How can you improve your presentation skills?

March 18, 2015, 10:00 PM UTC
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Answer by Balaji Viswanathan on Quora.

Before the preparation

  1. Who: Understand the target. What does an average person sitting in the auditorium look like? Feel them, imagine them, draw them. What level of competency do they have in the subject you are going to present? Tailor the content to your audience. Never try to go over their heads or beneath their feet. Once you start visualizing the audience and get them into their heads, you can make an emotional bond with them.
  2. Why: Understand your motive. Why are you presenting? What are you planning to achieve after the presentation? Is it to attract investors? Is it to convince a scientific audience about the validity of your work? The presentation is just the marketing of your content and cannot be a replacement for your main content (a detailed deck & metrics in case of fund raising & a paper in case of a research presentation). The presentation is one of the weapons that should lead you to that strategic objective.
  3. What: Understand the context. What is the broad context of your presentation. Is it a part of a demo day? Is it part of an academic conference? Is it a company meeting? Is it a fund raising event for a charity? Is it a product demo? The context should drive your content and intent.
  4. Understand the Bikini rule of life – Reveal enough and conceal enough to spark interest. Most of us have the temptation to dump all the stuff we got into the poor little Powerpoint. That leads to intimidation and confusion. The goal of the presentation should be to spark that interest in your work so that your target comes towards you. In essence it is a conversation starter by gaining their attention.

The Marketing Mindset

When you are presenting, you are actually marketing [to eventually lead to a “sale” – of whatever you are attempting]. Get into that mindset. You can never sell someone an important idea through a single shot. You need go through a series of stages in the process of them buying your idea. First get them to be aware of your product, generate an interest and eventually lead them to process that leads them to “purchase”. Your presentation should do the first two stages below.

Preparing for your presentation

  1. The powerpoint deck is not a handout. Don’t be that guy handing out irrelevant printouts of your powerpoint. Prepare a document handout prepared through a document creator like MS Word or InDesign.
  2. The powerpoint deck should not be a readable one. Certainly not a printable one. [If they are reading, they are not listening to you]. It should be to connect. To get your audience to be interested in you. No more than 7-10 words. Once the audience like your idea, they should have the handout to read more and then come to you for a much detailed walk through.
  3. Prepare a script. Powerpoint deck is not your cheat sheet to read from. Don’t rest on that. Have a strong script and use the projection to complement what you say. When you have finished rehearsing, rehearse hard. Whenever I present without rehearsing, the result shows immediately in the audience [boredom].
  4. Get to the empty stage. Before an important presentation, get to the stage when the whole place is empty. Pace the stage and let the physical world consume you. Feel at home and let the environment absorb you.
  5. Do a dry run. During one of my recent presentations, I didn’t do a tech dry run. Not surprisingly the tech melted down and there was precious minutes lost. Make sure the technology doesn’t fail you.
  6. Be very comfortable with the clothes you are going to wear. You should feel those clothes are an extension of your body. I have a favorite suit I bought 7 years ago and I don’t wear any of my other suits for the most important presentations. I take it ceremonially and feel like a knight in his armor. That suit provides the cloak of invincibility. Once I’m in, I feel all the good omens from the past presentations come in and push me and give the confidence.

During the presentation

  1. Have a good look at the audience and your preparation should have made you feel very close to that target. After you get to the stage and have setup your mike, don’t start talking immediately. Pause a couple of seconds taking a good strong look with a strong smile [you can see that great leaders always do that before they start their speech]. That is when you are conveying you can be trusted. That brief 2-3 seconds can be very crucial.
  2. Disarm and charm the audience with mild self-deprecation. Get your first joke on yourself. Let the audience laugh. While I was once presenting to a group of rich southerners in Nashville, I made fun of my accent. The audience were smiling the whole time as I turned by weakness into an advantage [they were more attentive due to my accent, after that point].
    1. I opened with this slide on 2 different occassions [both very important] and on both occassions, the audience burst out laughing & remembered the presentation. A designer friend crafted this deck for me.
    2. Don’t turn your back on the audience and look to move a bit. A body language expert once coached on the right way to move & make the audience trust. Coming forward conveys trust. So, when you are conveying your big idea or getting to the ask, move a few inches forward. That little movement forward can send a lot of subtle cues. Going back can send messages of dishonestly. Thus, avoid moving back [unless you are taking a joke on you] and always make a small movement forward – and make that movement so subtle that the audience doesn’t even know you are walking towards them. Also avoid showing the back of your hand or the back of the body – those all increases distrust.
    3. Master your pauses. This is the hardest thing to do for non-professionals. Masters of drama know when to pause to give that impact. After your big idea got to the screen, wait a second or two to give that dramatic effect. Let the audience absorb the drama.
    4. Keep your basics correct – making eye contact with a chunk of the audience, changing your tones a bit.

    As a parting note, give the presentation its due importance. Give the audience their due respect. A presentation can change your whole life. Thus, take it seriously and do the homework.

This question originally appeared on Quora: How can I improve my presentation skills?

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