Ten simple rules for giving an effective presentation

presentations skills
By Brian D

Everyone has to give presentations at some point. Whether pitching a new product, presenting at a lab meeting, or giving a talk at a conference, the ability to give an effective, engaging, and persuasive talk cannot be understated. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely taught formally in school. I’ll present ten simple rules that will help reduce your anxiety and make your presentations as effective as possible.

1. Have something worth presenting

This is probably the most important rule, which is why it’s Rule 1. If you don’t have something worth presenting, you shouldn’t be asking people to spend an hour of their time listening to you. Thankfully, you were probably invited or asked to present because you have something worth presenting. 

What does it mean to have something worth presenting? Related to Rule 4, you should have one key message that you want to impart to your audience. It could be a new fact, a proposal you have, an argument you want to make, or a call to action. Whatever it is, it should be genuine, novel, and something you’re excited to tell people about.

2. Organize your presentation

In fifth grade, we learned that essays should have an introduction, body, and conclusion, and every body paragraph should have a topic sentence, evidence, and a concluding sentence. This is still a great organizing principle for your presentation. How do you organize a verbal talk, where your audience can’t go back to listen to your introduction again? I like to have an outline slide where I talk about how my presentation will be structured. On subsequent slides, or at various points in my talk, I’ll reference this outline with a phrase like “We’ve talked about bananas and apples so far as examples of very popular fruits. Now I’ll switch to talking about durian, which is significantly less popular.”

3. Show rather than tell on slides

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen slide decks where every slide is stuffed full of words and pictures — even from the most seasoned professors. While it may be tempting to have everything on your slides (maybe to refer to during your talk: see Rule 6), people will pay attention to what’s on them than to what you are saying. Instead, use slides as they were meant to be used — visuals to accompany your talk. Often, the best talks will not even have titles on their slides, just a figure or a picture or a phrase to make a point. 

4. Less is more

Your goal in giving a presentation is to leave your audience with one key message. A year from now, if asked what your presentation was about, they should be able to recall that message. Try to hammer in the key message over and over again, and present evidence and logic that point to this conclusion. It will be tempting to try to provide as much new information as possible, but a recent study [2] showed that when hearing stories, people enjoyed familiar stories more than novel ones, probably because they already have an idea how these stories are structured. The easier you make it for your listeners to follow your talk (by streamlining your message), the more they will enjoy it and remember it a year from now.

5. Plan to take less time than allotted

Relating to Rule 4, it is essential to plan your presentation with some amount of buffer time. The first 10 minutes allotted to your talk might melt away as a result of a previous presenter running late or various tech issues. People might interrupt your talk to ask questions. The last thing you want to happen to you is to be rushed because of factors out of your control. Instead, if you’re allotted an hour for your talk, plan it for 45 minutes. Also, do not underestimate how much your audience will appreciate it if you let them out early!

6. Be aware of your facial expression and eyes

Your audience is the people sitting in front of you, not the projector screen behind you. People naturally pay attention when someone is looking directly at them while talking. Conversely, they will tune out if your eyes are not on them. To keep people’s attention, make eye contact with different parts of your audience periodically — focus on one person in each “sector” of your audience. Look back at your slides briefly to point at something with your pointer or gesture at something, but don’t read off your slides or have your body turned towards the screen. Finally, bring a smile and lots of excitement. If you are excited about your topic, at least part of your audience will also be excited — but if you seem bored and uninterested, no one will be engaged. 

7. Use hand motions and movement to your advantage

Related to Rule 6, gestures and movement are a very effective way to engage with your audience. You can point at parts of your slide, or make hand gestures to make a point, or set out the organization of your talk. People also naturally pay more attention to someone who is moving than someone who is standing motionlessly behind the podium. If possible, get out from behind the podium and use the entire stage to your advantage! Moving purposefully also has the added effect of making you feel more confident, and the audience perceiving you as more confident because you aren’t “hiding” behind the podium.

8. Pause frequently, speak slowly, and remember to breathe

One of the most underrated skills in communication is pausing. When used correctly, pauses can have dramatic effect by underscoring a point that you just made. I think the longest intentional pause I’ve heard in a talk is 5 seconds, which may sound like an eternity when you’re onstage but certainly is not for the audience. You can also take advantage of the power of pauses by simply pausing whenever you feel the need to regroup your thoughts, instead of using a filler word such as “like” or “um”. Many studies have shown that pauses signal competence, while filler words signal lack of competence. 

When you do speak, speak clearly and slowly, and enunciate. The easier the listener’s job is, the more likely he or she will understand and retain your message. Many novice presenters make the mistake of speaking far too quickly, 

9. Practice, but do not memorize

Whoever said practice makes perfect was absolutely right with regards to presentations. Practicing out loud (to your dog, significant other, or anyone else — or even the mirror!) has the benefit of helping you assess whether your sentences are understandable, or whether they’re too wordy or awkward. Practicing is also important for building effective transitions, developing phrases that are concise and powerful, and trying out gestures. Even the most experienced orators and speakers practice and look to others for advice and suggestions, so don’t be shy and grab a friend to listen to your talk!

When you practice, time yourself and make it as close to the real deal as possible. For a public speaking class I took in college, I practiced in front of the mirror so that I could have a virtual audience. Others film themselves to watch for tics, awkward moments, or other things to add or avoid. Be careful about sounding scripted — your talk should (in most settings) be natural and conversational.

10. Practice one more time than you think you should

The more you practice, the better your talk will be. That extra practice round will build even more confidence and help you sort out those last-minute problems. 


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