Present Like a Pro: Public Speaking Skills for Newbies

Robin Reshwan

Public speaking scares most of us. Even professionals who "present" for a living typically experience nerves and anxiety before facing an audience. The good news is that there are several key things you can do to ensure your presentation is a success. Whether you are addressing a few co-workers in a team meeting or pitching a product to an executive team, here are four ways to present like a pro.

Know your material. No matter how well-spoken, an ill-informed speaker is not as powerful as one who is prepared. "Muscle memory" refers to the concept that if you physically practice something repeatedly, your body can move into it automaticity. This "relaxing" into the repetitive movement frees your brain up to do other things. The same is true for making a presentation. When you have mastery of the content, you can switch your energy to being animated, engaging the crowd and calmly responding to questions. By releasing your brain to work on other aspects of interaction, you have the opportunity to expand your presentation beyond the actual words.

Tell stories that matter, and don't just present facts. Just as in writing, presentations can go from OK to great through a review and edit process. It is rare that someone's first draft of a paper is what he turns in to get an "A" in school. Presenting follows the same rules. Create your first draft, and then rehearse it out loud. Consider saying your presentation while driving in the car. It may look a little crazy to those passing you on the freeway, but in two to three car rides, you will have honed your original talk to a more succinct and interesting one.

When you say the words out loud, you can catch phrasing that seems perfect in your head but is miserable rolling off your tongue. You also have a chance to add color through stories and manage the message by looking for ways to tie different sections back to the main idea. Finally, you can assess how well your spoken words will resonate or matter to your intended audience. For example, speaking about your new office location in San Jose, California, may be fascinating to clients on the West Coast. For East Coast prospects, you may want to emphasize your rapid rate of growth overall. Customizing with little details goes a long way toward holding your audience's attention and making a longer lasting impression.

Beware of the PowerPoint prop. Did you know that many of the most highly viewed TED talks do not use visual aids? The human speaker should convey more than the technology. To create a complimentary and effective visual aid, create slides that portray images or snippets of data that pique the audience's interest and expand your words. Remember that slides are visual pictures, so resist the urge to fill them with tons of small print or data. Use colored bar charts and graphs to add to your descriptions and pictures to capture the direction and mood of your topics. However, your thoughts, knowledge and suggestions should take center stage. Also, by having less-structured slides, you have the room to adapt your presentation if the audience takes you on an unexpected turn. A great presenter can take a new twist, weave it into his talk, and the audience would never know it was unplanned.

Manage your nerves. I make presentations to large groups of people all the time. However, I am frequently nervous before I walk into the room to speak. Over the years, I have learned some tricks that help me pass from nervous to energized more rapidly. First, whenever possible, I greet the early attendees to get to know them better. While I may be nervous to speak with strangers, I have no problem giving advice to people I know. For that reason, I make sure I get to know a variety of people before every talk. Second, right before I approach the podium, I find a place where no one can see me and I shrug my shoulders up to my ears and hold them until I feel my body release some of the tension. Finally, when possible, right after my introduction, I ask the audience what they would like to learn during our talk. Those few extra seconds, while others speak, let me take a few calming breaths and help me shift into advisor mode. After that, I am ready to present, and I have some insight into what my audience wants from me.

Great presentations, whether they are to a few people or a large audience, make an indelible impact on the participants. The key to success is to prepare your message bearing in mind the "what's in it for me" proposition for your attendees. Your audience wants to be interested and engaged. That outcome is best achieved with preparation, careful editing and a calm state of mind. You never know -- with a few more speeches under your belt, you could become the next TED Talk presenter.

Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.