10 Cues for Making Effective Presentations

by Public Relations Staff

October 26, 2004 -- As a psychologist, getting involved with public speaking can raise your visibility, expand your referral network, and provide valuable information to your audience. The opportunities may vary from addressing professional conferences, business groups or other meetings to presenting material from the APA public education campaign (accessed through APA Practice) at local schools or community workshops.

Speaking on topics that reflect your expertise gives you a chance to further the profession. In some communities, your presentation may be the only chance an audience has to experience the value of psychology.

Whether you thrive on the attention that can come with public speaking, or you dread it, here are some tips to help you speak like a pro:

1. Prepare - As soon as you agree to speak, start preparing by asking some basic questions about the presentation.

  • How many people are expected? Your style will vary if you’re speaking to a small room versus an auditorium full of people.

  • Who is the audience? If the audience includes children, for example, your style will be different than if you’re speaking to corporate CEOs.

  • Have the media been invited? You don’t want to get thrown by their presence or by camera lights.

  • How long are you expected to speak? Will there be a question-and-answer session at the end of your talk?

  • Who else is on the program? For example, will there be a panelist who is likely to be hostile to your point of view?

  • What is the room setup? Will you be part of a panel at a head table? Will you stand behind a podium? Will you be up on a stage?

  • What audio-visual capabilities are available? If you’re using slides, can you advance them on your own or will you need someone to assist you? One speaker was chagrined to arrive at a speaking engagement and find that the room was set up for overhead transparencies, rendering her colorful PowerPoint presentation useless.

2. Know Your Audience - In developing your presentation, try to anticipate what information is relevant and important to your audience. For example, if you are speaking about resilience in a military community, consider tailoring your message to include information about resilience among military families. If addressing a group of corporate executives, talking about organizational performance issues such as employee productivity and health care costs can help you connect with your audience.

3. Use Appropriate Visual Aids - Because some people learn visually, it helps to supplement your talk with visuals such as a PowerPoint presentation or transparencies. However, when you use visual aids, remember that less is more. Slides should illustrate your talk, not serve as a script that you read from. For large groups, avoid text-heavy slides that can be difficult to read. Also, remember to use a sufficiently large font size so those in the back of the room can read the wording in your slides.

Even when it’s not possible to use technology, there’s a crucial visual that can strengthen your talk: yourself. Before you even begin to speak, the primary “visual” for your audience is how you present yourself. Your manner of dress can enhance or detract from your message. Dress professionally and avoid wardrobe traps such as dangly jewelry for women and loud novelty ties for men. Such accessories can visually strip a speaker of his or her credibility.

4. Make It Tangible - Whatever you’re talking about, use examples that make the subject real for your audience. One psychologist used bouncy rubber balls to help children understand the concept of resilience. Another good technique is to use anecdotes that help illustrate a point. People love being told a story. In doing so, however, use extreme caution: avoid relating anything that may permit personal identification of clients or that may otherwise violate patient confidentiality.

5. Avoid Setting Traps for Yourself - Most of your audiences will want to like you and your message. After all, they’ve made the effort to come hear what you have to say. You can help by avoiding public speaking traps that lose your audience’s sympathy quickly:

  • Avoid jargon unless you’re speaking to a group of professionals who all understand the same technical language.

  • Both a monotone and a sing-song tone can lull your audience to sleep rather than engage them. It helps to vary the pace of your remarks and the inflection of your voice.

  • Avoid physical traps that can distract the audience from what you’re trying to say. Keep your hands out of your pockets. One speaker who wore a microphone inadvertently entertained his audience by jingling his pocket change.

  • If you’re seated, sit slightly forward and plant your feet on the ground. One bad habit that looks even worse if there’s a camera present is the chair swing: the unconscious rocking or swaying in a wheeled chair. For an audience, it can cause visual seasickness.

  • Speakers who stand should avoid locking their knees, which can cause fainting.
    When using notes, be sure to avoid shuffling papers, especially if you’re wearing a microphone.

6. Interact - Audiences want to be talked to, not talked at. Here are some techniques you can use to engage your audience:

  • If you’re at a podium, come out from behind it so that you’re closer to the crowd.
    If the group is small, make eye contact with as many people as possible, especially those who are nodding and giving you positive visual feedback. For a larger group, mentally divide the room into sections and make sure you look at each section -- front, right side, left side, back.

  • If the crowd contains friends or acquaintances, use their names if appropriate. For example, “If you’re a teacher like my friend Stacey, you’ve probably seen the effects of bullying on students…”.

  • Besides engaging your audience, eye contact allows you to make necessary adjustments to your presentation. If people are looking restless, for example, you can shorten your talk, change the tempo, and/or emphasize points that seem particularly interesting to the audience in order to recapture their attention.

7. Watch the Clock - It’s always a good trick to bring a watch with a large face and place it on the podium next to your notes so that you can keep an eye on the time. If nerves have you racing through your talk and you see that you have too much time left, take a deep breath and slow down. If you find that your talk is taking longer than the time allotted, hit the highlights of your remaining text.

8. Anticipate Questions - Your host may determine whether there will be a question-and-answer period following your speech. If the choice is yours, you’ll want to factor in whether you are comfortable enough with your subject matter to answer questions.

If you choose to accept questions from the audience, be prepared to think on your feet. Prepare yourself by thinking in advance of the questions you hope they don’t ask, and plan possible answers. If you have a friend or colleague who knows the issue you’re speaking about, ask that person to identify some difficult questions so that you can prepare to answer them smoothly.

Keep your answers short and friendly. Don’t be afraid to say that you do not know something, but in doing so, either offer to find the information and follow up with the individual or refer that person to another reputable source.

Use any question-and-answer period as an opportunity to see if there are subjects you should include in future presentations.

9. Practice Your Presentation - You don’t want to sound like an automaton, so don’t memorize your speech. But you do want to practice enough that you know how long your presentation will last and to get a feel for the “flow” of your talk. If you are using visual aids such as PowerPoint, practice your presentation both with and without the aid so that you aren’t rattled if you encounter a technical glitch.

10. Breathe and Sip - Before you start to speak, take a deep breath and try to relax. It will help you focus and it will lower the pitch of your voice.

Be sure to have some water close at hand (but not cold water since it can constrict your throat) in case your throat dries up. Water also can be an effective prop: if you get a difficult question, taking a sip of water gives you a moment to collect your thoughts quickly before responding.

Remember, if you’re well-prepared and comfortable, there’s a good chance your audience will be comfortable with your presentation as well.