Not everyone is gifted with the ability to deliver an exceptional presentation. But successful public speaking isn’t mere luck. It’s using best practices rooted in science that make the difference between good and great. Here are four key principles that will help you give a great presentation:
1. An audience’s attention declines, but you can combat it.
Great public speakers likely know that an audience’s attention span will start to wane, but why? J. W. Niemantsverdriet, Ph.D., scientific director at Syngaschem BV, looked at how audiences pay attention to presentations.
At first, most people are all ears, listening closely to what a speaker says, but their attention gradually drops to around 10% to 20% of its original level before peaking again toward the speech’s conclusion.
This attention curve suggests that, to give a great presentation, speakers should state a brief summary of their work—or their main points—near the beginning and summarize it at the end. It’s also a good idea to “divide your presentation in several parts, each ended by an intermediate conclusion,” writes Niemantsverdriet. While Niemantsverdriet wrote about the attention curve for presenting scientific findings in academia, his strategy works for any public speaker looking to improve their audience’s attention level.
2. Using storytelling to give a great presentation works better than facts alone.
Renowned speakers use stories because stories keep audience members’ brains entertained and active.
When a speaker shares a story to reinforce key points, multiple parts of the brain may be activated, but the effect of the story may depend on its content. A good story may encourage the audience to imagine a specific image or evoke a certain emotion, and could also potentially cause them to feel closer to the speaker. In short, a story evokes cognition as well as emotion, engaging both the mind and heart.
3. Practice really does make perfect.
If you’re an inexperienced presentation speaker, don’t let your mind and emotional being get the best of you. Minimize your fear of public speaking by conducting a series of mock presentations.
When you start worrying about your presentation, you may also end up worrying about the possibility of receiving a negative reaction from the audience. This manner of thinking can cause your body to display indicators of anxiety such as muscle tension, difficulty concentrating and sleep problems.
Practice is one good way to combat this anxiety and give a great presentation. After preparing your materials, invite some of your friends to be your audience and do an actual presentation. When you expose yourself to an undesirable stimulus over and over again, you can become less sensitive to your fear. In psychology, this is considered exposure therapy and it may work wonders for public speaking.
4. Nonverbal communication matters when giving a great presentation.
Truth be told, your audience will absorb more than just what you say during your presentation. They will also grasp the messages conveyed by your body movements, tone of voice and gestures, among other nonverbal forms of communication.
When you have relaxed facial muscles, good eye contact and a moderate tone of voice, the audience may assume you are confident and experienced. But when you cross your arms in front of you, for example, you may be seen as defensive. Additionally, when you have a sloppy or typo-prone PowerPoint presentation, the audience may start silently critiquing the mistakes they see. Poor choices in nonverbal communication may cause you to lose attention or credibility in the audience’s eyes.
Because nonverbal communication matters, don’t just focus on what you present, but also consider how you deliver your topic. Your presentation is a package of knowledge, delivery style and audiovisual materials. Maximize all your resources; don’t take any for granted or concentrate on one at the expense of the others.
This article was updated July 2023. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock