Professional Presentation Pointers: Part Four – Everything Else

Well, not everything else, exactly. But enough so that if you include the first three installments of this series, you’ll have a very good idea of just what it takes to deliver professional presentation with polish and panache.

Well, not everything else, exactly. But enough so that if you include the first three installments of this series, you’ll have a very good idea of just what it takes to deliver professional presentation with polish and panache. (1st installment here, 2nd here and 3rd here). This time, I will continue the discussion of technique, which consists of all the specialized procedures that are required to really put on a show.


One of the biggest issues having to do with technique, and one my clients constantly struggle with is whether to script out a speech and read it to an audience verbatim, to use notes of some type or to memorize. My experience has shown that the most successful, engaging speakers use notes. But they really know their presentation, though it is not completely memorized. They have practiced and/or done the presentation enough times so that they know what’s coming next. They may not say it the same way twice, but they do have it down so whatever way the words come out, it works.

Notes don’t work well when a presentation is not truly learned. Of course, neither do the other two techniques. Another question surrounding notes has to do with PowerPoint. It’s very true that PowerPoint slides can serve as notes, and would seem to be a good choice. But it is quite difficult to produce interesting, effective slides for most business people and my recommendation, therefore, is to stay as far away from PowerPoint as possible. (Go here for my post on PowerPoint.) What we may gain in notes, we give up by risking having the audience’s eyes glaze over with slides that are poorly executed.

Notes vary in form ranging from an outline on a sheet of paper to my favorite, large (5 x 8) index cards. I always use notes, 100% of the time, which surprises people. To me, notes do not detract from my effectiveness as a speaker and they provide a great safety net. When I’m speaking, I hold the cards so I can glance down at them if I need a memory jog. I will typically hold them in one hand, which I drop to my side when I don’t need them using my other hand to gesture. I often consider them an extension of my hand, so if I’m particularly animated, both hands are in action and note cards just happen to be in one of them. I also put the cards down when I don’t need them then grab them again when I need to take a look.

So what about all the speakers who read from prepared scripts? I find them to be almost universally unsuccessful. With very, very few exceptions, a written speech is usually scripted using written sounding language, instead of spoken language, a recipe for disaster. In addition, it keeps the speaker glued to the page, which interferes terribly with their communication with listeners. I have had many occasions to work with speakers working from scripts and using Teleprompters. This, of course, creates the illusion that the speaker is looking at the audience. Again, though, it requires specialty writing by a very skilled speechwriter. It is an art. Still, however, the speaker is left behind a podium.

Which is a very unfortunate place for a speaker to be when the object is to engage his or her audience. Standing behind a podium has a long, sorry history in our business and speech culture. It’s a place to plant yourself, to rest your notes or script, an anchor to hold on to. And that’s exactly what people do when they get behind a podium. A podium places a barrier between you and your audience. With very few exceptions, it’s a good idea to step out from behind a podium. The type of presentation will dictate whether you should take center state or whether standing beside the podium is the appropriate posture to take. Protocol will also dictate behavior. If you are 3rd in a lineup of speaker who are much more powerful (not necessarily as speakers), then some tempering is required. However, if you are the main event, take the stage and own it.


Finally, most presentations need to have some spice, some lighter moments that foster the connection between speaker and audience. The best ways to make this connection are personal stories and self-directed humor. Your audience wants to know that you are like them in some small way, that you are on the same plane, face the same types of problems. So starting now, think about things that have happened to you in your life that you think your audience could relate to. Think about lessons you learned or people you’ve met along the way who’ve inspired you. Also think about some of the funnier moments you may have had. The dumb mistakes everyone makes are usually good fodder. Articles that you read or statistics that you can share are wonderful ways to get people perking up. Asking a question or for a show of hands are other possibilities.

One final caveat: If you recall a story, something funny happens or see that article, jot it down immediately. These things are very fleeting and fly out of your mind as quickly as they fly in.

That’s about it for presentations. Now you’ve got to volunteer to speak. It’s a remarkable differentiator because most people dread it and would rather get run over by a truck than deliver a presentation. So seek out opportunities to speak. You can’t buy this type of advertising.

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT •

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.