The Golden Rule of Presenting

I was giving a technology industry analyst some feedback on his presentation, and recommended that he smile at the point where he’d been delivering some good news. I think he’d even said, “Here’s the good news.”

He didn’t like the idea. “I’m not really a smiley guy,” he told me.

People push back like this quite a lot when I suggest an obvious departure from their usual form. At this point, I always have to ask them where an audience will be looking to decide whether or not to believe what they’re saying.

I’ll give you a moment.

Exactly. So if the speaker is delivering a positive message and I as an audience member look at their eyes to confirm it and don’t find a shred of emotion, why should I believe them?

In my experience, people who deliver expressionless presentations fall into two categories: those who truly believe that their words will be understood as intended, no matter the inflection, and those who find it difficult to push beyond what feels like a safe range of expression, and are therefore more interested in their own comfort than the audience’s.

Neither category is safe. Audiences are always filtering what you say through their frame of reference, and will take what you say the way they want to, unless encouraged to do otherwise by the emphasis you place on things, not just with your voice, but with your whole self.

Consider the sentence, “We’ve never undercut a competitor.” Delivered monotonously, eyes neutral, it packs no punch, inspires no trust. Let me ask you then: To show your conviction, which word does it make the most sense to emphasize?

Did you choose ‘never’? Me too. Put your voice and your facial expression behind the statement, making sure that word hits home, and you’ll have a much better chance of influencing your listeners. If you get the emphasis wrong, you might raise some eyebrows. Compare “We’ve never undercut a competitor” (but we know lots of companies who have) with “We’ve never undercut a competitor” (but we’re not above a couple of other clever corporate war games) with “We’ve never undercut a competitor” (but we do it regularly to our so-called partners). A little expression goes a long way. It’s very important to make it go your way.

In the end, my main message to my client who didn’t feel like smiling was, “I don’t care.” Because an audience doesn’t care. Listeners don’t care about you. They care about what they can get from your talk. They ask themselves if they are hungry, or cold. They ask themselves how useful your talk will be to them, and they wonder if they’ll be able to stay awake.

Need proof? Become your own audience. Video yourself. You may even have a video function on your smartphone, so there’s no excuse not to. Video the presentation you’re practicing for, and then sit down and watch it to get a load of what you’re putting your listeners through. I promise you that you’ll see things you like and that you’ll want to keep; you’ll be able to expand on those things and capitalize on them. But what you’ll fixate on are the things that make you want to turn the video back off and delete it, and that’s the point. The monotonous voice, the fidgeting fingers, the playing with the hair, the repetitive language, the ‘um’s and ‘you know’s—all the things that bug you about your presentation style are the things that bug your listeners.

To be the best presenter you can be, there’s no better route than putting your listeners’ comfort first, rather than your own. Once you’re thinking about them, and taking care of their needs, your comfort will follow. Because the golden rule of presenting is The Golden Rule. Do unto others.


Alison Lester is a writer and communication skills coach based in Singapore. Her books include a guide to more creative and comfortable presentation skills called Present for Success, and a collection of essays called Restroom Reflections: How Communication Changes Everything. She blogs at, and her first novel, Lillian on Life, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books in January 2015.

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