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Podcast: How to improve your presentation skills

Jay Surti, Business presentation coach, speaker, consultant and author


To succeed at work, the ability to deliver strong presentations will always be important. Whether you’re a novice, or a seasoned public speaker, it’s always a good idea to brush up on our presenting skills.


That’s why today I’m lucky to be joined by Jay Surti, keynote speaker and author of several books including Ultimate Presentations: Master the Art of Giving Fantastic Presentations and Wowing Employers. Jay will be discussing the dos and don’ts of giving presentations at work, as well as how best to tackle any fears or difficult scenarios.

1. Before we dive into the questions, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself for our listeners?

(1:11) I’m an author and a speaker on the topic of presentation skills. But before that, I was a lawyer who became fascinated with public speaking. And that fascination actually came out of necessity because for many years, I had a debilitating fear of public speaking. And so, I was really determined to find a solution. And now, I help other people create an impact through their speaking.

2. Today, we’re going to be talking about how to perfect your presentation skills. What do you think the common habits are of a strong presenter?

(1:49) Well, essential things are, and some of these will sound obvious, but good preparation, having a natural delivery style, because this is an opportunity to showcase your personality and for people to see what it would be like to work with you, so a very conversational style. And it’s really important to tailor your content for your audience because you want them to engage with you. So those are the ingredients for a really good presenter.

3. I suppose the opposite to that, which might still be really useful: what do you commonly see poor presenters doing?

(2:31) And that is quite a common thing actually. And it’s when people obviously don’t prepare and they wing it. That becomes quite obvious because quite often the presentation is rushed. It could create an experience of talking at the audience. So then it’s obvious that the content hasn’t been tailored with the audience in mind. There’s very little engagement and the pace can be quite fast as well. But the real issue that comes up quite a lot, I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the phrase “Death by PowerPoint”. There’s a temptation to rely a lot on slides and put a lot of text into the slide. And quite often, we’d often say, those are the key things to avoid.

4. And when it comes to presenting, how important is a strong start? I mean, not only for your own confidence obviously, but in terms of engaging your audience from the outset.

(3:29) For your own confidence. That’s one key aspect of making sure you have a strong start because it sets the scene and then you can go on from there. But the other more important thing is that you only have a few seconds to grab the attention of your audience. So you want to make it impactful and probably what’s going through their mind is, what’s in it for me. Why should I sit here and listen to you? And as a speaker or presenter, you need to be able to answer that. So you have a few seconds to be able to frame your presentation and grab their attention. In a way, the whole presentation is important, but quite often I would suggest that the beginning is probably more important because that’s where you set off.

5. You mentioned Death by PowerPoint where there’s too much information. I imagine that communicating verbally is only one aspect of a good presentation, still. Do you recommend that people use visual aids as well, such as a slide deck? And if so, how can they make them as powerful as possible?

(4:47) First of all, I think it’s important to just highlight that it is possible to deliver a fantastic presentation without any visual aids. And you can do that through bringing your enthusiasm and energy in your delivery using stories and things like that, which we’ll probably come on to in a little bit. But if you are going to use visual aids, then remember this, you’re the presentation and any visual aids that you introduce in your talk or speech are there for the benefit of the audience. And so, if it enhances your message then think about incorporating them. And quite often, it does help the audience if there’s something visual for them to be able to process what you’re sharing. So, slides are the most common visual aspect. But don’t forget, depending on the size of the audience, you can use things like flip charts or props, for example, a product or a model. But because slides are the most common visual aids that people think about, you’re right, too much text in the slide can be something that detracts from your presentation because anything that you put up on a slide will direct your audience’s attention towards that. So if they can read what you’re also talking about, you might as well just give them a handout. So, I always suggest thinking about your slides and making them more visual, use images rather than text or graphics or some kind of flow chart that enhances or supports what you’re sharing rather than putting in bullet points and text. So the two of you work together, your slides support you.

6. There might be people listening to the podcast thinking, “It’s all well and good saying that you need to engage and get people’s interest from the beginning, but might consider their topic dull or boring.” So, how can a person make a boring topic interesting when presenting?

(6:52) So a lot of that comes down to your delivery. But your energy and enthusiasm has to carry through because your audience will pick up on that. So, that’s a key part of it. And the other is how you position them, the key points on messages. And so, to make your content more interesting, you can create hooks and put the points next to something like a story, an example, or a case study. So that your content not only is more interesting, but it’s more memorable as well. So you’re creating a much better experience for your audience. And you can borrow those examples and stories from anywhere in the public domain. So, I quite often will read books or articles or blogs and all, see something interesting and I will bookmark that because at some point it will come in useful for me to put into one of my presentations and I have that ready for whenever I do have to put together a presentation. And I’d like to recommend things like titles and there’s one in particular that I always refer people to, because it’s a really good example of how you can introduce very short, simple examples or stories to put next to a very serious or important point. And that title is Ken Robinson, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, and it’s a really good video to watch to give you an idea of how you can quite easily introduce short stories or examples, because it doesn’t have to be a difficult thing to do.

That’s great, thank you. I’ll make sure that I check out that video and urge all our listeners to do the same as well.

7. Over the course of the pandemic there’s been some big big changes to the world of work, and one of those changes is remote and hybrid working and it’s very much the norm now, and virtual presentations have become more and more common as a result. Do you have any tips to our listeners to help them feel more prepared and ultimately give a good presentation when doing so remotely?

(9:05) Yeah, absolutely. The first thing to remember is that we’re still engaging with other people. It might be through the lens of a camera or a device. But it’s a good idea to try and focus on the fact that you are presenting to other people, other human beings, and to remember to bring that into the tone of your voice and making it very conversational and imagining that you’ve got other people on the other side of the camera, and then some techie stuff, so the audience may or may not be able to see you. And with all the platforms that we’re using, quite often you’ll only see a few faces on your screen. But regardless, position your camera at your eye level so whether they can see or not, you are trying to create that eye contact that you would if you have people in the room in front of you, and it might be that you need to put the laptop on a pile of books or a laptop stand. So at least you’ve got that experience, and sometimes it can also help to put a sticker behind your laptop where the camera is to remind you to keep looking up because it’s really tempting to look at the screen when you’re seeing other people. The other challenge that you have is that it’s really easy when you’re presenting to people virtually for the audience to turn the cameras off or to multitask, and you’re not necessarily going to know if they’re engaged with you. And so, in your presentation, if you can have breaks where you interrupt the flow by getting them involved, you can use the chat facility, introduce some polls, pause because sometimes they’re doing something else and there’s a little bit of silence, it might bring them back and, ” Hang on. Have I missed something important?”, or even just pause for questions. So those are things that I would recommend that you do to keep your audience engaged. And remember, they’re a live audience.

Some fantastic advice there. I really like the idea of putting a sticker behind the camera because I’m guilty of that. I always look down at my screen. And also about including the audience as well. With the technology that we have through these platforms, we can do polls, there are chat functions. So some really really good advice there.

8. Now, it’s not uncommon to have a fear or certainly a dislike of public speaking. How would you recommend someone overcome that fear?

(11:35) It isn’t uncommon that some very senior people that I’ve worked with have this, but it’s often embarrassing to be able to admit to that, and it happens to us all. Even if you’re the most confident person, outgoing, it just depends on context. So if it’s a presentation that’s important to you, we can have those nerves. But there are things you can control. And so, two things that worked for me, firstly, adequate preparation. If I felt comfortable with the content and I’d had enough time to practice, I could rely on that and that will give me confidence to know that however lost I might get, I could always come back to where I was in a presentation and carry on. There’s no shortcuts to that but it always helps. And the other key thing for me was remembering that it’s always about the audience experience. So shifting my focus for me to creating a good experience for the audience would really help.

Mindset is a very important thing, and it can be quite easy to go down that rabbit hole of thinking, “I actually don’t feel very confident. I don’t feel that prepared.” And it’s about habit, “Did you get what you focus on?” You can choose to focus on how small it is, but something that’s positive, how much preparation you’ve done or how good you are at a particular bit of content or expertise. So that comes with practice, but it is definitely something that you can do. Another couple of techniques on visualisation which is used quite a lot in sports psychology and imagining your presentation going exactly the way that you wanted to and making it really rich using all of your senses, that can be a very powerful technique, as well as, this seems obvious and really simple, but your breathing. When we feel fearful or there’s that adrenaline rush, your breathing can quicken and then that comes through your voice and then you come across as less confident. So breathing deeply before you begin your presentation is quite good practice. But actually, throughout the presentation, putting in points where you remind yourself to stop, and that could be at the end of a section or a point and pausing, will not only help calm you down but it also gives the audience time to process what you’ve just shared. So all of those techniques or just that finding something a ritual that helps you because it will be different for everybody and it could be something like having a really great piece of music that always takes you to a good place and just listening to that, before you start your presentation, quietly in a room by yourself can help. So there are lots of different ways but it’s just mainly focusing on what you can control and choosing something that works for you.

Again, that’s some great advice. I’d never thought about the effects that listening to music beforehand could help as well. I already know what song I would pick. So I’m going to use that next time I do a presentation.

9. Do you have any advice to help our listeners tackle any tricky questions that they may be asked during the presentation?

(15:12) Yeah. Quite often the question and answer section worries people, as much as, if not more, than delivering the presentation itself because a common fear is, “Am I going to be standing there and not know the answer?” You might have a brain freeze. And that’s completely normal, it happens to us all. So, there are definitely things that you can do to set yourself up for success. And one of those is, when you’re preparing for your presentation, at that point when you’re brainstorming what content you want to include, think about your audience and think about possible curveball questions that are going to come up and then prepare for that. You can rehearse in answering questions in the same way as you can rehearse for your presentation. So that will give you a lot of confidence, having thought through and planned for questions. Of course, there will be situations where you can’t answer the question in that moment, either because you do have a brain freeze or you just genuinely don’t know. And we can’t know everything all the time or plan for every eventuality, but that’s okay. What’s important is dealing with it in a confident way and practicing your version of, “I don’t know.” I don’t know right now or if it’s something I hadn’t thought about. And if it’s an opportunity for you to be able to come back to that audience, then say, “Can I come back to you? Or can we pick this up later?” And again, depending on the circumstance, you could throw it out to the audience and say, “That’s not something I’ve come across. Does anybody else have an opinion on this?” But that depends on how well prepared you are, what your audience is, and how confident you feel. But there are lots of different things that you can do. And the two things are mainly to prepare and rehearse your version of, “I don’t know.”, so that you feel comfortable in being able to say that and it’s okay to do that.

10. It can often be part of an interview process where you have to give a presentation, that can obviously be a unique challenge. Could you share any particular advice that you would give our listeners who are in that situation?

(17:31) Interview presentations are a unique set of circumstances because what you’re being tested on is much more than your presentation skills. So typically, what prospective employers are looking for is your ability to think on your feet, cope under pressure, whether you can be confident in that moment, whether you could tackle questions that are unexpected, and timing. And all of these things you can prepare for. So, there might be a couple of different scenarios where, one, you might be giving your topic in advance, which is great because you can research and plan and prepare in advance. Always rehearse. Do it in front of other people, and then get them to heckle you or to ask you questions, so you have that experience of being interrupted. And the benefit of rehearsal is that you get to practice timing. Because the last thing you want is to be cut off. You’ll have a set amount of time to deliver your presentation and you don’t want to be cut short before your strong conclusion. If you don’t have the topic in advance, this is quite common, you might turn out to us an assessment center and just be given a limited amount of time to prepare, then you need to plan properly. And rather than try and memorise what you want to say, my recommendation is pick three key points and then focus on a really strong opening and a conclusion. If you need notes, that’s okay. Just make sure that you have them written down so it’s really easy for you, in that moment, to be able to refer to them. So they’re there to give you some comfort. And if you want to use them, I don’t think anybody is going to think less of you. And then, leave time so that you can rehearse out loud, even if you find a quiet room, just to be able to speak it out loud so you can time yourself and you can get a feel for the flow of the content. So that is really important. It doesn’t matter how much or how little time you have, setting aside some time to actually say your presentation out loud will make a big difference.

11. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers throughout the pandemic and beyond, what would that be?

(20:16) Without a doubt, develop your personal brand. I wish somebody had given me that advice when I was getting started out. Your personal brand is what other people think about you. It’s your profile, and it’s your visibility. And so, think about how proactive you are online and offline. So if it’s online, how often are you sharing interesting content or opinions, but also how much you’re contributing to other people’s posts. Because by doing that in a thoughtful way, you’re increasing your visibility and your profile. And offline, the obvious thing is finding ways to be visible through speaking and finding opportunities to do that. And that could be just contributing to the next team meeting, volunteering to chair a meeting, taking opportunities to speak at seminars. All of that increases your personal brand and visibility.


About this author

Jay Surti is a business presentation coach, speaker, consultant and author of Ultimate Presentations and The Presentation Book for Senior Managers. She works with executives, teams and MBA candidates to help them transform their presentations to make sure they engage with their audience and get their message across. She has been a Judge at MassChallenge UK and served as an Executive Board member of Women in Banking and Finance and the University of Dundee.

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