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Public speaking advice | How to improve your presentation skills

The very thought of having to make a presentation, even to just a few people, can fill some of us with dread. “Many find public speaking a big challenge - it terrifies some people,” concedes public-speaking expert Simon Bucknall, from Toastmasters International. “However, they can take comfort from the fact that they’re not alone.”

Not everyone can become a polished public speaker, but armed with some knowledge and practice, most can improve, twice UK and Ireland public speaking champion Bucknall reassures. “It’s a skill, not a gift - it can be learned. The difference between me now and when I started 15 years ago is huge,” he admits.

Mind over matter

“Most people don’t get to practice public speaking every day. What can make it worse is the feeling that ‘all eyes are on me and I have to perform’, which you have to deal with. Changing your mindset can enable you to overcome that.”

The importance of preparation before a presentation or sales pitch cannot be overstated, says Bucknall, but it has to be the right preparation. “It doesn’t mean learning a script by heart; it just makes presentations sound unnatural, inauthentic or insincere.

“Good preparation involves three things: being clear about what you want to result from the presentation; knowing what key points you need to make; and having advance conversations with others to practice. Talking it through with an employee, fellow director, spouse or family member is a much better way to prepare. Practicing into a mirror by yourself isn’t. You should think of your presentation as having a conversation. People want a human being - not a robot.”

Three key points

Bucknall says between five and ten minutes is a good length for most speeches or short presentations. “Any more and you risk boring people or their attention waning. Much less and it looks like you haven’t got much to say. Aim to make up to three points really well; these are the key messages you want your audience to take away. Any more and they probably won’t remember.”

In terms of structure, some experts advise that you begin by telling people what you’re going to say; then you say it; then you finish off by summarising what you’ve just said. Bucknall comments: “It’s useful - to a point - but right from the start you need to tell people why what you’re telling them matters. What can they gain?

“And, in your conclusion, tell them what you want from them, whether it’s a deal, new contract, finance, a new partnership, whatever - be very clear. Because if nothing changes after your presentation - what’s the point in making it?”

Mind your language

Nervousness can lead some people to speak too quickly when presenting, which can impede understanding. Bucknall advises two preventative solutions. “Stick to short sentences and - remember to breathe,” he emphasises. “Breathing’s so important. It calms you down. Don’t speak too slowly either - because that will sound weird,” he smiles. “Pause every now again to allow people to take in what you’ve said. Don’t just talk at them relentlessly.”

Using visuals to aid understanding can work well, Bucknall says. “But not too many, because it can distract - and don’t use bullet points, for the same reason. People can still be reading bullet-point two when you’re talking about bullet-point five. You want people to listen to what you’re saying. If using PowerPoint, make sure each slide has a single purpose. Keep it simple.”

Focus on your audience

You should arrive in good time ahead of your presentation, advises Bucknall. “If possible, spend some time in the place where you’ll be speaking. Get used to the environment - get a feel for the space.”

Crucially, Bucknall says, people should find your presentation enjoyable and otherwise rewarding. “It shouldn’t be arduous, confusing or in any way off-putting. Presenting or public speaking is all about your audience, not you, the speaker. And once you focus on your audience and less on yourself, you become less nervous. Furthermore, the audience is more likely to gain from the experience and you’re more likely to achieve your objectives,” he smiles.

Bucknall makes one final important point. “If presentations make you feel nervous, don’t say to yourself, ‘that’s a bad thing, I’m going to mess up’. Feeling nervous, sweaty, dry-mouthed - whatever - is OK. It happens when we get nervous. Give yourself permission to feel how you feel. Preparing well, practicing, focusing on your audience, trying to relax, breathing and remaining human throughout will help. And, trust me, you’ll become less nervous the more you do it,” he smiles.

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