The 10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters

Jill Bolte Taylor holding a brainI am one of those people who loves giving speeches and presentations. From what I have heard, I’m in a minority. Many people dislike giving speeches, but I’ve always had a hard time understanding that. My delight in giving talks is probably tied up with my love of theatre, my desire to be the center of attention (although I am actually an introvert), and my need for approval (and hence applause). People often tell me that I’m a great presenter, or that they loved my talk, or that my talk was the best one at the conference etc etc. so my love for speaking seems to work.

But in all honesty, I’m never quite satisfied with the talks I give. I think most of the time I am improving, but I am always running the presentation through my head afterwards, saying, “oh, I should have …”.

Over my 30 year career of crafting and delivering speeches, classes, and presentations, I’ve attended seminars, read a lot of books, had private coaching, studied some of the “masters”, and experimented with the art and craft of speech making and speech delivering. I’m always looking to improve. I’ve learned a lot about presentations and speeches over the years, and below are my 10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters:

1. Always be working on the next level — This past May I was a speaker at the (wonderful) UXLX conference in Portugal. The conference was organized with two days of ½ day workshops sprinkled with 20 minute TED-like talks, and a final packed day of back to back keynotes. I was on late in the afternoon of that last day, so I got to hear masterful presenters talk about user experience all day. I was very impressed, not only with the content and creative ideas, but with the delivery. I decided that, although I’ve got some favorite talks I’ve been giving, it’s time to “up my game” yet again. Since then I’ve been experimenting, going to a higher level in my craft. Everyone is at a different place in their presentation or speech crafting skills. You don’t have to become the best speaker in the world overnight. But you do need to analyze your strengths and weaknesses now, and decide what “taking it to the next level” means for you right now. What do you need to do, and how will you get there? Make sure you pick a realistic next level that you can reach within a 6 to 12 month timeframe. Then go after it. Always know where you are now, and what the next level is.

2. It’s ok to have your own style – There is no one way to be a great speaker. Being a great speaker doesn’t mean that you have to open with a joke, or that you have to have highest quality photos in your powerpoint deck. There are some things that all great speakers have in common (see the rest of the points below), but you can experiment and come up with a “style” that works for you. Are you funny? Serious? Warm-hearted? Controversial? Pick what you are comfortable with and then make it your own.

3. Craft your speech – Although some people are good at “extemporaneous” speech making, most of us need to carefully craft our speeches. A formula I often use (modified from what I read in Tim Koegel’s book: The Exceptional Presenter) is:

a. Statement/description of the current problem situation
b. Description of the consequences of not doing anything differently
c. Description of the action you could take that would solve the problems
d. Specific “call to action” (exactly what is it you want the audience to do as soon as the talk is over)

What is really neat is that you can take a,b,c above and create a 10-30 second version of them. Then you start your talk with the mini version of the a,b,c. That launches the talk and you spend the bulk of the talk giving proof and examples around a,b,c, then close at the end with d.

For d.  I like to ask myself (or my client who I giving the talk for), “What is my objective? At the end of the talk, when people are leaving the room, what is it I want them to be saying to themselves? Saying to others? What action do I want them to take immediately (make sure it’s a realistic action).” Then I craft my talk around that call to action.

Voila! (French for “there it is!”) . You have crafted a powerful talk.

4. Only use visuals and props when they are necessary to get the point across or will add novelty and interest – if you have visuals, slides, or a powerpoint or keynote deck it should ONLY contain items that have visual interest or are necessary to make a point. If you are discussing the new electric car that your group has prototyped you probably want to have a picture of the car, or a model or the actual car. If you are showing the new website design then you probably will show the new site on the screen. But if you do not have something necessary or interesting to show then you should SHOW NOTHING. The idea of just talking without visuals may make you nervous, but when you think about it, it is quite absurd to be showing your talking points or notes on the screen in front of everyone. And isn’t that what a lot of people put on their Powerpoint or Keynote slides? NEVER EVER have Powerpoint or Keynote bullet talks that have the major points of what you are saying at the time in the talk. That is your outline and your notes and does not belong on the screen in front of everyone. The slides and visuals you are using are not for you at all. You need to learn to work from notes or note cards so that you are not dependent on what is on the screen to know what you are supposed to say next. And remember, not all visuals have to be slides in a Powerpoint or Keynote deck. You can use props to make your point, like the programmer I saw once who held up cooked spaghetti to talk about poorly written code, or Jill Bolte Taylor who uses a real human brain when she gives her talks on her experience having a stroke.

5. Speak in a loud clear voice – Practice speaking loudly and clearly. If you can, hire a voice coach (not a speech coach, not a singing coach, but someone who can teach you how to use your voice more effectively). I worked with Sandra McKnight from Voice Power Studios. She was great at diagnosing my voice strengths and weaknesses and helping me to develop a stronger and more effective speaking voice.

6. Video yourself talking and then fix the weird things you do – We all do it. We jingle the change in our pockets or rock back and forth on our heels. Or we mess with our hair, or cross our arms and look forbidding. Find out what your “thing” is that you do that will be distracting to the audience. You don’t want them to be looking at you and wondering when you are going to do “it” again, rather than concentrating on what you are saying. If you watch a video of you presenting you’ll see (and be able to correct) all the weird things you do.

7. Be passionate – What inspires people most is when you are inspired too. Let your interest and passion for your topic shine through. If you aren’t passionate about what you are saying, then figure out how to adjust the content so that you are.

8. Use stories – There is research that shows that people process information best when it is told in story form. So use lots of stories in your presentation to get your points across. The preference is for real stories that happened to you, as they will be the most believable.

9. Look at people in the audience – The best speakers have eye contact with the audience. Pick one person in the audience and look at them for about 3 seconds while you are talking. Then switch to someone else, then someone else and keep going. You can probably look at or close to everyone during the course of your talk.

10. Practice, practice, practice – Pick one thing at a time to change or improve or try out. Then DO IT. The more you speak and the more practice you get, the better you will become.

There are many more great ideas, but I wanted to keep this to the top 10. If you are interested check out the workshop I teach on the topic.

So what are some of your favorite tips that I left out?


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12 Replies to “The 10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters”

  1. Great post – I would add one thing to ‘eye contact.’ Talk to that one person until your sentence is complete. End of sentence or point, move to a new face. This is especially valuable for inexperienced speakers, because you can feel like you’re talking to one individual insead of speaking to a whole room full of people. But it works for experienced pros too.

  2. Dear Susan:
    I agree with Larry; this is a great post.

    Building on what Larry said about eye contact, I’d like to share the turning point in my speaking and presenting life.

    The turning point occurred when I forced myself go into the audience and to introduce myself to strangers, and ask what they were looking for in my upcoming speech or presentation. It was very hard in the beginning, but the pay is huge: during the presentation, when I established eye contact with attendees I had recently talked to, I received a smile or a nod in recognition.

    So, basically, by introducing myself to a handful of attendees, I had created my own cheering section that built confidence and avoided the “me” versus “them” feeling of being judged.

    It’s amazing the power of a smile from the audience when it occurs during the crucial opening moments of a presentation.

    BTW, your “20 Things You Must Know about People” report, like your book, should be required reading for everyone with a blog or website!


  3. Larry and Roger,

    thanks for the comments. Yes, Larry, the end of sentence is good. and then you won’t have long run on sentences! Roger, I agree with you about contact with the audience before the talk. If you are nervous that will calm you down too and turn the focus from yourself to your audience (where it should be for the best talk).

  4. Susan – thanks for sharing your thoughts on a much-needed skill for anyone seeking to have an impact on the world around them. I have written on, spoken about and coached public speaking skills for a few years now. The word SPEAKER is a fine memory aid for many your thoughts: Stories, Practice, Energy, Authority, Knowledge, Experience and Reason.

  5. Love your post. Your first “secret” about striving to get to the next level is what brought me to this article. i’m an adequate presenter who would like to step up to “memorable” or “good”. Your number 8. secret of using stories is one I’ve heard/read about in several different places, but I’ve never come across helpful advice or instruction on HOW to use them and how find or create appropriate stories. I read one whole book by Nido Qubein extolling the virtues of using stories to make a point and found absolutely no practical tips that I could use to help me incorporate stories into my presentations. I wonder whether I am just too inexperienced to fully understand what I am being told or just need a different instructional approach for me to understand. Any suggestions on resources or sources of instruction?

  6. A corollary to your ” 3. Craft your speech”, and “10. Practice, practice, practice” that has hit home with me is “Prepare, prepare, prepare”. The first hard lesson in my quest to become a better speaker was to realize that there is no silver bullet. As I had become more comfortable in making presentations, the quality of my presentations had actually declined, because I was spending less time preparing my material and less time practicing. Because I was less nervous and more confident, I relied too heavily on “winging it” and I spent less time in gathering information, checking facts etc, and less time rehearsing for delivery, hitting my time limit, remebering transitions from one thought to the next and remembering key points and specific phrasing – all the things that had gotten me to the point of being “adequate.”

  7. Thanks a lot for this post! I am one of the persons very much disliking giving speeches or being the center of attention.
    BUT of course, I still want my business and ideas to be presented. So, I hope that your tips will help me the next time I am in this situation!

  8. To me, all you did was put the cart before the horse. All of these attributes (10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters) mean nothing without the self-confidence to present in the first place.

  9. Cannot emphasize enough how important it is to video tape yourself. I would add that not only does it tell you what strange ticks you have, but it also tells you what you are doing well. There is nothing better to bolster your confidence than having video proof that you are actually a pretty darn good speaker.
    A tip (related to tip 10) I would add is to simply try to present as much as possible. To quote a relevant article at , “never turn down an opportunity to speak in front of a lot of people if you can help it.” Realize that there is an opportunity to speak at your friend’s birthday party? Don’t think- just take it. Every presentation you do and every speech you make will help you, no matter how small.

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