Professional Presentations: Key Ingredient for Professional Mobility (Part 3)

I hate to sound superficial, but let’s lay this out: The material might be great, incisive, brilliant – but packaging is essential in order to sell it. Maybe sometimes even more important. 

It’s why, when I teach or coach Professional Presentations, I’ll spend more time on the delivery aspect of the three key ingredients (analysis, design, delivery), by far. 

Not everyone can be a natural, dynamic speaker. Talent does play a part, and you can’t create talent. But you can become effective by learning some key delivery skills.


Here are what I consider the critical issues:

Eye Contact:  In any presentation, you are having a conversation with your audience, whether it’s a small departmental meeting or a group of 500. Looking above them, or at the floor, cuts off the conversation. You create a more impactful impression by utilizing this connection. If it’s a large audience, pick spots that cover the whole audience, perhaps two people on the sides of the front, a couple in the middle, and a couple on the sides of the back. That way, the audience feels you’re making the connection.  If it’s a small group, try to connect with each participant with an “eye lock” for at least five seconds.

Posture:  Obvious, but a mention is necessary. Bad posture will create a perception you don’t want. Good posture connotes confidence, whether you have it or not.  Remember, we’re trying to create perception here, and our true feelings about presenting don’t need to be demonstrated.

Gestures:  This is sometimes a cultural issue, not just a matter of discomfort. Some ethnic/national groups are usually “hand” people (Mediterranean, Latin American) and some are usually not (Scandinavian, East Asian). Hands behind the back could give the impression you’re hiding something, and hands frozen on the sides show a stiffness or anxiety. Neither makes an audience comfortable. Gesturing can underline what you’re saying, or emphasize key points. If you’re not in one of those gesturing groups, you’re going to need to practice. It’s a key form of expression. You want to use as many of the possible delivery tools as you can handle. 

Facial Expression:  Later on in this piece, I’ll mention monotone and inflection as important aspects of what you should and shouldn’t do when speaking publicly. Facial expressions fall into the same general category, as in when a presenter’s facial expression stays the same throughout. If you’re saying something serious, show serious. If funny, smile. (As a matter of fact, smile a lot, anyway, unless your presentation is deadly serious material.) Show what you’re thinking and saying; it’s another method of underlining the points you’re trying to make. 

Podium:  Simply, I don’t like them.  I think they cut off part of your expressiveness.  As mentioned earlier, you want to try all of the tools at your disposal, and your body is one of them. People at the podium tend to grip it for security, stare at a script or computer screen, and lose direct contact with the audience. That could deaden a presentation.  If you need to look at notes, and don’t want to depend on your visuals for cues – which I think is the best way to keep on script – walk away from the podium and walk back when you need the cue. Or have them on cards nearby, written in large letters.  Don’t hide behind the podium. Keep your contact with the audience. 

Distracting Mannerisms:  There are so many.  Playing with a laser pointer or a pen.  Jiggling change in a pocket. Most common, and probably worst of all, dancing.  Yes, dancing. That’s moving from side to side, a clear expression of discomfort. I think you have a choice here. Either you stand still and swivel your body in order to make good eye contact. Or, you take a few steps, and stop. Then a few more steps, and stop. But you don’t move back and forth, which is distracting to an audience.  You also don’t want to do the professorial pacing, either, which can be seriously distracting – and tiring for the audience. 


There are many verbal techniques which can enhance any presentation. These may include:  positive, assertive, directive language; good articulation (avoiding poor grammar); comparisons/contrasts; quotations; stories; humor.

A note about humor.  Please don’t be one of those people who think it important to start a presentation with a random joke. If you want to start with humor, start with a funny story that is immediate relevant to the group or topic you’re addressing. Otherwise, it’s too much of a risk, and you certainly don’t want the presentation to fall flat in the first minute.

A good technique for starting a presentation with an attention-grabber, is to start with a startling fact about the subject matter, something that might surprise the audience, or something that will draw them in quickly. 

My personal favorite verbal technique is stories. If, say, I’m teaching a class about presentations, I like to tell a story about how, if you make a mistake, the show must go on. The point of the story is that you don’t freak out and make the audience uncomfortable; you use a little composure-gaining silence to gather thoughts and just move forward.

One of my stories on this topic is a bit dramatic, but it makes a good point and I hope the illustration will create a lasting point, rather than just a simple statement. 

Here goes: Many years ago, when I was a pianist/music director with cabaret singers in New York City, I was working with a singer who liked to make her entrance from the back of the audience. The owner of the cabaret would darken the lights, announce her name, and I’d begin to play. She would start to sing, in the darkness, and by the time she’d get to the stage, she’d have the audience’s attention.  Very effective technique, which I learned to use in some presentations, as well.  (But that’s not the point of this particular story.) 

One night, the announcement was made, the house lights were darkened, and I began to play. I also noticed at that moment that the wheels on the bottom of the piano were not locked, and the piano began to move across the stage. 

Panic. In another minute or so, the piano would’ve rolled off the stage.  An interesting possible moment in the performance, but…I had to think fast, and just moved the bench while I was playing, trying not to miss a note, and hoping that the cabaret owner would see what was happening and catch the piano before it crashed. He did. (My alternative plan would’ve been to jump up and stop the show, but that would’ve ruined this story.) The singer and I did not miss a note. Although the front of the audience could see what was happening, it didn’t disturb the performance, and…the show went on.

I’ve been able to utilize stories for all types of classes and presentations, and have found them invaluable in not only getting an audience’s attention, but also emphasizing a point strongly. 


Vocal techniques can be aspects of public speaking that could make a significant difference in overall effectiveness. Here’s where the speaker can differentiate in even more significant ways than described above. Some vocal techniques worth working on:

Volume:  Varying volume helps to maintain interest. If you’re a low talker, then vary it to make a point. If you’re a louder speaker, then you’ll get attention for a specific point by lowering your voice. Variation, again, is the key.

Expressiveness:  This is much the same idea as facial expressiveness, mentioned earlier. A voice can get an emotional point across more effectively. If it’s serious, then a lower, graver tone will help underline. If it’s exciting, a variation in volume and excitement in the voice will get the point across. Once again, the variation is the key aspect.

Inflection:   One of the main speech-killers is monotone. That problem can actually apply, as well, to volume, expressiveness, and most of the other vocal techniques. A lack of inflection is a guarantee way to lose an audience, no matter how compelling the topic. We’ve all seen experts and remarkably experienced professionals fail in the presentation because of this specific issue.  This is another instance of where the framing might be as least as important as the substance. 

I use a simple exercise in workshops to prove this point, using the sentence like “No, I did not forge the prescription.”  (I used this particular sentence in a pharmaceutical company.)  Each participant was asked to emphasize only one word in the sentence.  Try it. You’ll see that not only is the sentence more interesting to listen to, but that the emphasis on some of the words actually changes the meaning of the sentence! 

Rate/Speed  This is another example of how variation helps create interest in the subject matter.  Slow it up.  Speed it up. Don’t stay at the same pace throughout. 

But a word on the subject of speed.  Something strange happens when you’re in front of a group. Time speeds up. Sometimes, you just want to get it over with, and it shows. What you think is 15 seconds is really one. When in doubt, slow down.  Your slowing down will probably end up being normal speech patterns. What you think is normal is probably speeding, when you’re “up there.” 

Dramatic Pauses: A wonderful…technique. You want to make a significant point? Well, then, slow it…down. For emphasis.

And last, but certainly not least of the vocal techniques:

Non-Words: This is the one you don’t want to use. Um, uh, well, you know.  This may be one of the most difficult aspects of public speaking to avoid. The “non-words” occur when the speaker is struggling for the next word or section of the presentation. An amazing thing – silence is far better than a non-word. Audiences notice the non-words, which show discomfort. A silence is not distracting, and never as long as the speaker thinks. 


You know the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall?  No, the answer is not “drive south on Seventh Avenue and hang a left onto 57th…” The answer is “Practice, practice, practice.”  As I mentioned earlier, talent helps a lot, but nothing works as well as getting yourself up there and…(pause for dramatic effect)…practicing.  

Professional Presentations: Key Ingredient for Professional Mobility (Part 2)

In the first part of this piece, I wrote about how important effective presentation skills are for visibility in an organization – essentially a political skill.  

Now comes the tough part: How can you get past the terror of public speaking? The answer is simple – preparation. There are three essential elements that go into effective public speaking: analyzing the audience, designing the presentation, and developing superior delivery technique. 

I hate to sound superficial, but I strongly believe that the last item is the most important. It’s like interviewing; the packaging is as important as the content, maybe even more so. Without it, the content doesn’t always come across that well.  

1) Analyzing the Audience

A presentation will be more effective the more you know about your audience. Even if it’s a staff meeting, do you about know everyone in the room? Chances are there might be someone from a different department. Maybe that person could change the dynamic of the room (maybe it’s the EVP of the whole department?).  

In a larger group, with perhaps a more formal presentation, do you have a real sense of the room? This could be a critical element in the effectiveness of your presentation. A canned presentation given without consideration of the audience has less chance of success.  

Several years ago, I was asked to do a yearly presentation for a large group – usually about 300 - at an open house for a departmental program at New York University. It was impossible to figure out the audience in advance, because it was open to a large community. So, in order to get a real sense of the audience, I would show up about a half hour early, sit in the back, and listen to people as they walked in. This always gave me a good sense of what the tone of the overall group was going to be.

Sometimes, if I overheard something that was relevant to the presentation, I would address the person who said it, and incorporate it, which is always a great way of getting audience members involved. Make it personal. Establish a connection.  

When you do have the opportunity to analyze the audience in advance, there are several questions you need to address before designing your presentation.  

  • What is the level of experience in the room?
  • What is the context of the presentation?
  • What are the group’s expectations?
  • What are the potential benefits to the audience?
  • What is the overall attitude of the audience?  

You can’t always figure out all of these in advance, but the more you know, the more you can adjust the presentation to the needs of the group. For example, if there’s a wide range of experience, then a major presentations skill is to be able to teach to both ends of the spectrum, as well as to the middle. Something for everyone.  

2) Designing the Presentation

The first critical aspect of design is to figure out the purpose of the presentation. Is it to inform? To persuade? To motivate? Or some combination of the three? That will certainly affect the tone.

Second, what is the objective? Even if it’s a 10-minute presentation to a group of five, make sure that you know what your main point is. When I teach a 45-minute introductory class about presentations – or any class, for that matter – I’ll always announce at the beginning why we’re doing it. (More about that opening in a bit.)

Here’s a suggested order for putting the presentation together:

  • Organize content
  • Select and sequence key points
  • Prepare transition statements
  • Develop a closing that summarizes
  • Develop an opening

See something strange in the order?

The last one is preparing the opening! It’s last because it’s the hardest, and because it’s tough to prepare unless you know exactly what the content of the presentation will be. An unclear opening will lose the audience, and will make it difficult to get them back. I suggest the following elements in an opening:

Introduce yourself, even in a small group where you know everyone.  Maybe there’ll be one person you don’t know. Don’t assume.  

  • Announce your objective.
  • Describe the agenda of the presentation, i.e., the main points to be covered.
  • Announce whether you’ll be taking questions during or after the presentation.
  • Tell approximately how long the presentation will be (your audience will be grateful).

Be certain to outline the presentation – do not script. The outline will help you stay focused. A script will lead you to memorize, which is not a successful or reliable technique for public speaking. Memorizing makes you focus way too much on the material, when you should be focusing on how it’s being presented. If you lose your place, it becomes a distraction – to you and to the audience. Prepare by rehearsing off the outline, or off the slides in your deck. That will make the presentation flow better, and sound more spontaneous and conversational. It’s also much easier for your audience to listen when your presentation doesn’t sound so rehearsed. Practice is the key.  

Make sure there are connections between the key points. If a presenter just announces what the next topic is, it’s not always clear what the relationship is to the previous segment. That relationship should be spelled out.  

A closing is not “Well, that’s it!” It’s a summation of the main points that have been covered. An audience should know what’s going to happen; what’s happening as the presentation unfolds; and, ultimately, what was covered. Make it easy for the audience. Remember – a successful presentation is geared to the audience. If that works, then the presenter looks good. Which brings us back to the politics of professional presentations, which we discussed in Part 1.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss the actual mechanics of delivery, which, as I mentioned early, is probably the most important part of effective presentations.  

Professional Presentations: Key Ingredient for Career Mobility (Part 1)

I’ve been teaching Professional Presentations for many years, in two-day workshops in large organizations, one-on-one coaching, as well as one-hour versions in graduate school classrooms. Initially, the purpose of the programs, from the vantage of the sponsoring organizations, was to help participants improve their public speaking skills in meetings and larger gatherings. This coaching and teaching also was intended to assist in getting past the profound fears of public speaking that most people experience.  

Very slowly, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is this fear-inducing skill important in many work activities – but it’s an important political skill. The political angle is simple. If your co-workers and management don’t know you’re doing a great job and possess critical skills, it’s almost like that tree in the forest. If they don’t hear or know about your accomplishments, then maybe you’re not so successful after all.  

The perception is key.  

The ability to present can mean as little as an important conversation with your boss or a job interview. How well prepared are you? How articulate are you and how effective is the manner in which you present? Are you getting your point across well?  

I certainly don’t mean to indicate that everything you say has to be prepared as though you were giving speeches all day.  In many circumstances, though, it’s important to be prepared. The most devout introverts need to be heard at staff meetings. Not everyone can speak easily without preparation, although the ability to speak extemporaneously is a talent that can go a long way in advancing a career. 

Whenever I prepare to discuss this subject, I’ll start with a conversation about fear. It’s important to identify the level of the fear. I like to ask people how they’d rank that fear from 1 (abject terror) to 5 (willingness to speak with minimal preparation to a group of 500). Usually, the results average somewhere in the 2-3 range.  (Of course, some of the groups are self-selecting and included many terrified public speakers.)  

If you’re fearful of public speaking, even in very small groups, you’re not alone.  I like to research, at least once a year, recent surveys of common fears. One of the most recent lists of most common fears, in order:

1)                 Snakes
2)                 Public speaking
3)                 Heights
4)                 Being stuck in a small space
5)                 Spiders and insects
6)                 Injections
7)                 Death 
8)                 Dogs
9)                 Crowds
10)               Going to the doctor

Tough not to notice that “death” is #7, and “public speaking” is #2.

It’s probable you’re in the majority when it comes to fear of public speaking – but in order to move your career along, it would help to improve. I never suggest that everyone must become a brilliant orator; what I do encourage is to try to become at least competent, or somewhat more comfortable when addressing groups or individuals in important situations.  

Just in case I haven’t made the point that presentations skills are important political attributes, I’m going to refer to yet another list. There have been many of these lists compiled where senior executives of large organizations are asked what the qualities are for predicting individual success in an organization. As you’ll see in a current list below, I’ve used this to prove my point.

Criteria for success (in order):

1)                 Clear articulation
2)                 General communication skills
3)                 Presentation skills
4)                 Listening skills
5)                 Simple etiquette
6)                 Appropriate business attire
7)                 Organizational skills
8)                 Telephone courtesy
9)                 Post-secondary school education level
10)               Previous experience

See something unusual in there? Aside from presentations skills being #3 as a critical component for success in an organization, also notice that the only “hard” skill listed is #10, “previous experience.” I search for these lists yearly; sometimes there are no “hard” skills listed at all, and sometimes as many as two.  

In other words, it’s not what you know or have done that counts most; it’s how you package it. Those so-called “soft” skills may mean more than the skill set. At least according to these lists.  Clearly, the same goes for an ordinary job interview, as well.  

Which is what brings us back to the issue of presentation skill. Not only is it important in career mobility, but it also frequently involves overcoming a significant level of fear.

In the next blog, I’ll tackle key elements in getting past the fear by thorough preparation, and improving your overall presentations style.