12 Steps To World Class Presentation Skills

We used to have these “All Hands” meetings at work.

During the meeting, the senior partners would take turns presenting about how business was going. What new projects they were selling, new work in the pipeline…

Not necessarily a showcase of oral presentation skills or public speaking prowess.

But I noticed something interesting in those meetings. Given the same exact topic and the same exact audience, one partner could make you perk up for those 5 minutes. Another would lull you to sleep.

This one partner would finish talking about what his team had been up to. And I’d be thinking, “Wow that project sounds cool!”

I never worked with the guy, but I liked him. And he had this way of making you want him to like you back. Had I been tapped to work with him, I know I would have worked hard to earn his respect.

That’s the power of effective presentation skills

If you plan on moving up in work, there will come a time when you are called on to address a crowd. You may already have arrived there.

You don’t want to be the guy putting people to sleep. You want to be the guy who gets people excited to work with you.

That’s where these presentation tips come in. They come straight from a world champion–yes, there is a world champion of public speaking–and they will teach you to be more engaging, no matter what you are talking about.


You can watch the video and/or read the presentation tips below. (A shorter version “Presentation Tips and Tricks” is available on our YouTube channel.)

1. Use a prop; they kick butt

First thing Qahtani does before speaking a word: he whips out a cigarette and lights up. (0:36).

And the audience is locked in.

The beauty of props is that they are not self-explanatory. They leave the audience racking their brains, asking, “What the heck is that for?” And that makes them incredibly receptive to what you have to say next.

The same object could mean a million things. I have seen people use change to represent revenue (waaaay better than a PowerPoint pie chart). I have seen change used to represent deposits in the “Trust Bank.” While your audience is trying to figure out what you are doing, you have them hooked.

You don’t want to spend the entire talk baffling your audience. But if you can create questions in their brains and leave them temporarily unanswered, you’ll have the audience leaning forward eager to hear what you have to say next.

2. Provocative questions work great too

Speaking of creating questions in your audience….A fantastic and obvious way is to simply ask a question. The more provocative the better. (1:34)

For instance, if I ask you to think about what you had for breakfast, you will probably think about what you ate for breakfast. If I ask you if you realize that you may have eaten literal poison for breakfast, you are likely to perk up and listen to what I have to say next.

If your presentation has a more rigid structure, like in a quarterly earnings report, consider asking questions rather than expositing.

Rather than, “Sales are up 13% this quarter due to increased distribution partners,” why not actually get people to listen by saying:

“Do you think we are up this quarter? Well we are, up 13% to be exact. And the reason is one we have never seen before. It’s fascinating and is a huge opportunity, but I’ll get to that in a second…”

Yes, you can still put your bottom line up front AND leave lingering questions. If you aren’t raising questions, you might as well stop speaking because people will have stopped listening.

3. Create dialogue: get your audience to interact, speak, or move during the presentation

Have you ever felt disconnected from a speaker? Like the substitute teacher who would ask a question to utter silence from the class? That feeling is soooo uncomfortable (I couldn’t take it and would often be the one to speak up).

The reason this happens is because the speaker inadvertently created a pattern of non-interaction with the audience. They walked in and convinced the audience that their role was to remain passive.

You need to snap the one way monologue mentality in the first minute, when the pattern of interaction between you and the audience is still being negotiated. (1:34)

There are lots of ways to do it. The most common is the “Raise your hand if….” You can combine it with a question that they need to answer, like Qahani does in the video.

The important part–no matter how hamfisted it may feel–get them moving and responding to you 1-3 times in the first minute. For the rest of the speech they will feel like part of it, invested in your success, rather than like your talk is something being inflicted on them.

4. Get a belly laugh in the first minute

In 1:1 conversation, you want to balance having fun with connecting. Connecting takes more time and requires some reason to care. Having fun gets people more invested in you and gives them a reason to care when it start to connect. So I advise people to have fun first. Then focus on connecting.

Similarly, effective presentation skills require you to get people laughing before dropping your drama bombs on them. The first minute is prime time.

Take the most popular Ted Talk of all time: Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity:

Twenty five seconds in. Boom. An unrelated joke. It builds rapport and opens the audience up. The second big laugh is at 1:13…and then 1:17 and then 1:22 and 1:35….you get the point.

So prepare something lighthearted. It doesn’t have to be that clever. It doesn’t have to be directly related to the topic of your speech. Get them laughing and you’ve earned their attention (for a bit).

5. Bounce between stories and summarizing points

See if you can spot the pattern.

Ken Robbin’s story about the little girl… (15:18)

Qahani’s story about the his son… (6:30)

Heck even when I am coaching, I try not to just focus on the mechanics of being charismatic. I give examples in video breakdowns. When I can’t, I tell stories of the people I have worked with.

You see: Humans learn through stories. But we make the mistake of teaching in abstract summaries.

And I’ll admit, this still is tough for me. I want to be concise! I want to cover universal rules, not just tell a single story!

But I swear, nearly every time someone comments on what they learned from me it starts something like this:

“Remember when you were telling me that story about the guy being honest in law school? Well I was out and something happened that reminded me of it.  So I made sure to do what we’d learned….”

What about statistics? A beautiful list of concise, summarized points? The 5 paragraph essays with supporting facts from 10 primary sources they taught us to write in high school?

Are those logical ways to construct an argument? Absolutely. Are they persuasive? Hardly.

If you want people to be moved to action, tell stories.

6. Use open loops and drop segues

“You can have a very beautiful thing to say, but say it in the wrong words and POOF….it’s gone….I have a son who is four. And he had this bad habit of writing on the walls with crayons.” (5:58)

Wait a second. What the heck is going on here? Where are the segues? The connector phrases? (“Which brings me to my next point…”)

Gone. Abandoned for something better.

Confusion!

That moment of confusion between points is like Adderall for your audience. It reestablishes the need to focus on you.

It is particularly powerful when bouncing between an abstract point (“You can have a great thing to say, but say it in wrong words, it’s gone”) and a story (“I have a son who is four. And he had this bad habit of writing on the walls with crayons.”)

The abstract point gets you thinking about the ways words are playing a role in your life. And before you can fully digest that we are off into a story.

Combining the point with a story (without a segue) has the wonderful effect of winning attention and opening people up to your conclusions.

7. Speak in second person (especially when moralizing)

The great thing about stories is that they have ambiguous takeaways. You don’t always have to spell out the lesson, but you have that option.

If you do choose to explain what to take from a story, always do it in second person.

Even if you’ve just finished a story about your own upbringing, told in the first person “I,” you will want to switch.

“….and then I found out I was going to need surgery (pause in story) You know you learn something when your health is failing about what really matters in life….(going to second person moral)”

People care about how things relate to themselves. So whenever possible, speak as if you are speaking directly to them. Say “you.”

Bonus: Ctrl+f to see if I followed my own advice in this article 😉

8. Perform. Public speaking is theater

Whenever you stand in front of people you are a performer.

You are an actor, a voice impressionist, a dancer, a bard. The more you embrace the fact that you are performing, the more people will be sucked into what you’re saying.

The most simple way is to embody the characters in the stories you tell. Put on a different voice. Move like they move (notice how Qahtani plays up the drunk scene and the frantic hospital scene). No description can match the force of live action.

Find opportunities to perform a scene rather than just describing it. It will put your presentation skills on steroids. (11:16)

9. Leave extra space for jokes and drama

Here is a basic definition of comedy: Expectations do not meet reality in an amusing way (i.e. lighting a cigarette on stage and then yelling at the audience)

Meaning that part of comedy is setting up expectations. So you must give the audience time to create that expectation!

Think of the person you know who just runs over jokes. They will hear something funny, repeat it to you, but hit the punchline so quickly that you don’t even know what happened*

It’s not the joke’s fault. It’s that they didn’t give you time to expect anything.

Jokes need space. So cut those filler words and slow down your timing.

Drama has a similar rule. It is all based on uncertainty: “What will happen next?”

So if you don’t give space for people to absorb what you have said and wonder what’s coming next, you slice out the ability for dramatic impact.

Which adds up to one rule: give the audience space in the form of silence.

The funniest (6:44) and most moving parts (13:48) of Qahtani’s speech are preceded and/or followed by a second or two of silence. Use it to emphasize your most important points.

*Comedy is a bit complicated. There is a way to create humor by running over spaces where people might normally pause. But that is beyond the scope of improving presentation skills.

10. Save your emotional bomb for last

Before today, I hadn’t seen Ken Robinson’s TED talk in over a year. The one piece I remembered was of the little girl who was very fidgety and was told she had learning problems. The line that rings in my head is “she didn’t have a problem; she was a dancer,” (or something like that).

Now like I said, before today I hadn’t seen that video in months. And what do you know? That story of the little girl just so happens to be the last story he tells.

That’s by design.

You begin with intrigue, but you end with impact. Whether that impact is humorous or melancholy is your decision, but your killer emotional piece belongs at the end. The thing you want to stick in people’s minds.

You’ll have earned their continued attention so you’ll have time to build an emotionally charged scene. Take advantage and craft a third act that moves people.

11. Tie up your mini stories and lead back to big point

Remember how we didn’t segue before? That probably left the audience struggling to figure out how everything ties together.

The end is where you put a bow on everything. You can (though you don’t have to) reference the anecdotes you have mentioned, the key points you hit, and say how they all contribute towards one overarching point.

A similar and very popular tactic is to take the intro, which lacked a conclusion, and re-reference it as a closing. Qahani does that when he goes back to the cigarette. (15:53) But in his case, it’s really not necessary. If you have a story to wrap up, the ending can be a great time to close that loop. But don’t force it. Otherwise it feels like you ripped your speech out of a cookie cutter mold.

12. The ending should speak for itself

You can work from rough notes in your speech. But you want to plan your last line verbatim. (16:00)

I found this out when making YouTube videos. I would get to the end and find myself trailing off: “Okay, well that’s it….so yeah….I guess that’s it for today…bye”

If you don’t have a go to, the ending sort of just fizzles. So for YouTube, I’ve settled on “Hope you’ve found this helpful! I’ll see you next time.”

Simple and it has an air of finality.

If you do what I used to do, you wind up with an audience that doesn’t know if they should clap or pause. You wind up saying “Okay, that’s the end,” or “Yeah…..that’s all I have today.”

Worst case, finish on a “thank you” and a smile. But ideally, your arc, your intonation, and your gesticulations should indicate that you have said everything you need to say

13. Give them something to do as soon as you finish

Okay I’m cheating because Qahani doesn’t actually do this. But he gets a pass. He is at a Toastmaster’s event where speaking for speaking’s sake is totally kosher.

That’s probably not the case in your life. When you speak in front of a group of people, you typically want them to do something because of it. Maybe it is to work harder. Maybe it is to donate. Maybe it is just to raise their glasses and toast to the bride and groom.

You’ve spent all this time opening them up. Don’t squander this opportunity. You took them on this journey. Hooked their attention. Now do something!

Qahani keeps it vague: consider the power of your words. Much more effective would be to keep the action concrete, time bound, and specific: “When you exit into the lobby, call someone who needs to hear that you are proud of them and tell them how they make you proud.”

After the story of his friend Nassir, you can bet the audience would have taken that to heart.

In sum, here’s the top presentation tips boiled down to the bare necessities

  • Grab attention with the first second and continue intriguing people for the first minute
  • Open people up by bouncing between stories that they can place themselves in
  • Have a big emotional movement at the end and give them a specific action to finish

You don’t have to do every single one of these presentation tips and tricks every time. Hit just a few of these and your public speaking will be massively improved.

….See how I totally skipped #12 and didn’t tie the conclusion back to the beginning – told you you don’t need to do everything 😉


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4 Responses to “12 Steps To World Class Presentation Skills”

  • It’s crazy how a well timed silence is sometimes more powerful than the actual words. It really can make all the difference when trying to get a message across (or more info out of someone else). Isn’t it ironic?

    Loved your tip on dropping the segues. I never would’ve thought of that! I use transitions and segues like they were going out of style. Def going to have to try that one out.

    Awesome tips man as always.

  • This is great! I love the line “Begin with intrigue; end with impact” – so I’ve tweeted it.

    When coaching speakers, I use a lot of the same tips. For instance, I use the acronym “AIM”, and its “I” stands for “Intrigue people”.

    Interesting about Qahtani’s call-to-action. When I first read what you said, I thought “Hold on, he did call people to action.” But now I see what you mean about it being vague.

    You might like to see my suggestions for the call-to-action of a TEDx talk about body language: I show how to make it more personal, actionable and conversational. You can find that here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    (P.S. In your post, the video at the end of step 9 is private unfortunately.)

  • Awesome Article, thank you…. its so helpful to have you talk us through the ted talk to show us what to look out for. I would love to see a video re-enactment of sorts of your opening story along with your commentary on strengths vs pitfalls: “Given the same exact topic and the same exact audience, one partner could make you perk up for those 5 minutes. Another would lull you to sleep.” I have seen this play out in so many corporations I have worked at, but can’t put my finger on why one is so great at presenting and another so poor. A major reason I have ended up on your site is that I want to improve my own presentation skills in a design industry.

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