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How To Give a Great Presentation: Just Do It!

Anyone can do a great presentation. Here's how.

For the past 10 years, I've done presentations on how to do presentations.  Nothing like setting yourself a high bar!

I learned to present the hard way.  As an undergrad at Cornell, I majored in Design and Environmental Analysis.  And what do interior designers do?  Present to corporate clients. 

So that's what we did. 

Every week for four years we'd tack our drawing up on the board and try to give a good, coherent spiel on what we were doing, why we were doing it, and why they should love it.  Shaking in our boots and waiting for the professors to critique our work.

Know what?  It worked.  By the time we graduated, ALL of us could present our ideas clearly, coherently, and confidently. Good speakers aren't born.  They're built.  And they're built from simple steps that anyone can learn.

Practice, practice, practice

I do the same thing to my psychology students.  This semester, every student in my upper level lab gave three 30 minute presentations: one teaching about a technique for studying adolescent development, one running a discussion of an article we'd all read, and one presenting their semester-long research project.

At the end of the semester, I asked them to think about what made a good presentation.

First, and most importantly, they said:

  • It gets easier every time.  My shyest students were the happiest with the assigment.  All of them said they felt much more confident about their abilities.

In terms of what they thought made a good presentation, their advice for future students (and you) included:

  • Embrace the role. All of them felt self-conscious and embarrassed about stepping into the role of 'expert'.

It was hard for some of them to implicitly say 'I know more than you' by standing up and lecturing. But you know what?  YOU HAVE TO.  By playing the part and taking charge, you make your audience comfortable and help them to know how they're supposed to behave.  Their job is to follow your lead, not to make you feel comfortable.

  • Remember: it's not about you. A major theme of my post, How To Give a Presentation: It's Not About You, is remembering that, well, it's not about you. A good presenter focuses the energy and attention of the group on what their common task is. Remembering that makes you less self-conscious and also helps you to hone your presentation for the single most important task of the presenter.
  • Meet the group's needs. A presenter's major task is to meet the audience's needs. Do they need to know what salivary alpha amylase is and how to measure it? Do they need to discuss a book and better understand it? Do they need to set priorities for a budget? Do they need to choose the best location for the conference room?

Your job as a presenter is to figure out what the task of the group is and to shape their shared activities so that they reach that goal.  Focusing on meeting their needs will help to determine your plan of action. 

  • Let the goals determine the content. Many people start out by saying "I'm doing a PowerPoint" or "Wow, I like it when we work in small groups. Let's do that." That's the wong way to move forward
  • First, figure out what your goals are.
  • Second, figure out which activities will move the group towards meeting those goals.
  • Third, optimize the organization, flow, and timing of activities to maximize their impact.

And remember, an activity can be anything.  And varying activities breaks up a presentation and can make it more effective

  • Let them write silently for a minute to jot down thoughts before they speak.  Or have them write, then pass around their writing silently before they speak.  This gives people who are quiet a chance to share ideas.  You can get quiet people to talk by passing around written ideas and asking people to share something interesting they read.  Then the brave ones can speak up and give the quiet ones credit.
  • Listening to a speech is an activity.
  • Talking to a neighbor is an activity.
  • Discussion of the group as a whole is an activity.

Think hard about which tasks should be done individually, which in writing, which by the leader or other speakers, and which in groups.  Then choose and shape activities so that each component of your presentation works together.

  • Make sure information necessary for an activity is available to everyone. Ever been to a meeting or a class where everyone was supposed to have read the material beforehand, but no one did? Boring, isn't it? And ineffective. Make sure you provide enough information to everyone in the group - either refreshing their memory or introducing the main ideas - before the activity moves forward. That way EVERYONE can participate.

I talk about this in depth in the post How To Give A Presentation: Tell A Good Story and won't repeat it here. 

Other points students made were smaller and already covered in depth in my previous posts.

But their bottom line advice: JUST DO IT.  It's scary, but you'll be just fine.