Seven Strategies for Polished Presentations

by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

You have earned a reputation as an authority in your field. Others want to hear what you have to say. Like it or not, you’re about to become a public speaker.

Yet, whether you are leading a seminar before a small group of your peers or delivering a keynote address to thousands of strangers, unless you have years of speaking experience, you are likely to feel awkward or uncomfortable when the microphone is in your hand.

It’s a common reaction--most people simply do not enjoy speaking in front of an audience. But your anxieties can be lessened if you remember these seven simple strategies.

1. Do not try to hide behind technology.
A common--and disastrous--mistake is to say “I’ll put my presentation on PowerPoint. Then, nobody will focus on me.” Wrong. A bad speaker with PowerPoint is still a bad speaker. PowerPoint, used with restraint, can be an enhancement to your presentation. It is never, however, a substitute for preparation.

It doesn’t matter how many PowerPoint slides you have or how many bullet points you’ve squeezed on them, no one will ever leave a program saying “Wow! Those were great bullet points!” Instead, if they leave saying, “Wow! The presenter sure knew his stuff, and he illustrated his points well,” then you have done your job and exceeded most people’s expectations.

2. The audience is rarely the enemy.
When asked why people fear public speaking, a common response is “Because the audience is just waiting for me to screw up.” Wrong. Though it is true that the audience may not always agree with your message, they almost never want you, personally, to fail. That is, no one comes to a presentation saying “I hope the speaker screws up.” Why not? Because a bad presentation is painful. Instead, since most people hope for a good performance, most people are inherently on your side from the start. Therefore, even in an audience of strangers, most will be allies, not adversaries. Take comfort in their support.

3. Begin by choosing one of four objectives.
Everyone knows that before you start any project should determine your objective. Yet many speakers skip this essential step preferring instead to “Just wing it.” Bad idea. When you “wing it” it shows, and no one is ever happy with the result. Good speakers, however, always begin by asking “Is my objective to inform, to persuade, to inspire, or to entertain.” You can choose one, two, three, or all four, but you must choose at least one. Remember, if your objective isn’t clear to you, the audience will never figure it out. Don’t expect the audience to do your work for you.

4. Speak with your audience; not to it.
Speaking styles change over time. William Jennings Bryan, considered a great orator a century ago, would have a hard time finding an audience today. That’s because his style of grand oratory is long gone. Today’s audiences generally want short, practical presentations--more tightly focused and with an emphasis on “what’s in it for me?” These days, lectures, especially long ones, are not well received. Today’s best speakers know that a good speech is good conversation. And the best speakers speak conversationally while keeping it brief.

5. Nothing can top a good story.
The essence of public speaking is simply this: make a point, tell a story. Make another point, tell another story. People don’t remember points. But they do remember stories.

So where do you get good stories to make your points? Some speakers turn to such sources as the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Bad idea. The stories in those books aren’t your stories. They happened to--and they belong to--other people. Instead, just pay attention to the little stories of the little things that happen to you on a daily basis. As soon as you start using your personal, real-life stories and anecdotes, you will never have to turn to someone else’s material again. And as soon as you start anchoring your points with your personal stories, audiences will start remembering you.

6. Write it out.
Yes, write your speech word for word, but don’t ever stand there and read it. You probably have been bored to tears by a speaker who stood motionless behind a lectern while he read his speech. Reading a speech shows a lack of preparation or a lack of commitment to the message.

So if you are not going to read it, why would you take the effort to write it word for word? It’s because writing a speech encourages economy and precision. Have you ever heard a speaker take ten minutes to make a point that could have been made in one or two? That’s what happens when the speech is not well written or well edited. Good speakers pack the most information in the least time because they are good editors. Therefore, write your thoughts, then edit aggressively. But you can’t edit what you haven’t written. Finally, rehearse your tightly edited stories to the point you can deliver them by referring to no more than a few note cards.

7. There is no substitute for practice.
Few people speak well extemporaneously. The greatest speakers you have ever heard are the ones who have expended the greatest effort. Speaking is skill that takes practice. So practice your presentation aloud, at full volume, until it flows smoothly and you are comfortable with its rhythm. It will sound entirely different when practiced aloud than when merely rehearsed in your head. The audience will hear the “aloud” version so you’d better be sure you are comfortable with what they are going to hear.

Reprint rights may be granted provided you 1) submit a written request, 2) include author’s credit as written below, and 3) provide a copy of the publication in which the article appears.

Author’s credit:
David Brooks, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at

This article originally appeared in Performance Magazine, 2006.