a monologue.
This is a very elite public speaking skill. When you get good at this, your audience will see you as being a fantastic presenter.
Practice Your Presentation with a Partner or Family Member.
The final way to improve presentation skills is to practice once or twice with an actual person. Anytime you practice a skill for the first time, you will likely be pretty nervous. However, when you practice and have a success, your confidence will grow. So before you go and stand in front of others, practice with a friend, coworker, or family member. (Pick someone who has a friendly demeanor.)
I remember when I took my first professional speaking class. The instructor said, “There are three speeches that every person gives. The first is the presentation you prepare to give. Then, you give the second presentation to your actual audience. The final presentation is the one you give to your steering wheel on the way home. This is where we kick ourselves for forgetting something important or figure out a better way to say what we were trying to say. The ‘steering wheel’ talk is always better.”
He suggested that you practice your speech with a friend or coworker so you get that crumby presentation out of the way and give your “steering wheel” talk to the actual group. It was a funny statement but it works really well.
When you practice with a person, you get visual feedback when the person understands you. He or she will nod and maybe even smile. When you say something that is confusing, the person will also react. This allows you to alter your delivery so the content is more understandable.
How Do You Make the Presentation Fit into a Correct Time Limit?
One of the great advantages of inserting stories and examples as your presentation backbone is that they allow you to adjust the timing of the presentation very easily. For instance, if when you do your practice run you end with extra time, just add more details to each story you tell. If you find that you don’t have enough time to deliver all the content, you can trim down your stories a little.
A good public speaker will typically take about 10 minutes to deliver a well-developed presentation with just three bullet points. This time frame will make for a good presentation. As you become a more confident speaker, a well-developed presentation with five bullet points will last about a half-hour. A great speaker will add in more stories and examples and will take about an hour to deliver the same five points.
The point is that you will learn to adjust the timing of your delivery by adjusting the stories you use in your presentations. The more practice you get, the easier your adjustments will be. In the beginning, though, change the number of key points to fit the allotted time limit. If your speech is supposed to last under 15 minutes, just cover three points.
Do these few simple things, and you will improve your presentation skills dramatically very quickly. If you need help, remember that our 2-Day Public Speaking Class can speed up the process as well!