In 1984, Steve Jobs delivered a presentation about the Macintosh computer. He stood behind a podium and looked down most of the time as he read his notes. Fast forward to the iPod launch in 2001, where he told stories, engaged the audience and had great stage presence. He perfected his craft, improving every detail, just as he did with his Apple products.
You can do the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business pitch presentation to a new client or a keynote speech to a large audience. The ability to deliver a memorable and engaging message with confidence and authority are vital business skills.
But what do those skills look like, and how can you make them part of your communication tool kit?
Working with UCL and over 2,000 people globally, we developed a study to determine which skills work best. We discovered that a speaker who had just a few hours of presentation skills coaching could gain similar ratings to successful professional speakers by applying a few simple techniques.
In this article, we’ll share with you what those techniques are and how you can apply them to any business or personal learning journey to raise your game, increase your impact and get the results you deserve.
What is advanced presentation skills training, and why does it matter?
Communication skills are essential for survival. Our earliest ancestors needed to be great communicators to stay alive. Back when we were cave dwellers, if you gathered your tribe around a campfire with only one chance to tell them about your escape from the claws of a sabre-toothed tiger, your message needed to be not only clear but compelling and memorable.
Little has changed in the modern world. OK, we don’t have to protect ourselves from wild animals, but the importance of clear and engaging communication and presentations is as relevant now as it was back in the Stone Age.
The ability to communicate well in public is an essential skill in business. Deals can be won or lost on how well you’ve delivered your pitch or explained your idea. Excellent presentation skills also make you valuable. For most, the thought of public speaking is enough to have them running for the hills! But if you have the confidence to deliver a presentation or a message to any audience, you automatically gain a decisive advantage.
If you ask Google who are the best speakers in history, JFK will appear in most results. However, JFK was not a great public speaker at first. Presidential historian Robert Dallek wrote in his book John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life;
“Stiff and wooden were the words most often used to describe his oratory. He spoke in a high-pitched voice, was humourless and never diversified from the text before him. He was boring, like a young teacher on his first day.”
Sounds a little like the description of Steve Jobs’ early presentations at the start of this blog.
Both Jobs and JFK understood the importance of being a compelling communicator, and they worked at it. It took months for JFK to write his inaugural address; Steve Jobs would put hundreds of hours into each of his Apple launches. If you want to be good at something, you must practice.
The way they used language and rhetoric (the art of persuasive or effective speaking or writing) helped inspire their audience and draw people into their narrative. They also injected feeling into their speeches, created an emotional bond and made it sound like they were having a conversation rather than lecturing.
These are just some of the advanced presentation skills they worked on to become great speakers and communicators, and it boils down to three key points.
Let’s explain why these three areas matter
You’ve heard the phrase ‘Facts tell – stories sell’. The aim of business presentations is often to pass on information or deliver a set of data. Imagine the difference you could make if, instead of a list of facts, you were able to change the way an audience felt about those facts. Inspire and empower your audience just like Steve Jobs and JFK.
Storytelling can do this.
It helps differentiate your product, brand, or service from your competitors. Even if you are the market leader, your reputation can live or die on the stories told about you.
Stories also play a critical role in team meetings. Teams don’t want data; they want a vision. Creating a solid narrative helps you motivate, lead, and inspire people.
Trust and rapport are the building blocks of business relationships. Most people will only listen if they trust you, so you need to come across as confident and in control.
Sounds easy? For many of us, it’s not. Standing in front of a room of people (or a screen of videos on a virtual call) is not always a comfortable feeling, and if you’re not comfortable, your non-verbal cues will give this away to your audience.
When we’re nervous or anxious, we may make unnecessary movements to compensate (swivel in a chair, pace backwards and forwards), avoid eye contact or speak too fast. These things can diminish presence and authority and make it much harder for an audience to follow you.
A mistake often made by speakers and leaders is approaching a presentation with the thought, ‘What is it I want to say?’. This puts you at a massive disadvantage.
Because most people don’t care very much about what the other person has to say, they care about what they need to hear.
The ability to understand your audience and empathise with them displays a high level of emotional intelligence and is fast becoming an essential leadership skill. Showing empathy means you can listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply, which leads to deeper and more meaningful connections.
The Power of Impactful Presentations
It’s over 60 years since JFK delivered that powerful inaugural address and more than two decades since Steve Jobs launched the iPod. In 1961 when JFK asked not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, the first commercially viable PCs were more than a decade away.
Business communication focused on the 9-5; face-to-face meetings, telephone calls and letter writing. It was slow, and decisions took a long time. As for PowerPoint, slides were hand-drawn and delivered via an overhead projector.
Make your idea stand out
The advancement of technology over the past half-century means we now consume and deliver information very differently. We have a close (and potentially unhealthy) relationship with digital devices. How many of us reach for the smartphone when we wake up and have it within arm’s reach until we go to bed?
News, data, facts, stories pour into our lives every second overwhelming us with choice. It’s a tsunami of constant information fighting for our attention, and it must resonate and engage us within seconds; otherwise, we’ll pass on to the next thing.
Mediocre messages barely get a passing glance in the 21st century. For your ideas to land with an audience, you must deliver them with impact.
Don’t hide behind your slides
Unfortunately, technology often hinders our ability to do this. The arrival of PowerPoint in the 1990s was both a revelation and a step back in how we communicate.
Now you could present your ideas via a slide deck, and for those who didn’t like presenting, it offered an opportunity to let the slides do some of the talking. But this isn’t how we communicate. People engage with people, not visual aids. You can connect with an audience and change the way they feel about your information in a way that a slide deck rarely can.
Hiding behind slides has become more popular since the start of the COVID pandemic, where we’ve had no option but to host virtual team communication sessions. How often have you been on a Teams or Zoom meeting, and the presenter has shared their slide deck and then turned off their camera. Engaging? Memorable? We doubt it.
If you are using slides, remember these six essential points:
The benefits of learning Advanced Presentation Skills
Most of us are OK at delivering presentations; we get by. But is this enough? Will OK or getting by get you ahead or where you want to be?
Improving your presentation skills and taking them to an advanced level with a business communication skills course brings a host of benefits. Here are some of them:
- The ability to influence and persuade. This could be your team, a new client, a senior person in the business or a prospective employer.
- Differentiating yourself from competitors. If most people are only OK at presenting, think about what you could achieve if you stand out.
- Become a trusted advisor or an expert in your field.
- Greater confidence. It’s a fantastic feeling when you’re in control and the nerves and anxiety drain away. Harness that feeling and run with it.
- Have better conversations and bring people together
- Create an inclusive and open environment to build productive teams
- Develop your career and help promotion prospects
- Improve your leadership qualities
Advanced presentation skills can also help in the following situations:
- Face to face, hybrid, and virtual meetings
- Job and promotion interviews
- Conference speaking
- Networking and social events
- Media opportunities on TV & radio
- Presenting to camera for social media to promote your business
- Delivering technical information
How to develop Advanced Presentation Skills
The most significant barrier to excellent communication is people thinking they’re not very good at it. It’s nonsense, and most of us have far greater instincts for it than you may realise.
The first thing to address is your mindset. Have you ever approached a big presentation or meeting with the following thoughts?
“I hope I don’t muck this up.”
“I’m probably going to trip over my words and make a mistake.”
“This could all go horribly wrong.”
We’re focusing on a negative outcome and what’s focal is causal. If you focus on something terrible happening, there’s a good chance it will! Instead, think about all the things which will go well.
If you put yourself in a position of control and confidence, the techniques we’ll talk about next will happen much more quickly.
To start developing advanced presentation skills we need to look at three areas: presentation content, body language, and verbal fluency.
“I’m excited to share this information.”
“I can help so many people in the audience.”
“I’m looking forward to this”
We wrote earlier that an audience is only interested in what they need to hear, not what you want to say. So, you need to know your audience. What keeps them awake at night? What are their goals or dreams?
This is where storytelling comes into play. Nobel prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, said:
“No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”
Stories told well have the power to enthuse and compel people towards action. They help your audience relate to you, build rapport, and understand complex ideas.
Here are five steps you can take, based on storytelling, to craft an engaging structure for your presentation.
Some of the best ideas in the world have fallen flat because they were presented poorly. Equally, terrible ideas have gained traction because they were delivered brilliantly. Imagine what you could achieve if you have great content and delivery?
Unfortunately, we often throw our content at an audience without much thought about how it should be presented. Here are five important body language choices to consider, ensuring you come across with maximum impact and confidence.
We are tribal creatures. In a tribe, we feel safe. We want to be led by people who appear strong enough to stand up to challenges, and the way we stand, our posture, influences whether we appear strong or weak. Or, to put it another way, confident or anxious.
Try standing with your feet together. Notice how your centre of gravity is high, so if someone came along and gave you a little push, you’d undoubtedly wobble and possibly fall over. Now stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your centre of gravity is lower, and you feel more stable; if someone tried to push you over, they’d have to push hard! So, the first step to a more confident posture is to step sideways and stand in a strong, balanced position.
If you’re presenting while sitting down, then try this. Sit towards the front of the seat and put your feet flat on the floor. Don’t lean into the back of the chair but instead sit upright. Raise your sternum (the hard, flat bone in the centre of your chest) upwards and forwards, so your chest is gently lifted. We see many people who slump when seated or round their shoulders. By creating a subtle lift in the sternum, you can go from being expired to being inspired!
You may have noticed that speakers who move around are effective sometimes and annoying at others. To gain clarity on this, let’s talk about what not to do.
Some people wander around because they think it’s the only way to gain attention. In those situations, the movements are just masking other problems with content or delivery. If you want to win attention, your content needs to be meaningful. You can use your voice and gestures to reinforce and emphasise key points, but aimless wandering serves no purpose.
What about comedians? Some run around or pace back and forth, but what happens when they deliver the punchline? They stand still; the joke’s impact is more significant because the audience can focus on the most important part of the message.
Choose your movements based on how you want your audience to feel. Move with a purpose to help your listeners understand or catch the mood of what you’re saying and stay still for key statements which require impact.
What should I do with my hands? This is the most common question we get asked by people who are preparing for an important presentation, interview, or pitch. In a way, it’s a funny question to ask. After all, you don’t usually have a problem with your hands, do you? You move your hands and arms freely all the time. You tell stories and paint pictures with your gestures. You do it naturally and don’t think about it. The challenge comes in high-pressure situations when you get self-conscious and you lose the ability to move naturally.
Some people assume that keeping their arms still will increase their gravitas. While keeping your legs still can be helpful, it doesn’t work the same way with your arms. You move them less for serious situations, more when you’re excited or happy, but either way, you move them.
Dr Susan Goldin-Meadow did a lot of research in this area at the University of Chicago. She found that moving your arms while talking improves your brain function, making you a better communicator. It helps your mental coherence, increases the efficiency of your speech, and stimulates your memory.
If you’re not sure what to do with your arms, here are a few pointers.
The size of your gestures can also help people understand the value of numbers. For example, in some situations, the statistic’ three percent’ could be massive (the interest rate on your current account, for example); in others, it could be tiny (projected company growth over ten years). Put your hands wide apart if the number or statistic is large and bring them closer together if it’s small. It brings clarity and context.
You make thousands of gestures every day. When you free your arms to move as you speak, they will find a flow. That natural flow will lead to descriptive gesturing – arm and hand movements that describe what you’re saying that paint the picture of your words.
Keep looking out for these, and you will notice them more and more. If you increase your awareness of them, you’ll find it easier to create a natural flow when you’re under pressure.
In a virtual setting, you can still use your gestures; you just have to be more aware of your framing. Adjust your camera position so more of your torso can be seen, and keep your gestures further back and lower, so they don’t come too close to the camera.
An essential part of gaining trust from an audience is the ability to make regular eye contact. In face-to-face situations, you need to make eye contact for a few seconds, break it and then move to the next person. Don’t just give all your attention to the decision-maker; include everyone in the room.
In a virtual setting, it’s a bit different. Most of your eye contact needs to be to the camera. We often see people looking at the video of the person they are talking to, they may feel connected, but the other person doesn’t because they are not getting eye contact.
A similar rule applies in a hybrid meeting. If you’re in a conference room with people joining virtually, don’t look at them on the screen. Make regular eye contact with the camera in the room, so those joining remotely feel included and engaged.
Think about how you want your audience to feel and put that expression on your face. If your message is one of optimism and excitement, make your face more active. If it’s a more serious part of the presentation, your expression should reflect that. Often in business, we think it’s all serious, and our face remains passive, yet an audience can take so much more away if you allow your face to express the right emotion.
Our voice has tremendous potential and is an incredible tool when it comes to helping us communicate feelings. We can inspire, motivate, and move people into action if we know how to use it. After all, the chances are you could email everything you want to say. If you’re having a meeting, you’re not just there to give people information. You must give the words more meaning than an email through your body language – and your voice.
If you take the words of a song and read them with no feeling, they have no impact. When singers bring those words to life with phrasing, tone and harmony, people are compelled to listen, and their emotions align with the song. Applying the same principles when we’re talking can change the way people feel about and respond to our words.
There are three ways you can do the same.
Your voice has a vast range. Using the notes and tones to the best effect, you can immediately communicate how your listeners should feel about what they’re saying.
How we respond to pitch reflects how our voices change as we grow from children to adults. Children have higher voices, so we associate a high pitch with youth, excitement, energy, and hope. As we get older, we gain a lower range. In which case, lower pitch conveys wisdom, authority, experience and, to some degree, seriousness.
Make sure you vary your pitch as you talk. We need variety to keep listeners engaged.
Pitch and pace are like twins. If you put them together, they amplify each other. And, in a similar way to a high pitch, a fast pace creates a sense of excitement; a slow pace gives a sense of gravitas.
The average person speaks at around 140 words a minute. Someone like Barack Obama spoke at 110 words a minute when he delivered his inaugural speech. He was talking like a leader. By contrast, Tony Robbins, one of the highest-paid motivational speakers globally, talks at around 240 words a minute. Why? Because he must create energy, excitement, and optimism for the audience. He has to speak fast to do this.
While talking faster can be engaging and motivating in certain situations, learning to pace your presentation is important. In the pressure of the moment, fear can take hold. Your heart rate will increase, which often means rushing through what you want to say as quickly as possible. If this ever happens to you, make a conscious effort to start to slow your pace down.
It’s important to note this doesn’t mean making the words longer. If you say each word very slowly, yoooouuu’ll soouuunndd ooooodddd. Slowing down is about putting longer gaps between words. Or to put it another way…
In our modern world, silence is rare. Think about your average day. Perhaps an alarm clock wakes you; the radio or TV is on as you’re making breakfast, your family are chatting, phones ring through the day. If there are moments of silence, your brain thinks, ‘What’s happened?’
It’s true in nature too. A jungle is always buzzing with insect and animal noise. If silence falls, perhaps a predator is coming, and the animals must be on high alert.
If you have a critical message, pause at the start and end of the sentence or phrase. Pausing briefly indicates what you’re about to say is worth waiting for; it gives the message the space it deserves.
Pausing also gives you thinking time and helps you to slow down if you’re a fast talker, as mentioned above.
So, those are three techniques you can use to bring variety to your speech. Now might be a good time to note that some of the best presentations sound conversational and natural. In his book ‘Talk Like Ted’ Carmine Gallo has the following advice:
“When you practice your presentation, you’ll be inclined to slow the rate of your speech as you advance through your slides or try to remember the points you want to make. Once you’ve internalised the content, match the pace of your verbal delivery with your natural conversation style.”
How to analyse and improve your business presentation skills
Our favourite part of the training we deliver is personal coaching. Helping, supporting and guiding our clients to a place where they feel confident and assertive.
One of the hardest things is getting clients to tell us what they enjoyed about their presentation or did well. 90% will finish their presentation and then walk away with shoulders slumped, saying ‘that was awful’.
We can guarantee no one is ever awful. Some things can be improved on, but many elements are already going well.
To progress with your presentation skills, you need to take on the coach’s role and get other people to do the same. Record yourself (your smartphone is fine) and watch it back. Here’s the crucial point. Tell yourself all the things you’re doing well first. Pat yourself on the back and be kind and supportive because we’ve never met anyone who enjoys watching themselves back on video!
Then look at the things you might change the next time. Don’t say they were wrong or bad; just notice how you could adapt them to make your presentation even better.
When you’re comfortable doing this, get someone you trust to watch you and provide feedback. Ask them to follow the same steps above. Highlight what’s going well first, and then look at what could be changed.
No one ever got good at something without putting in the hours. We spoke earlier about Steve Jobs and JFK and how they rehearsed for hundreds of hours ahead of their big speeches and presentations. Now, you probably won’t have to put in that level of practice to succeed, but you will need to put in some serious hours.
Try using all the skills we’ve spoken about in low stakes situations where you’re not under pressure. Or perhaps join a debating club or an organisation like Toast Masters where you can practice with like-minded people. Maybe if you’re a church or community group member, put yourself forward as a speaker.
Define your goal
What do you want to achieve? Is it to overcome your fear of speaking in public, bring your team closer together or do you want to win a big business pitch in 6 months?
Set yourself a realistic goal and time frame to achieve it and concentrate on improving one thing at a time. We’ve covered a lot in this article, and it would be unrealistic to expect to use all these techniques the next time you present. So, pick one or two things that have resonated with you and work on those. When they start to feel comfortable, come back to this page and choose two more things.
You have everything you need on these pages to become a great presenter, but there is one final challenge: our need to fit in.
Brené Brown is well known for her research that shows the opposite of belonging is not being lonely. It’s fitting in. Belonging means that no matter what we do, people will care about us and accept us. When we feel that people don’t accept us for who we really are, we can lose ourselves by focusing on fitting in.
When you ignore the voice in your head that says, ‘This is who I am, this is what I believe’, and just copy others, you’re betraying yourself. Fitting in often means holding yourself back to be like people who are also probably just trying to fit in.
If you free yourself and stay true to who you were born to be, you will inspire other people to follow.
Resources for developing your presentation skills
The Body Talk Podcast
Body Language with Body Talk CEO Richard Newman – https://ukbodytalk.com/resources/improve-your-body-language/
Business Storytelling with Robert McKee – https://ukbodytalk.com/resources/body-talk-podcast-robert-mckee-storytelling/
Visual Aids with BBC Presenter Alina Jenkins – https://ukbodytalk.com/resources/power-of-visual-aids/
The Power of Your Voice with BBC Radio 4 Actor Mark Seddon – https://ukbodytalk.com/resources/the-power-of-your-voice/
You Were Born to Speak – By Richard Newman – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Were-Born-Speak-Richard-Newman/dp/191645920X
Talk Like Ted – By Carmine Gallo – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Talk-Like-TED-Speaking-Secrets/dp/1447261135
Storynomics – by Robert McKee – https://mckeestory.com/books/storynomics/
Brain Rules – by Dr John Medina – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Brain-Rules-Principles-Surviving-Thriving/dp/0979777747
Presence – by Patsy Rodenburg – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Presence-Positive-Energy-Success-Situation/dp/0141039477
How to communicate in a virtual world – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKNGiBJ6-AY
Transform your virtual impact in 60 seconds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBUzWlGBwcE
Have you enjoyed this guide? Can we help you further?
We offer a range of coaching, masterclasses, and seminars in face-to-face or virtual settings as well as eLearning courses. For the last 21 years, we’ve coached over 100,000 clients across 46 different countries, and we’d love to help you achieve your communication goals. Get in touch with the team to develop your own bespoke advanced presentation skills plan.