Top tips for presentations

Stephen Mitchell, CEO Keystone Knowledge, give us his top tips which will ensure that your next presentation is a success

I’m writing this while standing between carriages on a train heading to present at a regional conference in Newcastle. This is not comfortable; it’s not as planned, but someone is in my seat and refusing to move, and the luggage storage is full. So here I am, propped up against the toilet cubicle, standing guard over my suitcase, two exhibition stands, and leaflets!

I’ve both presented and sat through numerous presentations from the inspiring to the not-so-inspiring and the worst ones are always death by PowerPoint, with the presenter reading the bullet points, slide after slide. That is not the way to do a presentation.  

Here, I share a few tips about what I’ve learned along the way. Whether you’re used to standing up and talking, or anxious about your first presentation at an upcoming inset day, you’ll find these relevant, time-tested and, hopefully, reduce those nerves (a bit!)

Love the nerves

Nerves are normal. In fact, nerves are good!

You’re nervous because you care. You want to do a good job and you’re nervous because you’re concerned about what people will think about you. 

Everyone watching wants you to succeed, and no-one wants to sit through a bad presentation. Recognise you have the support of the room, change the way you look at nerves, away from something to be feared and more as an opportunity to succeed. It’s your chance to say what you want to say and help others.

Your nerves are your asset. They’re energy – use them to be amazing!

Channel your inner Thomas Hardy

Hardy is renowned for saying that “If I had more time, I’d write less”. If ever there was a phrase suitable for presentations, it’s this. 

Do NOT write lots on your slides. If you have them, your slides are there to add flavour, character, personality and understanding to what you’re saying – and they don’t want to be full of words. 

The science shows that people will read ahead on slides; they’ll focus less on what you’re saying, and more on the words on screen. You’re leading the presentation; it’s your script, your timing. Don’t lose the power of your spoken words by having lots of them on screen.

Look to the audience 

This is such an easy one to miss.

It’s so comfortable to turn to face the screen, putting your back to your audience, and then just read from the slide. But guess what? Your audience has already done that, as I’ve pointed out above.

Make sure you talk to your audience, get eye contact, encourage interaction, if appropriate. Sometimes it helps to have a friendly face in your eyeline. I read once that one of Tony Blair’s secrets for presenting was that there was always someone he knew a few rows from the front and next to the aisle. He knew where to look as he was walking to the stage, was able to pause, take a second, appear to be friendly, affable and in control as he said hello with a smile or a wave. That stage management is compelling. You’ll create a perception that you have charisma, are comfortable, and people will want to hear what you have to say.

The power of the pause

I challenge you to spot this at the next presentation you sit through. Does the speaker start talking as they walk up to the front? Do they immediately launch into ‘Hello, I’m Joe Bloggs, and I do this, and I’m here to show you that’?

Your audience will likely already know who you are, and your topic, and repeating what they already know risks them switching off, as the start sounds like every other presentation they hear. At best, it doesn’t build inspiration or curiosity; at worst, it’s disappointing.  

Powerful presenters use silence deliberately and strategically. Pausing before you start focuses attention, makes people look at you and builds a bit of anticipation. They want to know what you’re going to say. Similarly, when you make a point in your presentation, a slightly longer than usual pause creates magnitude, and allows the point to resonate in the audience’s minds.


People remember stories, and they remember how you made them feel. As an accountant by training, I’m terrible at stories or humour, but even I find it tedious having facts and figures spoken at me, or having to squint to read a table on a screen.

If you can find a relevant anecdote to start your presentation with, or emphasise a point you’re making – perfect! It helps you summarise what you’re saying and gives a hook for people to remember.   

Try not to be scripted 

This is such a hard one to master. I get it. When asked to talk to a group of people it feels vulnerable, and a script is tremendous. You can’t forget your words if they’re on a piece of paper in front of you. However, unless the presenter is brilliant, you can always tell when someone is reading a script. If possible, try to do your presentation without it.  Bullet points to help you know what’s coming up next, on cue cards, are useful, particularly if you don’t dare do it completely unaided.

Oh, and have fun! You’re sharing information, you’re a leader and on top of your game. You’ve got this!

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