Online Public Speaking

Training & Practice

How to Present to an Audience - Part 1 of 3

You’ve come a long way already. You’ve learned to shift your underlying motivations to doing this for you.  You found a subject about which you’re passionate.  And, hopefully, you wrote a presentation you’re feeling good about.

Now it’s time to talk about how to deliver a great presentation.

1) Give yourself credit

Before we begin, and anytime you’re about to give a speech, give yourself credit for your efforts so far and for the fact that you’re making the effort to do something most people shy away from. That alone is awesome. Since you already created the right motivations, found a passionate subject, drafted a well written set of words, and everything else we covered so far, you deserve to feel good about where you are. Those steps are so important you’re almost ready for your next presentation now.

Giving yourself credit for all of this is a great way to put you in a positive, confident mindset.

2) Master your body language and energy

Body language is basically how we carry ourselves physically. It’s important in every speech, not to mention in everyday life.

How you look and feel when you simply walk to the front of the room will start sending a message to you and your audience before you say a word.

If your shoulders are slumped and your head is down, you’re not only telling your audience “I’m not feeling good about how this presentation will turn out”, you’re also telling YOURSELF the same thing.

Remember this saying: “When in doubt, stick your chest out.”

Stand tall, shoulders back, chest out, head held high—but don’t overdo it.  We don’t want you walking like you have a proverbial stick you-know-where, or acting like you’re in the military, unless, of course, you are in the military and/or want to use that style. You just want to feel good about the way you carry yourself and look confident to your audience.

Here’s a quick story to help illustrate this point. Andre Agassi, the world famous pro tennis player, found his ranking starting to drop after years of success. He went to see the world renowned motivational coach Anthony Robbins. After studying Agassi’s situation, Robbins reportedly pulled out videos of Agassi playing two matches, one he lost, and another that he won. He then showed Agassi parts of each match.

In one sequence in the losing match, Agassi walked slowly to the side of the court with his head down. Robbins asked him how he felt at that moment, to which Agassi replied that he was dejected because he was losing. Then Robbins showed him a clip from the winning match. In that sequence Agassi was strutting  around the court, chest out, shoulders back. Robbins asked him how he felt at that moment, to which Agassi replied that he felt great because he was winning.

Robbins then gave him a simple principle that was one of the main reasons Agassi soon fought his way back to the highest ranks of the game:

He told him to always walk and act like he was winning, regardless of whether he was or not at the moment, because doing so would make him feel like he was winning, which would make it more likely that he would win.

It’s a great concept.  Humans often succeed or fail based on whether we feel like we’re going to succeed or fail, and our physical state – our physiology - greatly affects the way we feel. A strong positive state or physiology means we’re likelier to feel great, which therefore means we are more likely to succeed. Conversely, a negative physiology greatly increases the chances we won’t feel great, and therefore it increases the chances we’ll fail.

If you ever watched Agassi play in the second half of his career (post Robbins, perhaps), you may remember him jogging to take to take a rest between games and jogging to come out and play again, his head held high, regardless of whether he was winning or getting his butt kicked.  He was using positive body language, which had a lot to do with why he enjoyed a much longer career than most players, and why he won more often than he lost until he retired.

From now on, practice using a positive physiology in every situation you can, even just walking around your house. Stand up tall, hold your head up high, keep your shoulders back. It will help you in your next presentation, and will probably have a positive impact on your life.

Another technique that helps, especially if you want to feel good, have a positive impact on your audience and enjoy your next presentation is to smile.  Smiling can send great positive energy to others and make you feel better.

Once your presentation gets under way, standing at a podium flexing your shoulders back, sticking your chest out, and grinning may NOT be the right thing to do. Those steps are to get you in the right mode ahead of time, or for an occasional boost during your presentation if done subtly.

You should, however, continue to be aware of your body language and keep it positive. You don’t want to walk up to the podium looking dynamic and then collapse onto the podium, putting all of your weight on your hands, and drooping your head and shoulders! Keep the positive body language going.

Transmit positive energy

It’s also important at this point to discuss your energy. Our physical and mental states can sometimes be read by the audience like a book. Having positive energy is preferable for most situations.

The single most important lesson about energy we can teach you is that it’s very hard to fake it.

What you feel is the aura you give off.

Unless you’re a highly trained actor, in which case you probably wouldn’t be working on your public speaking skills anyway, your energy will impact the audience and set the tone for the presentation.

How does one find positive energy? That’s a tall question. It’s best built up over time. When people are happy in their lives, they tend to come off as positive. When they’re not happy, it’s harder to come off that way. But we can’t only help people learn to present in public who are happy now, so we’ll suggest that if you are short on positive energy for any reason, try focusing on the positives in your life and in your presentation. Find things that you are truly happy about, just like you found things you are passionate about to find the right motivators and for the subject of your presentation. Focusing on these valuable things can put you in the right frame of mind.

We should also point out that most speakers have extra amounts of energy while they are presenting.  Some excess positive energy can be a good thing, too much can make you seem like a maniac.

For a great example of the right amount of excess positive energy infused into a speech that worked, look up “Cuba Gooding Oscar speech” and watch the video.

For a great example of the wrong amount of excess positive energy that didn’t work for most audiences, look up “Tom Cruise couch jumping incident” and watch the video (note the irony that Gooding got his award while co-starring with Tom Cruise.)

Reams of energy can be powerful or destructive depending on how and in what situation the energy is used. Some settings allow for certain behaviors, and others don’t. Giving an alcohol imbued, curse laden, over the top impassioned “I love you, man!” speech at a guys-only bachelor party might work, but the  same speech at the wedding would most likely backfire.

Excess energy of any kind can also make the speaker feel anxious, which we’ll discuss later in our public speaking anxiety section.

And, lastly, negative energy is rarely a valuable asset while giving a presentation, although it can have a place and time.

As you get to the front of the room and start speaking, unless you’ve got ice in your veins, which few people actually do (some might seem like they do but trust us, their hearts are usually pumping faster also), you’re going to feel some level of a surge of energy.

We suggest channeling the energy into your physiology in a good way. If your body is producing extra energy (which is what it is doing), then use it in whatever appropriate way you can.

Flex your muscles.  Subtly rock on your heels.  Squeeze the podium if you have one. Move your hands and arms in an appropriate manner.  If it’s possible and again appropriate to move around the room, do so.  Channel some of the energy into your voice. Make yourself seem larger. Depending on the situation, you might even want to throw a few fist pumps – but consider Tom Cruise before you do. This energy is a bonus. Use it wisely.

One funny story about appropriate hand movement and we’ll move on to the next step. We recently attended a demonstration of a public speaking class at the high school level. A young student admirably got up and shared what she was learning. She explained that the students were taught to move their hands when speaking, especially to quell “nerves”, and because the audience would enjoy the presentation more. While she shared this, she was, of course, moving her  hands. A lot. The more she spoke, the more she moved her hands. It got to the point where people were watching her hands almost hypnotically and barely hearing what she said. A more subtle use of the speaker’s nervous energy would have served her purpose more effectively.

If you learn to use your energy and master your physiology, you will become a better public speaker than you ever thought possible.

3) “How you say it"

You’ve come a long way by now. Through motivators and passion and presentation writing and even walking up to the podium with positive energy, you’re now figuratively at the podium. (You can’t actually be at a podium while you’re reading this, unless you brought notes. If you did, we’re honored.)

It’s time now for the “how you say it” as opposed to the “what you say”.

For starters, the best way to come across in 99.99% of all speaking situations is to come across sincerely, from the Latin sine cera, without wax.  In ancient times unscrupulous craftsmen would hide imperfections in their work with bits of wax. If something was truly without imperfection, or at least presented for what it was without wax hiding flaws, it was sine cera, or sincere.

There are a million reasons people want to believe what they hear, which includes believing what you have to say. People seek the truth about many things. People admire those who tell the truth. People don’t like their time wasted with lies. And so on.

When you are speaking, telling the truth has a huge impact on the outcome. If you sound like you don’t believe what you are saying it will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to the audience. If you don’t believe what you are saying the whole presentation will feel lousy to you.

Before you start to worry about this, rest assured that if you choose words of truth that mean a lot to you when you’re writing your presentation, it is easy to  speak with truth.

By the way, one of the most fascinating things about human communication is that the impression people get when listening to someone speak is often more important than the words or the truth of the words being spoken. As most of us unfortunately know, a speaker can be completely lying and get away with it. Lance Armstrong is a sad example of this. We sometimes believe people when they are flat out lying simply because they seem sincere.

If you want to come across as sincere, speak the truth.

On top of being sincere, we recommend being positive. People gravitate towards positive energy also for many deep reasons, but for simplicity let’s just keep in mind that positive things feel better to people than negative things.

This can be tricky at times, depending on the situation. If the goal of your presentation is to get people to change a behavior that’s bothering you for some reason, getting employees to improve substandard performance, for example, it’s hard not to sound negative. Trouble is, as soon as people are being doused with negativity or criticism they tend to “tune it out”. 

Speaking of negativity turning people off, that’s the other aspect of the “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” mantra.

You can deliver almost any message effectively if it sounds positive. You usually can’t go as far as you can with dogs - who would respond to a really nice sounding “Oh yes! You’re such a stupid, annoying dog, aren’t you!” with a wag of the tail, but you can get close.

Try to keep it positive.

Here’s one more great reason why you should keep it positive: Being given the chance to present to an audience is often an honor and a privilege. When a group of people are giving you their time and attention, you should give them something that works for them, and positive energy usually does.

Your words, your body language, your state of mind, and your awareness of the audience’s needs will help you accomplish this.