17 “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for Giving a Great Presentation

giving a great presentation

Public speaking is the #1 fear for a huge percentage of people.  It’s above the fear of dying for many people.  How can you think about giving a great presentation when you’re worried about even giving a basic presentation?

I’ve been doing public speaking events for over a decade, but it definitely wasn’t an easy journey.  It’s hard to get comfortable talking in front of groups of 10 people, let alone a hundred or a thousand.  Still, this is a skill that you can learn and even master with some study and practice.

Let’s look at some major “do’s” and “don’ts” for creating a great presentation.

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11 “Do’s” for Giving a Great Presentation

1. Believe that giving a great presentation is a learnable skill.

Giving a good presentation is a learnable skill.  Even true introverts can give excellent presentations.  In fact, introverted people actually tend to plan better presentations though they may be more afraid to give them.  Extroverts are more likely to “wing it” but are more naturally comfortable being on a stage.

Both approaches have value, but both have their pitfalls.  Learning to give a great speech isn’t like putting a hammer to a nail.  It’s an organic process, and it takes time to get good at it.  But, through practice and repetition, you can be an amazing presenter!

2. Prepare for the presentation!

It takes a tremendous amount of work to make something appear effortless.  My general rule of thumb is to allocate 45-60 minutes of preparation time for every 5 minutes of speaking time.  So, for an hour-long presentation, I may prepare 10-12 hours ahead of time.

One important question is whether script the entire speech.  It depends on what you’re speaking about, but it’s generally advisable to not script 100% of your remarks.  It’s good to rehearse but not “sound rehearsed.”  Outline the presentation, make notes of any stories you want to tell and major points to drive home.  But, it’s not critical that you script every single word.

You can also prepare by having great-looking slides that will impress your audience.  That will give you more confidence going into the presentation.

3. When you’re with your peers, it’s ok to “speak your geek.”

Know your audience!  If you’re speaking to a group of colleagues, you don’t need to “dumb things down.”  It’s good to speak in layman’s terms with patients and audiences who are unfamiliar with your work.  However, with peers, feel free to use technical jargon that’s widely understood.

4. Use stories to transform your communication.

Listeners will only remember data 5% of the time, but they’ll remember stories 60% of the time.  That’s because stories are how we naturally communuicate!  Our brains are wired to think that way.

Listen to the podcast episode with Nancy Duarte to learn the formula for creating the most memorable story.  

Every presentation is more memorable with stories.  In fact, stories may be the only parts of your presentation that anyone remembers.  One thing you can do is build a “story library” for yourself.  Basically, that’s a collection of 10-20 stories that are memorable/impactful to you that you can pull out and use in a variety of different presentations when the need arises.

5. Develop a good “pre-talk ritual.”

Immediately prior to your presentation, what are you doing to get yourself ready to go up on stage?  Some people like to “pump themselves up,” and others prefer to “calm themselves down.”  I’m more of a calm-yourself-down kind of presenter.

If I’m presenting at a conference, for example, I like to sit in on the presentation right before mine and just listen.  I shut my brain off and don’t think about my presentation at all.  It’s helpful for me to be calm and just relax.  Otherwise, I find that I “get in my head” too much and I start getting anxious.

I know other people that prefer to listen to some Rocky music and box an imaginary punching bag.  Whatever your needs, pick a pre-talk ritual that helps you get in the right frame of mind so you can go out on that stage and crush it!

6. Follow the structure of a great presentation as outlined in Nancy Duarte’s podcast episode.

Jump to 19:52 to hear Nancy eloquently express the formula of a great presentation.  This is backed by thousands of analyses from the greatest speeches in history.

7. Use repetition, familiar phrases, imagery, and metaphors to help transport the audience.

If you’ve ever listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you’ll hear him use a lot of references that would have been familiar to his audience.  These references include Scriptures, hymns, and cultural references.

He also used repetition to great effect.  The phrase “I have a dream” appears 8 times in his speech.  That repetition made the speech more memorable and helped transport the audience to a new plane of comprehension.

8. Have the right level of emotional appeal to fit your audience.

Passion and emotion are good, but it needs to fit the “mood” of the audience to some degree.  You’re probably not going to do well giving a eulogy if you’re yelling and pumping people up like it’s halftime at the Super Bowl.

Emotional appeals are good and can help audience members feel the weight of your words in a more high-impact way.  Just make sure to “read the room” as you consider how to bring emotion into the presentation.  Sitting in the presentation before yours can be a great way to gauge how the people in the room are feeling.

9. Use your presentation to translate to real growth in your business.

If you’re doing public speaking, what’s the point?  That is, what value does the speaking engagement bring to your business?  If you’re just in it to make money or get some experience, that’s fine as far as that goes.  But, a speaking engagement could be more valuable in propelling your business growth forward.

Are you going to a conference?  You can network with other presenters and look for opportunities to collaborate.  You could meet the attendees and perhaps earn some new clients.

Speeches can also help establish you as a thought leader.  If your speech is being recorded, a great presentation can even be an opportunity for free promotion.

Whatever your plan, be intentional!  If you get invited to speak at an event, take that opportunity and use it for real business growth!

10. Use a speaking coach.

I haven’t used a speaking coach before, but I’ve definitely been considering it since my interview with Nancy Duarte.  Even the most seasoned veterans can benefit from coaching.

A good speaking coach can show you how to change your inflection, insert pauses and places to emphasize your points, and help you craft the structure of your speech.  You might not be able to afford one when you’re first starting out, but it’s worth considering if you’re going to be doing public speaking on a regular basis.

11. Use data to support your presentation.

Data are important to support the validity and authority of your talk, but you’ve got to weave it effectively into the story structure.  Don’t just spout random bits of data with no context.  Offer the data as supporting evidence within your story narrative.

6 “Don’ts” for Giving a Great Presentation

1. Don’t be the hero in your story.

Always be the guide in your story!  The audience is the hero.  You don’t want to be Luke Skywalker!  You want to be Yoda!!  The hero is the lead character in the story.  If you make yourself the hero, the audience who already thinks of themselves as the hero sees you as competition in the story.

If you play the guide instead, the audience looks to you to help them solve their problems.  Always be the guide, not the hero!!

2. Don’t be afraid to speak “off the cuff” occasionally.

I don’t generally advise “winging it,” but sometimes a little extemporaneous speaking is called for.  This is where the “story library” idea can come in handy.  You may be able to tell the same story in a variety of settings and emphasize different aspects of the story each time.  This strategy can give the feel of spontaneity but with the confidence of you generally knowing what you’re going to say.

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3. Don’t create slides in a “linear fashion.”

When you’re creating a slide deck, don’t just do it in a linear fashion (e.g. slide 1, slide 2, etc).  Start with the “guiding light” or main central point, and then every slide serves to drive home that central point.  You should be constantly driving your audience towards that central point.  All slides support that central point because it may be the only point your audience remembers.

4. Don’t read directly off the powerpoint slides.

I have gotten up and left in the middle of lectures when the lecturer was reading directly off the slides.  It’s so boring!  I can read faster than they talk.  They aren’t saying anything new by the time I’m finished reading, so I’m ready to move on to the next thing.

Powerpoint slides are fine, and you can even use it as a sort of teleprompter, but just don’t read directly off it!  Did you know you can hit the “B” button to turn your screen black or “W” to turn the screen white?  Then, you could use the powerpoint as a teleprompter and the audience doesn’t see it.

Put one central point on each slide and use it as a way to jog your memory for what you want to say.  You can have a couple of hundred slides with only one point or image per slide and it’s better than having 20 that are jam-packed with too much info.

5. Don’t use the podium as a crutch.

Move around the stage!  It projects confidence and keeps the audience engaged.  The best way to feel comfortable moving around the stage is spending a lot of time preparing the presentation beforehand.  Then, you’ll feel more confident breaking away from the podium.

6. Don’t be so afraid of public speaking that you never give it a try!

Public speaking is a genuine fear for a lot of people, but it’s so much fun!  You can do it!  Just give it a shot!

Final Thoughts

Public speaking isn’t an innate talent, and it’s not limited to extreme extroverts and “naturally charismatic” people.  Anyone can learn to be a public speaker.  If you’re worried about how it’ll go, start small.  Join the Toastmasters or similar club in your area.  Get with a speaking coach.  Read, study, and learn the tips and techniques of the best speakers.

Then, start looking for opportunities to speak to others.  Start with yourself, your friends, and your family.  Move up to local clubs and organizations, then gradually step it up from there.  There’s so much value in being good at public speaking, and I think it’s worth it to step out in faith and try!

Further Reading


Please leave a comment below!  What’s your top tip for someone interested in public speaking?


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