How to ace that presentation – and enhance your career

You’ve been asked to give a presentation at work. But you’re unsure where to start. Follow our tips and you’ll be on your way to volunteering to make presentations and speeches at work.

Why presentations are important

John Lees, career coach and author of The Success Code says: “It tends to be those who give good presentations who advance their careers, because if you get noticed in this way then others can see you could be good at presenting your company to a wider audience.”

It’s a great skill to master: someone who can make a good, confident, interesting presentation can be seen as a good leader.

Gemma Denham, FMAAT and 2018 Licensed Member of the Year finalist, remembers her first presentation. ‘This particular presentation was an in-depth update for all staff in the compliance and tax teams from trainee to partner level. As a semi-senior myself this in itself was daunting!” But she persevered and is now an old-hand at giving presentations.

Top tip: Accept you are going to be nervous and focus on the positive effect on your career. See this article for more ideas.

Know your audience

Who are you speaking to – and what do they need to get from your presentation?

It might be tempting to try to be amusing, charismatic or entertaining. But don’t. “You need to think about what your audience needs to hear, not what you need to say,” says Lees.

“Keep it simple and straight. Give a summary of what you will be talking about. You don’t need to be dramatic or funny. This is not a best man’s speech or an after-dinner talk.”

Don’t spend too much time introducing yourself: your name and what you’re talking about will do. You should also know exactly how long you are expected to speak for and stick to that; keep an eye on a clock so you know when it’s nearly time to wrap up.

Top tip: You’re not on stage; don’t try to entertain.

Start and finish well

It’s a good idea to learn your first two opening sentences and your last two, says Lees. “For your opening sentences you need to explain what you are going to do – so ‘I am here to talk about x’.”

If you feel happier reading the whole speech, that’s fine, as long as you’ve rehearsed it otherwise you could stumble over words and phrasing. Once you’ve rehearsed it, you’ll be committing bits of it to memory anyway.

Do watch out if you are reading as you can lose the connection with your audience if your eyes are fixed on the page. Learning can work – but always keep notes with you for prompts or if there’s some kind of distraction which puts you off.

Visual prompts – whether on a PowerPoint or on cards you keep in front of you – are essential. Have one card for each idea and maybe colour-code them.

Top tip: Learn or read – but always have cue cards to hand.

Body language is key

You use your hands in everyday conversation, so it will look natural to do so when you’re given a speech or presentation.

And if you can’t face making eye contact with a large group, don’t stare at the floor or ceiling but focus on the audiences’ foreheads.

Do practice how you speak. You mustn’t be too slow or you’ll bore your audience, says Lees. “But speak too fast and you’ll also lose them because they won’t hear the end of words and thus won’t follow what you are saying.”

If you are worried you will be so nervous that you shake or have a dry mouth, then be aware of such possibilities and plan. “When you give a speech, physiologically your body is acting as if it’s at risk,” says Lees.

“That’s why you might have physical symptoms. If you shake, you could hold onto the lectern so it isn’t obvious. If you have a dry mouth, then sugar is better than water so have a boiled sweet or black coffee with sugar in it.”

Top tip: Rehearse your physical and vocal movements in advance.

How to avoid nightmares

Horrendous speeches and problematic presentations are topics ripe for comedies. To avoid cringe-making mistakes, you MUST stick to your script or cue cards.

“Do not introduce new ideas or miss out parts while you speak,” advises Lees. “You could easily end up in an Alan Partridge-style nightmare and say something inappropriate. And you’ll lose your thread.” Stick to your prepared schedule otherwise you won’t link naturally between parts of your speech.

Top tip: NEVER go off piste.

Do it again?

Once you’ve done your first presentation or speech, you must carry on doing them.

Think of the benefits – “It is said that if you keep your nose to the grindstone and do what is wanted then you should progress, but if you nail that presentation then you can give your career a real uptick,” says Lees.

By the time you’ve done a few, you might even enjoy it.

Gemma Denham FMAAT adds: “I still dread every presentation but it’s never as bad as I think it is going to be. It has made me more confident in dealing with clients and presenting myself now I run my own small practice.”

Top tip: Asking for feedback from colleagues is a good idea. Denham says after her first presentation she was boosted by the positive feedback from her colleagues.

Summary

Although it can seem daunting to begin with, making presentations is a great skill to have and could really help to raise your profile. Preparation is key, so ensure you know your audience and what they will be looking to get from your presentation. And once you’ve done one, do another. Practice really does make perfect!

Further reading:

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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