Improve Your Presentation Skills: How to Be a More Confident PresenterDec 10, 2021
How can I look and sound more confident when I'm presenting?
That's by far the most common question I get asked in webinars, on coaching calls and in messages I receive.
Confident speaking is about more than joust the words to be delivered. It's how you use the subtleties of language, voice, body language, gesture and facial expression.
In this instalment, I'm going to identify five areas of the body and explore the fundamental role each of them plays in delivering a powerful presentation.
1. The Core
Your voice and your message will only ever be as strong as the platform you build for it. That platform is not just about your presentation outline and structure; when you're stood delivering it, it's also about how you stand and how you hold yourself.
It starts with the diaphragm. It’s a muscle so, like all other muscles, it can be trained and strengthened. Improving diaphragm control improves your posture and the resonance and power you can apply to your speaking voice. Little wonder that the greatest singers and actors spend a lot of their time performing deep breathing exercises.
My favourite three breathing exercises are as follows:
- In for 4, hold for 4, out for 4. Focus on filling right up and getting all the air out each time. Repeat ten times;
- In for 5, out for 7 - focus on filling right up with air and then forcing the diaphragm all the way down. Repeat ten times;
- Hand central, just below the ribcage and breathe sharply in to force the hand away from you. Repeat ten times.
These exercises are useful for managing nerves, engaging the core and warming up the muscles needed for a powerful speaking voice. If your core is fully engaged, you are more likely to stand up straight and project an image of authority to your audience.
A word of caution here, though: volume and power are NOT the same as projection. Achieving maximum volume by shouting will do significant damage to your vocal cords; good projection through the diaphragm will improve the resonance of your voice and allow you to be heard in all corners whilst causing no damage whatsoever.
2. The Eyes
How long can you maintain eye contact with the image above before you feel unsettled, uncomfortable or unnerved?
Eye contact can be daunting for many of us. There are, of course, many factors: your gender, age, emotional state and who you are speaking to all affect your inclination to make and sustain eye contact. However these varying scenarios impact our ability to lock eyes with another person, there is one, unchanging truth: eye contact is essential in building, strengthening and maintaining meaningful connection. As a tool to improve public speaking, presentation skills and strong relationships, then, eye contact is a vital component that simply cannot be overlooked.
Eye contact is critical to people’s ability to retain the information you deliver when you are public speaking or presenting, whether online or in person. If you are someone who presents information or is keen for people to remember what you say, the importance of meaningful eye contact in that process cannot be overstated.
When you speak in public, present or need to build a connection of trust with your audience, how can you develop your eye contact? Let me present three strategies I have employed that have helped me improve on something I used to find incredibly difficult and awkward (and sometimes still struggle with):
- Imagine the number ‘5’ on a dice. Choose five people in your audience, one in each of the four corners and one in the middle. Perhaps they are wearing bright colours, have amazing hair, smile at you or are otherwise particularly noticeable. As you move your eye contact between these five people, the rest of the room will be implicitly included. Eventually, you will become confident enough to bring in more than just five people, but this is a great place to start if you simply want to start shifting your gaze around the room.
- The more you read, the better you speak. I was watching a great speaker who suggested that when you reach a piece of punctuation, shift your eye contact to another person in the room. This ensures you don’t look at any one person for too long, but also allows you to sustain eye contact for long enough so as not to appear shifty or unprepared. Familiarity with how a speech is punctuated allows the speaker to breathe, move and shift eye contact more effectively, thereby increasing the overall control and impact of the presentation.
- As awkward as this might be at first, practice delivering your presentations or having a conversation with yourself in the mirror. If you can hold your own gaze, knowing everything about yourself, you can make eye contact with anyone! I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve delivered a couple of presentations to the mirror, and it really does help!
3. The Mouth
Your mouth has a much greater function than as merely the space your words pass through.
In the same way warming up your diaphragm provides greater resonance to your voice, warming up the muscles in your face and your palate can improve the clarity of your voice. Practising tongue twisters before speaking can help you warm these muscles so that you are less likely to stumble or mumble during your presentation. Approximately one in six people is challenged by some form of hearing impairment; increased resonance and clarity means your message can be more easily accessed by all audience members.
Smiling is also key. Your voice sounds warmer and more genuine when you smile and the audience are more likely to engage with your message. Strive for warmth, especially in the opening segment of your presentation; this will create the best possible impression.
4. The Hands
Hands are one of the biggest indicators of a nervous speaker. They are often the main subject of nervous habits. Fiddling with rings or watches, putting them in pockets, adjusting jewellery, hair or clothing, tucking shirts in, folding arms, clasping, wringing or clapping, cracking knuckles, distracting gestures - I've seen them all. All of these undermine a presentation's message because they divert attention away from the message and onto whatever distracting thing the hands are doing.
This was a great challenge for me early on in my speaking because I used to fiddle with my wedding ring. I was so nervous once that I inadvertently sliced my skin from twisting my ring too hard into my finger. My dad used to have a habit of playing with keys in the side pocket of his suit jacket. It is normal, but it is often unconscious. It's one thing to notice a habit - it's another thing to replace it with something more beneficial.
A great piece of advice I received early on is to imagine you are holding two heavy shopping bags. If your arms are not involved in making a meaningful gesture, they should return to this 'default' position by the sides. It feels incredibly awkward at first and it's hard to avoid the temptation to fold your arms, put your hands in your pockets or start fiddling with an accessory; with practice, however, your gestures can become an integral, even powerful, part of your presentation.
5. The Feet
Proximity can be a huge influence in your presentation. By drawing closer to an audience, you can increase emotional engagement and build intimacy with the audience. Stepping back can create feelings of loneliness, isolation or defensiveness, which can be impactful if they are demonstrating part of your message.
Whilst centre stage is the best place to begin your speech, it can become very one-dimensional if the whole speech is delivered from one spot. Using the full stage area by moving from one side to the other between key points can help bring your audience on the journey with you. Using the typical 'past, present, future' timeline, or using the sides of the stage to discuss two contrasting ideas, can be effective. In the case of using chronology, remember that the audience's left is your right. It feels strange to walk to your right whilst talking about the past, but your audience will connect with it!
Of course, some settings are more restrictive than others, such as delivering a PowerPoint in a small boardroom. Even here, perhaps moving from one side of the screen to the other might help to add variety. Using a clicker allows you to black out the screen so you are not walking in front of the glaring projector. It's about knowing your space and using it to your advantage. Always move obstacles — such as chairs or lecterns — out of the way if you do not need them, as they often confine you to a smaller operating space.
Effective speaking is not an instant acquisition, nor is it easy. There are so many nuances and skills that need to coalesce, it wouldn't be inappropriate to describe it as an art form. It's taken me seven years to get to this point and I still have a long way to go, but the journey has been deeply rewarding. I have every confidence that as you focus on small habits and undertake deliberate practice to refine individual skills, you will gradually find your message landing, your audience responding and your confidence increasing.
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