Matt Abrahams: Tips and Techniques for More Confident and Compelling Presentations
A Stanford lecturer explains key ways you can better plan, practice, and present your next talk.
The ability to present your ideas in a clear, confident, and authentic manner can make a huge difference in your business (and personal) success. Yet many people are anxious or under-practiced in presenting effectively. The best way to feel more confident and deliver engaging presentations is through smart and thorough preparation and practice. From first planning through actual delivery, these tips and techniques can help you be a more compelling speaker and ensure your audience gets your message.
Start with a Key Question
Many speakers are anxious because they feel they are under the harsh spotlight of an audience who is constantly evaluating them. But, interestingly, incorporating questions from the moment you start planning can help you feel more confident about every aspect of presenting. Here are two ways to use questions in planning that will help you structure your presentation, and even improve your delivery:
Ask Yourself, “What Does My Audience Need to Hear From Me?”
Instead of seeing speaking as a performance, think of it as being in service of your audience’s needs — this shifts the attention away from you and onto your audience. The most useful way I know to focus on your audience is to start by asking yourself the simple question: “What does my audience need to hear from me?” This not only helps you tailor your message to your audience, but it also reminds you that they are the ones in the spotlight. Make this question your mantra as you prepare and practice your presentations.
Outline Your Talk Using Questions
When writing your next outline, create a list of questions to serve as prompts for what you intend to say. I loathe speaking manuscripts and full-text speaker notes, which only invite memorization and actually increase performance anxiety. An outline, on the other hand, is a very practical tool to help speakers prepare and deliver. And the power of a question-based outline is twofold:
- It allows you to feel more confident because you know the answers to your questions — you no longer need to worry you might not know what to say.
- You will be more conversational, since you are simply answering your audience’s unasked questions, and conversational delivery is often better remembered by audiences.
Know Your Audience’s Perspective, and Give Them a Reason to Care
Audiences need help to remember your content. Unfortunately, the norm for audiences is to “sit back and take it.” This results in unengaged audiences who are often left to find meaning in the presenter’s message. With careful crafting, you can include core relevance and an emotional hook in your presentation that will facilitate your audience’s remembering what you say.
Be Relevant to Your Audience
As a speaker, your job is to be in service of your audience. You need to be sure that you make it easy for them to understand your message. I am not suggesting you “dumb down” your content. Rather, I argue you should spend time making sure your content is relevant and easily accessible to them. Relevance is based on empathy. You need to diagnose your audience’s knowledge, expectations, and attitudes, and then tailor your content to their needs, particularly when presenting statistics.
Too often, presenters deliver numbers devoid of context, which makes it hard for the audience to see their relevance, much less remember them. For example, I worked with a green technology company that is doing some wonderful things to save energy. During a presentation, one of their executives said their company had saved the United States one billion kilowatt hours of electricity. This certainly sounds like a big number, but since I am not an electrical engineer, the number means nothing to me. But then, the presenter translated this number by saying: 1 billion kilowatt hours is the equivalent of the entire United States not using power for 15 minutes. With this context, this number suddenly became much more relevant to my understanding, and more impactful. Clearly, context matters. By making it relevant, you make it memorable.
Another way to make things relevant is to connect your content with information your audience already knows. Analogies are a perfect tool for this. By comparing new information to something your audience is already familiar with, analogies activate the audience’s existing mental constructs, which allows for quicker information processing and understanding.
For example, when I teach the purpose and value of organizing a presentation, I often say that a presenter’s job is to be a tour guide. We then discuss the most important tour guide imperative: “Never lose the members of your tour group!” This analogy allows my students to leverage all of their experiences of being on tours to understand not only the importance of organizing a presentation, but other ideas, as well, such as setting expectations, checking in with audience members, transitioning between ideas, etc.
Include an Emotional Hook
Most of us can quickly recall where we were on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, yet far fewer of us can remember our whereabouts on Monday, September 10, 2001. The emotional toll of the terrifying and tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrates a truism that has been known since the ancient Greeks studied rhetoric: Emotion sticks. People remember emotionally charged messages much more readily than fact-based ones. In fact, modern scientists are finding that our emotional responses have a fast track to our long-term memory. So when possible, try to bring some emotion into your presentation, whether in the form of your delivery or the content itself.
In planning your delivery style, ask yourself what emotional impact you want to have on your audience. Too often, presenters focus just on the actions or thoughts that they desire from their audience without thinking about the emotional response they want. Emotions are highly motivational, so think about what you want from your audience and then plan to present in a manner that reflects that response. In other words, your delivery style and tone need to be congruent with the emotional impact you desire. Yet at the same time, you want to be authentic and not theatrical. This requires forethought, and I recommend practicing in front of focus groups who can give you feedback on this emotional congruency.
Many of my more technical and scientific clients and students challenge me on my assertion that emotion is important. They argue that their presentations are often highly specialized and detailed, and that emotion doesn’t play a role in those types of talks. I disagree. Even the most technical talks can have some emotional aspect, especially if you focus on the benefits or implications of the science or technology. Benefits are inherently emotional — saving time, saving money, saving trees, saving lives … these are things people care about.
I once worked with a start-up company that sold antivirus software for large computer networks. Their standard presentation was loaded with facts and data points, and unfortunately most of the presentation was less than memorable. But with some minor additions that focused on protecting data and keeping users safe, the presentation became much more memorable because now it had an emotional hook.
By adding emotion, relevance, and variety to your presentation, you can be sure the audience will remember what they hear and see. The techniques and approaches I have described will also help you be more comfortable and confident in your presenting, which will only amplify your positive impact on your audience.
Structure Sets You Free
A powerful way to help you remember your presentation — and ensure that your audience retains what you say — is to plan your content using a meaningful structure. Research shows that people retain structured information up to 40% more reliably and accurately than information that is presented in a more freeform manner. There are many presentation structures on which you can rely, including:
- Past-Present-Future — good for providing a history or reviewing a process
- Comparison-Contrast — good for showing the relative advantages of your position
- Cause-Effect — good for helping people understand the logic of your position
- Problem-Solution-Benefit — good for persuading and motivating people
- What?-So What?-Now What? — good for leading people to a call to action
Having a structure helps you remember what you plan to say, because even if you forget the specifics, you can use the general framework to stay on track. For example, when using the Problem-Solution-Benefit structure, you first lay out a specific problem (or opportunity), then you detail a solution to address the problem, and finally you define the benefits to your solution. If you are in the middle of the Solution portion of your talk and you blank out, then by simply thinking back to your structure, you know that the Benefit portion comes next.
My favorite structure is What?-So What?-Now What? This useful structure can help you not only in planned presentations but also in spontaneous speaking situations, such as job interviews. When using this structure, you start with your central claim (“I am qualified for this position because of my experience”) and then explain its importance or value (“This experience will allow me to start contributing to your firm immediately”) before concluding with a call to action or next steps (“So when can I start?”).
Use Variation in Sight, Sound, and Evidence to Connect with Your Audience
Your job as a presenter is to engage your audience, to pull them forward in their seats. Unfortunately, audiences can be easily distracted, and they habituate quickly. To counter these natural tendencies, you must diversify your material to keep people’s attention, with variation in your voice, variation in your evidence, and variation in your visuals.
You have likely been the victim of a monotonous speaker who drones on in a flat vocal style, like Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Adding variation in your volume and speaking rate will help keep your audience’s attention and motivate them to listen. And by speaking expressively, your passion for your topic comes through. However, for many presenters, this type of speaking is not natural. I often instruct less expressive speakers to plan their presentations by infusing them with emotive words, such as “excited,” “valuable,” and “challenging” — then, when they’re actually presenting, they inflect their voice to reflect the meaning of these words. For example, when you are speaking about a big opportunity, then speak “big” in a big way. With practice, you will feel more comfortable with this type of vocal variety.
Varying the type of evidence you use to support the claims in your presentation is equally important. Too often, presenters exclusively use their favorite type of evidence. You might over-rely on data or on anecdotes. But both qualitative and quantitative academic research has found that triangulating your support provides more compelling and memorable results. So, try providing three different types of evidence, such as a data point, a testimonial, and an anecdote. This triangulation neatly reinforces your point, and it allows your audience multiple opportunities to connect with your idea and remember it, which is why it’s a technique often used by advertisers to reinforce that you should buy their product.
By varying your voice and evidence, you will make the words you speak more memorable. But what your audience sees is also critical. Just as a monotonous speaker can cause mental shutdown in an audience, repetitive body movements, and slides jammed with words can fatigue and distract an audience. People are very poor multitaskers. When distracted by spurious gestures or a wall of bullet points, audience members have fewer cognitive resources available to remember the content of what you’re saying. To increase the variety of your nonverbal delivery (e.g., gestures and movement), audio record yourself delivering your presentation, then play the recording while you move and practice your gestures. Since you do not have to think about what to say, you can play with adding variation to your body movement without the distraction of speaking.
To address the issue of slides that are “eye charts” full of details in small fonts, challenge yourself to think visually. Is there an image that could represent your point in a more meaningful way? Could you create a diagram or flow chart to help get your point across to your audience? A useful tool to get your creative visual juices flowing is Google Images. Type in the concept you are trying to convey and see what comes up in the search results. The images you find might have copyright issues, so I don’t recommend using everything you find, but you’ll get an idea of the type of visual variety that is possible.
The Right Way to Practice
Practice is clearly important for delivering an effective presentation; however, many presenters don’t practice properly. They simply mentally rehearse or flip through a slide deck, passive approaches that don’t really simulate the conditions of a presentation. To practice effectively, you also need to stand and deliver — even if you are presenting virtually, you need to physically stand up to project effectively. Rather than only thinking through a presentation, standing up and practicing your speech helps you remember it. Specifically, hearing your own voice and using relevant, appropriate gestures improve later recall. You remember more because your mental imagery and physical practice use overlapping neural networks in your brain, improving what’s known as memory consolidation, or the process by which a thought becomes cemented into your long-term memory.
One very useful technique, called focused practice, involves taking one aspect of your presentation — say, the introduction — and delivering it repeatedly until you become highly familiar and comfortable with it. (You should not memorize your presentation, because memorizing invites blanking out.) Next, you move on to another aspect of your presentation, such as transitioning between two specific visual aids. Focused practice allows you to feel less anxious because you do not have to spend valuable mental effort thinking about all the particular aspects of your presentation at once.
The location where you practice your presentation should be in the place where you’ll be presenting, or at least in a similar place. For example, if you are going to give a speech in a large room with big windows where people are quiet and attentive, you should practice giving the speech in a large room with windows. The context in which you learn helps you remember and will boost your confidence, since the surroundings will feel comfortable. This advice also works for presenting via the Web or teleconference. Practice in the room with the technology that you will be using. In fact, practicing with the technology in advance is always a good idea.
Presentation Hygiene: The Good Habits of Effective Speakers
Your parents were right! By eating healthfully, keeping fit, and sleeping well, you can improve your well-being — plus help alleviate your presentation anxiety and improve your memory, increasing the chance that you’ll remember all your points in a presentation. Like a long-distance runner carbo-loading for a marathon, you will find it helpful to eat certain foods — in this case, to facilitate memory formation and retention — ahead of your presentation. Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and foods that contain flavanols (such as grapes, berries, apples, and cocoa) are good choices. Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness and mental haziness. And plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity, but it also invites jitters, dry mouth, and flighty memory. It may make some sense to go for the triple mocha latte when you’re preparing a speech, but it’s not a good idea the day of. (Remember, the effects of caffeine linger in the body for a number of hours.) Finally, it may be tempting to use alcohol to calm your nerves, but evidence suggests it causes forgetfulness and “loosens the tongue,” which could lead to regret.
Exercise plays an important role in both memory and anxiety resilience. Fit presenters respond better to both the mental and physical aspects of stress. Additionally, physical activity increases lung capacity and bolsters mental focus, two very important aspects of speech delivery. Finally, exercise provides an avenue for releasing pent-up anxiety and stress. Try to go for a quick swim, jog, or walk prior to writing or practicing a speech. The resulting calming effect comes not just from getting outside and distancing yourself from the stressor, but also from your body’s natural endorphins, which are often released when you exercise. Memory research clearly shows that the less stressed you are, the more information you will retain. Exercising after practicing a presentation can help, too: Short, intense bursts of exercise that follow new learning have been shown to increase memory retention.
Sleep is also critical. Good-quality, deep sleep prepares your brain for learning and consolidates newly learned memories so that you can recall them more easily. When you are preparing a speech, pulling an all-nighter is the worst thing you can do.
Use Questions to Connect with the Audience
Audience connection is the key characteristic that distinguishes a memorable presenter from an average one. Are audience members participating with the speaker, or simply listening to the speaker? Questions provide a great way to foster engagement. Questions by their very nature are dialogic. They’re two-way: You ask and your audience responds. I recommend using three types of questions throughout your presentation to get your audience’s attention:
Rhetorical Questions Build Intrigue
Asking your audience a question for effect (rather than one you expect them to actually answer) prompts them to think about the issue.
Example: “Would you believe that companies are making robotic honeybees to pollinate crops in locales where bees are dying off?”
Polling Questions Make the Audience Part of Your Point
When asking your audience to respond to your query, be sure to signal how you want them to do so (e.g., model raising your hand as you ask your question, or explain how the online poll works if you are virtually presenting) and comment briefly on the response you get (e.g., “Just as I expected, about 50% of you … ”).
Example: “How many of you have ever been stung by a honeybee?”
“What if?” Questions Root Your Presentation in Time
Inquire about a possible future or the historical past; and as with rhetorical questions, you may not expect a literal response, but you definitely focus your audience’s attention on the time period you’re describing.
Example: “What would it be like if all crops were pollinated by robo-honeybees?” Or, “Remember when modern science made it possible for genetically modified vegetables to yield more crops?”
The Art of the Graceful Recovery
Drawing a blank when you’re standing before an audience can have dramatic and traumatic implications. Consider politicians and how memory gaffes can damage their credibility. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suffered a long memory lapse during an early November 2011 nationally televised debate among U.S. Republican presidential candidates. Perry’s painfully awkward stumble provided endless fodder for political observers, media pundits — and stand-up comedians. So what can you do if you forget parts of your presentation?
First, try not to be too hard on yourself. Often, speakers blurt out comments that reduce their credibility: “Sheesh, how could I forget?” “I’m so nervous” or “I can’t believe how stupid I am!” If you must overtly acknowledge your forgetfulness, simply apologize and collect your thoughts.
One of my students once addressed her forgetfulness in a clever way that portrayed a potentially negative occurrence as a byproduct of a positive trait: “You’ll have to excuse me, but I am so passionate about my topic that I sometimes get ahead of myself. Allow me to review my previous point.” Most audiences are very forgiving, and some may actually be thankful for the pause because it allows them time to process what you’ve presented.
To help get yourself back on track, focus on what you’ve just said. Too often, people who blank out try to figure out what they need to say next. But you are more likely to continue smoothly if you reorient yourself by looking to what you said previously.
The following techniques can help you get past a memory block:
Paraphrase Your Previous Content
Pausing to say, “So just to step back for a moment, I’ve already covered how X and Y are relevant … ” gives you a moment to remember point Z, and even frame it as a point you’ve been building toward.
Ask Your Audience a Question — Maybe Even a Rhetorical One
“What seems to be the most important point so far?” Asking a rhetorical question not only provides you with a chance to collect your thoughts, but it also boosts your confidence because you know the answer, and launching into that answer will likely get you back in the flow.
Review Your Overall Speaking Purpose
“So we can see that [insert your core message] is really important.” This option works well when you are struggling to remember your place at big transition points because it allows you to return to the overall importance of your message. Mistakes happen. It’s a simple fact of life. But when you’re in front of a roomful of people and you’re trying to think of your next point, but all you can picture is … nothing, the key to a graceful recovery is to step back for a moment and regain your bearings.
The Power of the Paraphrase
When you are giving a public presentation, don’t you hate it when you face … the dreaded question. You know the one: the emotionally loaded challenge that serves to undermine everything you presented prior. You had hoped you wouldn’t get it, but here it is. Or, you may face … the obnoxious meeting participant. You know this guy: He thinks he’s Mr. Smarty-Pants and wants everyone to know it. He ruins your meeting by going on long rants that contribute little and waste much.
These two situations can make even the most confident and calm speaker nervous. One powerful way to navigate your way through these two tricky communication situations is to rely on paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a listening and reflecting tool where you restate what others say in your own words. The most effective paraphrases concisely capture the essence of what another speaker says. For example, at the end of your presentation a questioner asks: “In the past you have been slow to release new products. How soon will your new product be available?” You might paraphrase her question in one of the following ways:
- “You’re asking about our availability.”
- “You’d like to know about our release schedule.”
- “Our release timeline will be … ”
Effective paraphrasing affords you several benefits. In Q&A sessions, for instance, it allows you to:
Make Sure You Understood the Question Correctly
After your paraphrase, the question asker has the opportunity to correct you or refine his or her question.
Think Before You Respond
Paraphrasing is not very mentally taxing, so while you are speaking your paraphrase you can begin to think of your response.
Acknowledge Emotions Prior to Addressing the Issue(s)
Occasionally, you may find yourself confronted with an emotionally laden question. In order to be seen as empathetic, and to get the asker to “hear” your answer, you should recognize the emotion as part of your paraphrase. To a questioner who asks, “I get really exasperated when I try to use some of your features. How are you going to make it easier to use your product?” you might say: “I hear that you have emotion around the complexity of our offering.” By acknowledging the emotion, you can more easily move beyond it to address the issue at hand. Please note that you should avoid labeling the emotion, even if the asker does. If someone seems angry, it is better to use terms such as “strong emotion,” “clear concern,” and “passion.” I have seen a number of speakers get into a labeling battle with an audience member when the speaker names a specific emotion that the asker took offense to (e.g., saying an audience member seems frustrated when he is actually angry).
Reframe the Question to Focus on Something You Feel More Comfortable Addressing
I am not recommending pulling a politician’s trick and pivoting to answer the question you wanted rather than the one you got. Instead, by paraphrasing, you can make the question more comfortable for you to answer. The most striking example I have come across was in a sales situation where a prospect asked the presenter: “How come your prices are ridiculously expensive?” Clearly, the paraphrase “So you’re asking about our ridiculous pricing” is not the way to go. Rather, you can reframe the issue in your paraphrase to be about a topic you are better prepared to address. For example, “So you’d like to know about our product’s value.” Price is clearly part of value, but you start by describing the value and return on investment, which will likely soften the blow of the price.
Using paraphrases can also help you in facilitation situations, such as a meeting. In meetings, paraphrasing allows you to:
Acknowledge the Participant’s Effort
For many people, contributing in meetings can be daunting. There are real consequences for misspeaking or sounding unprepared. By paraphrasing the contributions you get from others, you validate the person’s effort by signaling that you really listened and valued their input.
Link Various Questions/Ideas
You can pull together disparate contributions and questions and engage different participants by relating a current statement to previous ones. For example, you might say: “Your comment about our profitability links to the question a few minutes ago about our financial outlook.”
Someone who over-shares or dominates a meeting with his or her opinions can be very disruptive and disrespectful. If it is your meeting, then the other participants will expect you to manage the situation. If you don’t, you will lose control and potentially credibility. Paraphrasing can help you move beyond the over-contributor while looking tactful. Fortunately, even the most loquacious person needs to inhale once in a while. During a pause, simply paraphrase a meaningful portion of the person’s diatribe and place focus elsewhere — to another person or topic. For example, you might say, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. Laurie, what do you think?” Or, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. What other issues are affecting our release schedule?” In both cases, you have politely informed Forrest that he is done, and you’ve turned the focus away from him and back to your agenda.
Beginning a paraphrase can sometimes be tricky, and people often ask me for suggestions for ways to initiate their paraphrases. Try one of the following lines to help you start your paraphrase:
- “So what you are saying/asking is … ”
- “What is important to you is … ”
- “You’d like to know more about … ”
- “The central idea of your question/comment is … ”
Paraphrasing has the power to help you connect with your audience, manage emotions, and steer the conversation. And once you begin to use the technique, you will realize it has the power to help you not only in presentations and meetings, but in virtually any interpersonal conversation.
Avoiding Speaking Habits That Can Damage Credibility
Even the most confident and compelling speakers can work against themselves by allowing certain credibility-killing words and vocal habits to creep into their presentations. As a presentation skills coach and teacher, I often hear presenters chip away at their command of the room with three common speaking habits: hedges, tag questions, and up-talking. These verbal and vocal habits cause an audience to pause and question the assertiveness and commitment of a presenter. Here’s what they are, and how to stop them.
Hedges are soft word choices such as “I think,” “sort of,” or “kind of” that litter many a presentation. In some interpersonal conversation situations, phrases such as these can actually help by allowing you to appear less dogmatic and more open to collaboration. But in presentations, hedges have the effect of softening your position, reducing your authority, and making you seem wishy-washy and unsure of what you are saying.
The best way to address hedging? Substitution. Find stronger, more powerful words to replace these less assertive ones. For example, “I think” becomes “I believe” or “I know.” “Kind of” and “sort of” can be replaced with “one way.” Finding more assertive substitutions affords you a way to make your point more clearly and definitively.
These occur when you add a question to the end of a phrase, such as “This is a good hamburger, isn’t it?” Again, in interpersonal situations tag questions can work in your favor, in this case by inviting participation from your interlocutor.
But when speaking before an audience, tag questions diminish your potential impact, and should be eliminated. The first step to ridding yourself of tag questions — or any verbal tic for that matter — is to become aware of when you are speaking them. To raise your awareness, you can have a colleague notify when you have asked a tag question or you can record yourself speaking and note them yourself. In either case, you are moving an unconscious speech act into consciousness. Eventually, you will transition from recognizing that you just asked a tag question to noticing that you are about to ask a tag. When this anticipatory awareness exists, you will be able to eliminate asking these superfluous questions. Removing them will take practice for those in the habit of using them, but the benefit to you is a stronger, more assertive speaking style.
This habit centers not on the words you choose but rather on how you speak your words — specifically at the end of your sentences. If you are an up-talker, then the ending of your sentences rises in pitch, essentially making your declarative sentences sound like questions. Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like “our profits are expanding,” yet it sounds like “our profits are expanding?” Your goal as a speaker is to use your voice — its volume, cadence, and tone — to help your audience understand your message, not to confuse them.
The best way to correct up-talking is to focus on your breathing. If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term “landing” your sentences and phrases. Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought. (This does not mean lower your voice volume, but instead empty out your breath while maintaining your volume.)
A useful way to practice this is to read out loud while placing a hand on your belly. When you up-talk, your belly will contract inward as you end your sentence (this results from your inhalation). If you land your phrase, your belly will extend with your exhalation at the end of your sentence.
When you’re giving a presentation, it’s critical to command the room — if your audience doesn’t believe you’re confident and credible, they won’t even consider what you’re actually saying. Among the many ways to do this are smart word choice and speaking your words powerfully. Bad habits like hedges, tag questions, and up-talking distract your audience and undermine your impact. But with awareness and practice, you can eliminate them so that you appear more commanding and your message seems clearer and stronger.
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