Presentation skills Pitch presentations

Whether part of sales or pitching training or for standalone presentations for seminars and conferences I conduct many in-house training sessions on presentation skills. Yesterday, I delivered a training session on pitching for the PM Forum (  and there was a request for general presentation skills guidance during that course. So this post summarises the key points from a recent series of sessions with overseas lawyers which apply to most professionals. There are many other resources on presentation skills – such as book reviews and presentation tips – which are listed below.

Presentation skills – Key points

A key point is the need to plan the presentation. Whilst most people plan and prepare their content, they often spend insufficient time planning their delivery and the subsequent interaction and follow up.

When we recall the most impressive presentations we have ever seen or heard, it is the emotional impact made by the speaker and the feeling that the speaker invoked in us rather than the rational information presented that we recall. Emotions embed memories more strongly.

Whilst it is good to learn the “rules” of good presentation skills, you need to let your personality shine through. The importance of how we say things is as important as – perhaps more important than – what we actually say. So understanding the psychology of communication is vital.

Prepare the presentation content

The first element of presentation skills is to plan and prepare the presentation content.

Aims – Consider what you want to achieve with your presentation. What are the three key messages you wish to convey? How do you want the audience to feel afterwards? What do you want the audience to take away? What do you want them to do as a result of your presentation? What impression do you want to make of yourself, your team and your firm? How will you know if the presentation is successful? You may want to set specific objectives in what you want to achieve in terms of feedback ratings, connections made afterwards or even enquiries and referrals. But remember that a presentation is usually only one part of an ongoing campaign to raise awareness and generate leads so it may be better to set your goals at that level rather than for an individual event.

Audience – Before you start preparing your presentation, think carefully about the audience. What is their existing level of knowledge? What do they want to hear (and not hear) from you? What are their expectations? What value can they get from your presentation? Do some research if you don’t know. Take care if you have a mixed audience (some with technical knowledge and some without) to ensure that you address their different needs. It often helps to rehearse your presentation to a “friendly” audience – who can indicate where they think changes might assist comprehension or flow.

Content – Most presentations attempt to include far too much information. Less is more. There is a need to consider the aims and (no more than three) key messages you wish to convey and the needs of the audience. Plan what could and needs to be covered – possibly using a mind map which might also support structuring of the information.

Simplify – There is also a need to simplify complex ideas – break them down, start at the lowest level and add layers of details if required. In some respects, your job as presenter is to act as a translator or interpreter for ideas. Additional information can be provided as a handout – it doesn’t all need to be included in the presentation or the audio-visuals. Furthermore, if there is more detail available this presents an excellent opportunity for follow up contact and dialogue after the presentation.

Images – Naturally you will use your firm’s template for your presentations. Think beyond words and bullet point lists. Use photos, quotes, diagrams, charts, tables, newspaper clippings, maps and inforgraphics. Make sure that they are big enough to see. And try to have just one item (text or image) on each slide. A picture says a thousand words. Videos can also be useful (music evokes emotion) – for example, by showing a complicated idea such as e-gaming – but keep them short. Props – for example different hats to identify different jurisdictions – could also be used.

Key messages – See the section on structure below. Identify no more than three key messages you wish to convey in your presentation. Our short term memory works in chunks of two to seven items of information – so three should be retained by most people.

Signposting – Help the audience know where you are going and where you are at present. Navigate for them. Tell them what you are going to cover at the start and remind them what you have covered at the end. This helps reinforcement and retention by using the primacy and recency effects.

Specificity – Avoid general lists of things. And try to be as specific as possible – provide names, dates and numbers. It is easier for people to remember specific points. Better still, tell stories.

Storytelling – Stories (such as anecdotes and case studies) are one of the most effective ways to communicate ideas as people become emotionally involved when they can identify with or relate to one of the characters. People like surprising endings too. And stories that convey an important moral or point. During storytelling – when people connect – the brain goes through a variety of processes such as neural coupling, other cortical activity and dopamine release.

Structure – Use three points approach to structure presentations. Plan your greeting and a hook (the benefits of your talk) and then present your first message (story, evidence, other information) and then the second and third message before your conclusion and interaction/outcome.  Avoid starting with an apology and take care with humour. You need a strong start and a definite, positive finish.

Timing – Most people attempt to include far too much material in their presentations for the time available. The presenter is not there to simply off-load a huge amount of information to the audience – he or she has to do some work to extract the key points, or offer a different perspective so that the presentation adds more value than simply listing out information. Have a timing device at the edge of your periphery vision or ask someone to warn you when you are nearing your time limit.

Prepare the presentation delivery

Whilst everyone invests time in preparing their presentation content, there is often little evidence of preparation of delivery. Rehearsing – alone and with team members and to be familiar with the environment, kit and visuals used – will improve confidence. Rehearsing is also the only way to be sure that you will stick to the allocated time.

Audio visuals – To avoid looking at the screen (and therefore losing eye contact with the audience) either refer to notes (don’t hold them – if you have to have something in your hand then make it a small deck of cards bearing key points) or position the laptop screen so that you can see it whilst still facing the audience. The slides are not there to support the speaker – they are there to provide a signpost, a different perspective or additional information to the audience. Research shows that retention is aided with bot auditory and visual senses involved. And some people prefer visual information whereas others prefer auditory information. Don’t let slides get too busy. Focus on just one key point per slide if possible. Use images and charts rather than lists of words. Complex charts might be offered as a handout instead of appearing as a slide. Think about different ways to convey your ideas rather than just bullet pointing what you are saying (although if your presentation is being translated into other languages then it might help to have the key points listed but you can provide a script to translators or those who speak other languages to help them). Avoid transition effects – the only one recommended is dissolve as the others can be too distracting. Upper and lower case is easier to read than all uppercase. Dark letters on a white/light background is easiest to read. Where slides are to be added to the know-how system (and therefore need more detail), use the PowerPoint notes slide layout option so that additional information about the content of the slide can be seen in handouts but not on the screen.

Body language (Non Verbal Communication) – How you convey information is important and body language is important here. Although you should take care if you are in a multi-cultural environment as the meanings of different gestures can vary. The most critical non verbal communication is eye contact and “lighthousing” to connect to all members of the audience. Avoid looking at notes or the screen too much as this reduces eye contact. Gestures can help highlight key points but they need to be authentic and congruent. Don’t forget how important it is to smile – remember the audience really wants you to succeed. Don’t stand stock still – as this can seem impersonal and stilted. But don’t allow yourself to move too much as this can be distracting and may convey nervousness. Some key things to do and to avoid:

Avoid Encourage
Folded arms Positive hand movements
Arms acting as a barrier Eye contact
Steeple fingers Smiling
Clutching anything tightly Some movement
Hand holding/wringing Standing open and grounded
Going on tip toe Open hands
Hands in pockets  
Chin up/looking down nose  
Leaning on table or chair or lectern  

Confidence – See the material on nervousness below. Even if you don’t feel confident, you can project confidence through your non-verbal communication. Planning and practice builds confidence. You will avoid “uumms” and other verbal tics if you rehearse. You are doing yourself and your audience a disservice if you don’t allocate enough time to prepare and rehearse properly.

Emotion – Communicate emotion with emphasis in your speech and also with your hand gestures. You need to convey genuine interest in what you are talking about. Be measured and animated but not fidgety.

Empathy – This is a core skill in emotional intelligence (EQ). You need to put yourself in the audience’s shoes and see the presentation from their perspective. You are not there just to tell them all that you know – you are there to help them understand the key points that are of value to them.

Hands – If you naturally use your hands to make gestures then that is great if it amplifies your verbal message in some way. But make sure your gestures are authentic (you really mean them) and congruent with what you are saying – and that they don’t get out of control and convey nervousness. Also be careful that you don’t clutch either your other hand, the remote control or notes etc and inadvertently convey nervousness.

Interaction – Ideally, your presentation should prompt some interaction – certainly at the end. Asking questions, requesting a show of hands or asking audience members to undertake some activity are all ways to promote this. We fear questions that we may not know how to answer. We fear a lack of control. We fear embarrassment and damage to our reputation. Anticipation of and preparation for questions will build confidence in taking questions.

Lectern – While the lectern is helpful as you can use it for a screen or your notes, it can act as a barrier between you and the audience. And there is a danger that if you are nervous you will hold onto it too tightly. Try to move out from behind the lectern to create a better connection with your audience.

Nervousness and anxiety The majority of people (over 70%) have a fear of public speaking. In effect, our fight, fright or freeze response is invoked which changes our physiology and makes it more difficult for us to speak in a calm manner. It is natural that we have some nerves when speaking – and having a little bit of nervousness ensures a good presentation. Practice and rehearsal will help build confidence and alleviate anxiety too. However, if you are experiencing too much anxiety you should use techniques (counting, deep breathing, exercise, visualisation) to help you. There are various techniques in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to help with presentation nerves. And remember that you might feel very nervous inside, but the audience is unlikely to be aware of it!

Questions Anticipate what questions you might be asked. There are various approaches to dealing with questions – especially difficult ones. In sales training, you can learn how to analyse, classify and respond to objections. Never be tempted to provide an answer when you don’t know it. Showing a little vulnerability but saying it’s a good question and you will come back to the questioner later is ok.

Rehearse Rehearsing – alone and with team members and to be familiar with the kit and visuals used – will improve confidence. Rehearsing is also the only way to be sure that you will stick to the allocated time. But be ready to abandon your planned delivery if the audience wants you to move in a different direction.

Script or notes? Avoid reading from a script. However, you might want to write a script to help you rehearse and to extract the key points for bullet point notes. If you memorise your script remember to retain some emotion and inflection as you speak it. Whilst you don’t have to memorise the entire presentation, it will help your confidence if you memorise the first two or three minutes whilst you are concentrating on creating a connection with the audience.

Team work Rehearse together in advance. Ensure that handovers are smooth. Bouncing back and forth between two speakers can be very effective – but practice it a lot and don’t overdo it as the audience can get dizzy. Refer to those speaking before and after you. And take control of your behaviour while others are speaking – look at the person speaking or their slides. Show interest in them. Occasionally look out to the audience. Even though someone else might be speaking, the audience may be looking at you.

Timing It is vital that you stick to your allotted time. Often people over run because either they are trying to cover too much content or they have failed to rehearse enough. Allocate sufficient time for questions, audience participation and interaction.

Voice Volume/projection is one of the most powerful conveyors of confidence. As is speed (not too slow and not too fast). You really need to inject some emotion and feeling into your speech.

Words “Don’t think about elephants” – so now you are thinking about elephants! Be careful you do not prime your audience with the wrong words. Take care with words such as “complex”, “bore”, “panic” or “difficult”. And if you use a technical or unusual or jargon word – make sure you provide an explanation. The audience will not pay attention after hearing a word that they do not understand. Always avoid the term “fee-earners”.