What you need to know before your first presentation

Giving your first presentation or speech is daunting.¬† I’ve worked with many new presenters and here’s the advice that has made the most difference to them.

1. Content is king

Your audience is there for what you are going to say. Not how you say it.

This is good news for you as a new speaker. That’s because though you may not be comfortable in front of an audience, you can prepare good content.

Preparing good content requires time and effort – but there’s no mystery or magic to it. You can do it – even if you’ve never presented before. For a simple planning process check out my Presentation Planning Guide.

2. Good content leads to better delivery

Here’s a benefit for you of spending time preparing good content for your presentation. If you’re happy with your content you will deliver better.

Its an awful feeling to be standing in front of an audience with a little voice in your head going “I’m waffling. I don’t know how to express this.” That little voice will influence the way you come across – you may become quieter, more tentative and um and ah more.

If you feel good about the content of your presentation, you will feel less nervous than if you feel bad about it. And therefore you will come across better.

3. Expect and accept that you will be nervous

Preparing good content won’t get rid of your nerves entirely. It’s normal to feel nervous about presenting (see this post Why do you have a fear of public speaking). Rather than panic about your nerves – which will make them worse – simply tell yourself¬† “I’m nervous, that’s normal and I can handle it.”

For more on reducing your fear of public speaking see the Nervousness category of this blog.

4. Your nervousness doesn’t show as much as you feel it

I know this is difficult to believe. You’re so aware of your nerves, it’s difficult to comprehend that others won’t notice.

But here’s the distinction to get. Your perception of your nerves comes from feeling them. Your audience’s perception of your nerves comes from seeing them. You can feel your heart beating like its going to explode out of your chest – your audience can’t see it. You can feel the sweat trickling down your sides – your audience can’t see it.

Yes, there are some symptoms of nerves that you audience may be able to see or hear – but they will not be as obvious to the audience as they are to you.

5. An audience will forgive most things

An audience is not a monster. An audience is composed of individual human beings. And most of those human beings won’t mind you being nervous, they’re not expecting dynamic delivery (they’d be disappointed most of the time) and they’ll forgive the odd um and ah.

There’s one thing though that most people are slower to forgive – and that’s a lack of preparation leading to disorganized and rambling content. They’ve given up their time to listen to you – respect that by putting time into your preparation. For more on this see 4 reasons to spend time planning your presentation.

6. Rehearsal makes you better

Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. You may not enjoy rehearsing because it will bring up feelings of nervousness about the real presentation. But with each rehearsal you will incrementally improve. On our courses, our participants report that each rehearsal improves the content of their presentation and the way that they come across.

For more on rehearsal see How to go from good presenter to great presenter.

7. Talk to one person at a time

This is the one delivery tip I’m going to give you. There’s only so much you can focus on in your first presentation and this tip will make the most difference to the way you come across.

Before you start speaking, find one person to speak to. Talk to that person for a few seconds (this could be a phrase or short sentence) and look for their reaction to what you’re saying. Then find someone else to talk to, talk to them for a few seconds, look for their reaction – and repeat.

You already know how to do this. You do it in the everyday conversations you have with people. All you’re doing is transferring a skill you already have to a slightly different context. I call it Conversational presenting.

Go well with your first presentation – and let me know what you find most useful in this list.

Or, if you’re a more experienced presenter, what have you found to be the most useful piece of advice for new presenters?

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  1. Olivia,

    I’ve always thouth that content is king and delivery is its helpful or unhelpful servant. If people leave a presentation commenting on my delivery — “whew, I really liked the way he gestured” — the speech was a failure. I want people to remember my ideas and act on them.

    Delivery is important, but it can be — and often is — overemphasized. There’s a reason for that: it’s easier to focus on externals — how you look and sound — than to create a compeling message.

    And I agree that an audience will forgive most things, except lack of preparation (or anything that produces a really boring speech). It helps me to remember that audiences want speakers to succeed. Who wants to sit through a bad presentation?

    Best, Chris

    • Hi Chris
      I agree totally with what you say. Particularly the point that people giving feedback often focus on externals because it’s easier. Olivia

  2. Olivia –

    This is a wonderful post of 7 (“The Magical Number Seven…”) points for new presenters. It made me realise that when I’m teaching / coaching new presenters, I haven’t given enough attention to your #1 and #2 points about content. They’re spot on. I really stress points #5 (audiences are basically sympathetic – don’t mess it up, or, as Chris’ post said, they want you to succeed) and #7 (speak to one person at a time – and remember to go back to your “supporters” when you need a boost.)

    Now, what’s the most useful piece of advice for new presenters? Two things people have told me they found most useful are:

    1 – Even if you’re doing something seemingly dry, like a technical presentation or a status update, remember that you’re telling a story. And, as in the movies, you should storyboard it. I use the “5 bubbles” or “5 frames” approach – most presenters and presentation coaches have a similar framework.
    1 – Get their attention with a “hook” that establishes why they even want to listen. It might be something counter-intuitive that jolts them, or something they strongly agree with that you have interesting backup for – there’s no formula other than knowing what matters to them, and how your presentation relates.
    2, 3, 4 – describe the three key points you need (not want) to make to back up your contention / conclusion.
    5 – wrap it up in the conclusion that you set out to bring them to, with a call to action if that’s appropriate.
    I summarize it as “hook, line, and sinker.”
    The central point is that you should be able to reduce your entire presentation down to a few sentences – a very short but compelling story – that you relate at the beginning of the presentation in a more interesting and cohesive way than the usual outline or agenda. I always think in terms of “what if I only had one minute to make my point?”

    2 – Like the ancient Greeks did, establish the “rhetorical context” – audience, occasion, and purpose.
    Audience – who are the participants, what are their biases, interests, demographics, and other components of their world view?
    Occasion – not just the presentation itself (e.g., informal “lunch and learn” vs. conference session) but what’s going on in their world? (e.g., the company posted a record-setting quarterly loss yesterday and you’re seeking approval for an expensive initiative.)
    Purpose, theirs and yours – what do they want out of the presentation (other than just getting out!) and what do you want out of the presentation?
    The central point? Consider these, WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU CONCLUDE, and then ask “how will this affect my content and delivery?”

    There’s lots more I could say, but, as usual, I’ve turned a comment into a mini blog post. ;-) Thanks again for a great post.


    • Hi Alec
      Thank you for adding so many useful pieces of advice for presenters of all levels of experience. As you say most presentation trainers have a similar framework that they teach. You can find mine here http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/create-effective-presentation/ . Two points I would make are:

      – For beginner presenters don’t worry too much about the “hook” at the beginning of the presentation. see http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/content/presentation-openings-levels/ .
      – Put your central point (what I call the key message) at the beginning of your presentation, as well as at the end.


      • Hi Olivia –

        As usual, you’re right on about the problems with emphasising the “hook” at the beginning of a presentation, especially for people who are new to presenting. It can work about as well as opening with a joke, which is to say, not at all.

        In my post I was probably projecting a bit too much of my situation into the advice for new presenters – I do a lot of conference keynotes and such, and organisers expect me to do a dynamic and somewhat controversial presentation. For a new presenter, suggesting that they try to come up with a clever hook was bad advice, or at least bad wording, on my part.

        The important point is that you need some sort of an opening statement, which doesn’t have to be dramatic – it just has to be better than “Here’s the agenda for my presentation today…” which we’ve all seen far too often. The post you referenced (“Three Levels of Presentation Openings”) gives excellent advice on doing this.

        Clients hounded me start teaching my “Facilitation and Presentations” class again, and next week is the first delivery in several years. (Yes, I’m a wee bit nervous.) I will definitely point everyone at your site as a primary source of excellent information.


        • Go well with teaching the class, Alec. Olivia