How to Be a Presentation Ninja: 10 Steps to Becoming a Public Speaking Hero

Because of the nature of my job, I give a lot of presentations and, as a result, I get asked this a lot: what makes for a good a presentation?

Unfortunately, that’s much more of a loaded question than even I would typically like to admit. After all, presentations come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which means there’s never just one right approach.

Some presentations are formal, like when you’ve slicked up your hair and you’re wearing a fancy tie or pant suit and you’re on a stage with dozens (or hundreds) of people staring at you; some presentations are much less formal, like when you’re announcing your weekly sales goals to your team. Sometimes you give presentations while sitting around a table; other times you give presentations that last all day, like in a workshop on how to be a leader. Sometimes you present in teams; sometimes your audience needs to do activities or role-playing; sometimes your goal is to entertain; sometimes you don’t even know what your audience expects.

In short, there’s a lot of variables that can affect what makes for a good presentation. A couple years ago, I developed the P-O-W-E-R-F-U-L Presentation Method, which covers a good process for organizing a presentation. But today, I want to more broadly look at what will make you a presentation ninja, holistically speaking. If you do these ten things well, in any given presentation, you should be able to knock your audience’s socks off (assuming, of course, you want their socks to actually come off.)

Presentation Ninja Task 1: Tell Stories

Okay, let’s clear the air right away. People will often come to me and tell me that their topic isn’t good for telling stories. “I mean, what story am I supposed to tell about the new systems implementation plan?” they moan. “Or the new marketing data? There just aren’t any stories to tell.” To that person, I say: phooey. Get rid of that idea right now. There is always a story to tell and, once you think of one, you’ll be off to a rockin’ start.

It may take you some time, but think of a story that relates to your topic. Truth is, we human beings love stories. Even if they’re relatively boring or simple stories, we’re dying to know how they end–so we’ll listen. And we love to make connections between real stories and the topic you’re covering. If it’s a new systems implementation, assuredly someone was affected by the previous system. Tell us how they were affected…then tell us how this new system will rock their world (or, at least, improve upon the old). The more stories you tell, the more engaged your audience will be. It’s that simple. In fact, if you ever see your audience totally zoning you out (not a great feeling, BTW, but one we’ve all experienced), try this: simply say, “let me tell you a story.” Watch the magic as your audience will suddenly look up and stare you in the face. They will love stories.

Remember: stories should include five things: a character/person (any human being or animal will do); a setting (this can be anywhere); a plot (series of events that makes sense);  a conflict (some kind of problem or issue); and a resolution. Weave in several stories and make them all relevant to your topic and you’ll be a ninja almost right off the bat.

Presentation Ninja Task 2: Use Visuals…

There’s a pretty good chance (like 99.99%) that you’ve said at some point in your life, “I’m a visual learner.” News of the day: everyone is a visual learner. Oh, I know that you probably took a test in high school that tried to identify if you were more of an aural learner, a visual learner, a kinesthetic learner, a learner who likes to read a lot, a learner who learns by eating and watching TV, or whatever else…but research has shown that human beings, by their nature, process visual information much faster and they retain it much longer. Every. Human. Being.

So, it may seem obvious, but presentations will go much better if you provide a visual (or, better yet, several visuals). I can’t emphasize this enough: GET RID OF THOSE POWERPOINT SLIDES WITH LOTS OF TEXT. Yes, that even includes bulleted lists. Use visual presentation platforms (like PowerPoint or SlideRocket or Prezi…or even old-fashioned printed handouts) to enhance your presentation, not to give the presentation. There is nothing worse (not even tweezing nose hairs) than requiring your audience to stare at a bunch of text while you simply repeat what’s on the screen.

Presentation Ninja Task 3: …but Don’t Use Clipart

This is so important, it merited having its own ninja task, beyond just using visuals. Yes, using visuals is critically important to a successful presentation, but you can’t just use any old visual. Sticking in goofy clipart or stock images that are only tangentially related don’t help your presentation prowess. Lame images may actually be better than slides full of text, but they don’t immediately convey the message you want to communicate, which can confuse the scope of the presentation. It may take you a few more minutes, but find (or take yourself) the right photos for the right content.

Presentation Ninja Task 4: Turn Bullets into Icons and Charts

I don’t mean to keep pressing on the idea of visual communication (okay, not true: it’s important!) but I’ve learned over time that many people don’t know how to move away from the bulleted list. Even though we hear over and over and over again that text on slides is bad, somehow most people say, but the information is important. And…it’s in a list. Isn’t that better? Well, yes, technically a bulleted list is better than a paragraph of text on a screen, but it still is text on a screen. Sometimes you can, indeed, use very short list items to highlight key terms, but usually you can enhance a list by reducing text (you’ll be telling them the words, so they don’t need to all be on the screen at the same time) turning it into images instead. Check out this revision:

Presentation Ninja Task 5: Design with Details in Mind

You guessed: one more thing on visual communication. Aside from making your presentation slides visual, using good images, and turning bullets into graphics, you want to be conscious of the overall design. Nothing can derail a presentation faster than having poor slide design. After all, this is what your audience wants to look at. If it looks awful, your credibility is shot and their attention is likely already on what they’re having for lunch. A few key pointers when designing slides:

  • Have a title slide and a concluding slide. Every good communication has a beginning, middle, and end. Just like a book.
  • Use a simple color scheme (usually one or two colors beyond black and white).
  • Make your slides white with black text. Rarely do you want to get away from this. Have you ever read a book entirely done with a paper color other than white (or close to white)? We like high contrast, and the best is black text on white background. Use color as an accent (like with a line or shape in the corner).
  • Use a footer. It’s helpful to audiences to know the title of the presentation (or, if it’s a really long presentation, the section of the presentation you are on.) You can make these small at the bottom of each slide. Plus, it makes presentations look professional.
  • Insert slide number. Along with the footer, put somewhere on the slide which slide you are on out of how many (such as “17/35”). When audiences see this little cue, they get a sense for how much longer you will go.
  • Pick a good, simple font. Don’t use Calibri or Times New Roman (those are too boring) but don’t go crazy, either. Find something simple, clean, and easy to read. Consider one font for your headings and one font for your body text.
  • Be consistent. Use the same (or very similar) on every slide other than your first and last. Use the same fonts, same heading positions, same colors, etc.
  • Use the bleeds. In design, we say “bleed” when we refer to an image going off the edge of the page. Moving images ALL THE WAY to the edge gets rid of the white margins, which ends up looking like visual noise. Using the bleeds makes your slides look more dynamic and professional and it reduces the awkward negative space on the screen.
  • Be conscious of contrast and size. Make text large and readable. Nothing too small. Don’t write text in colors that are annoying, too light, or otherwise hard to read.

Presentation Ninja Task 6: Be Extemporaneous (Usually)

When we talk about delivery, we can narrow the four delivery methods down to about four: the memorized speech; the scripted speech; the extemporaneous speech; and the improvised speech. Memorized speeches are, as you can imagine, memorized word for word. Rarely will these be a good option. Unless you’re a professional actor, giving memorized speeches sound, well, robotic. And…if you forget your next line, they’re the perfect recipe for freaking out.

The scripted speech, on the other hand, is a fully written speech that you read, word for word. These are good for presenting on political or controversial topics so that you can take plenty of time crafting every word and so that you don’t get off topic. They’re also good if you are (and you know it) just really bad in front of people. They don’t typically have a lot of personality and they can lose an audience in a hurry, but at least they’re fully mapped out.

The improvised speech, as it sounds, is one where you just kind of give it as it comes to you, off the cuff. Even having a simple list of key points, then winging it based off those points, is considered improvised. While some people (they are a rare, gifted few) can pull this off, most of us don’t work well off the cuff. Improvised speeches often drift, go over time, share too much detail or provide unrelated stories or information and feel disconnected.

The best speech, for most circumstances, is the extemporaneous speech. This is a mix between the scripted/memorized concept and the improvised. The idea is that you have mapped out every detail of your presentation, but you don’t necessarily have it word for word. It’s like a very thorough outline. You practice over and over and over again, but you don’t give the presentation word for word. This allows you to be prepared, but to not sound robotic and it lets you keep loose during the presentation. As with all of these ninja steps, it takes more preparation time, but it’s the best proven presentation delivery method.

Presentation Ninja Task 7: Make (Natural) Eye Contact

As simple as it sounds, one of the most common nervous responses to giving presentations is to look at the computer screen, at the projector screen, or at the floor or ceiling. It’s also common for a nervous presenter to even turn their back or side toward the audience. Presentation ninjas look their audience right in the eyes and they smile.

But there’s a caveat to this: eye contact can be awkward for audiences if it lasts too long or if its directed at one person or in an area of the room. To make good eye contact work, you have to look all around the room, be natural, and never stare at one person for more than a few seconds or look at the same person more than anybody else. Sometimes it can feel like there are only three or four people actually listening to you and you might gravitate to looking at them because they’re looking at you. But if you do that, you’ll most likely make them feel uncomfortable and you’ll lose, them, too. If no one’s looking at you, revert back to Ninja Task 1. They’ll look when you tell a story.

Presentation Ninja Task 8: Move with Ease

When you give a presentation, you don’t want to look like a robot, or feel trapped behind a table (or an invisible prison wall). You want to look confident and natural by moving around. That doesn’t mean you want to pace and or make triangle, line dancing motions on the floor, but you do want to look relaxed and engaged. Practice moving your hands and keeping them out of your pockets. Don’t play with things in your hands, but rather move them in ways that make people feel comfortable watching you.

Presentation Ninja Task 9: Use Roadmaps and Sign Posts

The metaphor here, obviously, is to give your audience direction and distance. Just like drivers venturing on a trip to a location they’ve never been to, audience members are on a journey with you. They want to know where the journey is headed, how it is going to get there, how much longer it will take, and where they are at in the journey at all times. When you start your presentation, tell them what you’re about to tell them. We call this the “roadmap.” Let them know, in advance, what topics you’ll be covering. Audiences want to know the key points ahead of time (plus, it helps them remember later on). During the presentation, use what we call signposts and transitions. Let audiences know you’re moving from one topic to another, much like landmarks while you’re driving. If you’re driving from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, and you know that Las Vegas is about halfway, it’s helpful to know when you’re actually in Las Vegas (although, in this perhaps bad example, it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve hit Las Vegas).

Presentation Ninja Task 10: Conclude with Purpose

I always leave disappointed when I watch a presentation that just sort of…ends. If you’ve ever seen someone say, “Well, that’s it. Any questions?” you know what I mean. When presentations end like that, it shows that they never really had a clear purpose to begin with, that they sort of built their presentation with a general topic, let it go where it would, and just ended when they ran out of things to say. Good presentations, on the other hand, know where they started and they bring it full circle when they end. An old public speaking mantra goes like this: tell them what you’re going to tell them (introduction); tell them (the body, or middle of the presentation); and then tell them what you told them (conclusion). In other words, wrap it up. Bring back the story that you started with or tell a new, related story that shows a resolution to your problem. Whatever it may be, make sure you end with purpose.