Confidence can be a slippery thing, especially when you’re delivering a presentation. You might be hoping to skip through sunlit meadows of metaphors, leading to undying applause from your audience. But if confidence sags, your presentation can get bogged down in a soggy mess. If a leaky sense of confidence sometimes hangs you out to dry, here’s how to treat your audience to a little sparkle and sunshine.

How to look and sound confident in a presentation

Confidence is the key to delivering three things that the audience are looking for:

  • Basic information – which might be as simple as an update on quarterly figures.
  • Underlying tone – is the speaker confident? Can they be trusted, can their analysis be believed?
  • Direction and purpose – what’s the bigger picture that the speaker is trying to get across?

Delivering a great presentation comes down to solid preparation, and self-management in the moment. The audience expect you to lead them confidently through to your conclusions, holding their attention and giving them something to think about. To do that well, start by shaping your main points into a narrative. Think about delivery, and practise it so that you can give yourself that comfortable feeling of having done your homework.

Develop a narrative

To hold the audience’s attention, tell them a story. Instead of presenting a collection of facts, shape them into a beginning, middle and end. Think about the end, and work backwards from there. What conclusion do you want to reach?

Once you’ve got your conclusion, how are you going to build towards it? In other words, what should the middle look like? Will a simple telling of the facts be enough, or will you need to give some context? Next, work out how to introduce your content, by developing an opening that will quickly grab attention.

Think about delivery

As we saw above, a key objective is to show the audience that you are someone who can be trusted. Help them with this by thinking about:

  • Body language – the first thing the audience will see about you is your frame of mind. It takes the brain just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs from a facial expression to determine a person’s emotional state, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow. If you approach the presentation by nervously looking down at your notes, with minimal eye contact, the audience will make up their mind about you before you’ve said a word. A big part of presenting is looking confident, even if you don’t feel it.
  • Prepare your deck – the narrative comes first, then think about your deck. Preparing your visuals before you’ve worked out your narrative is a backwards approach that can make it harder for people to understand your message. Graphs and charts need to focus on what matters, without any unnecessary material that may distract people. Visuals need to illustrate your points, not repeat them.
  • Choice of words – formal ‘corporate-speak’ suggests a lack of self-confidence, and jargon can be excluding. Simple phrases that express complex ideas (or data) will help people quickly get what you want to say. It’s a mistake to think that simple phrases make you sound simple. When delivered as part of a coherent narrative, the audience will appreciate all the simple phrases they can get. Metaphors and similes can help clarify things too, as will a warm tone of voice.
  • Appearance – dress for you, as much as for the audience, by choosing clothes that bring you the calm confidence that you want others to see. In the past, advice on presentations waxed lyrical on shiny shoes and formal clothes. These days, no matter how informal your office dress-code, in a presentation you still need to convey authority and confidence, so avoid wearing anything that detracts from that.
  • Think of your audience. They’re only human. They’re looking for warmth, and eye contact, and a comfortable pace of speech, and lunch – and not necessarily in that order. They’re not looking to catch you out. They simply want to grasp the information you’re giving them. Whoever they are, treat them as warm and understanding – and they will treat you the same.

Practise your presentation

In thinking about how to prepare for the perfect presentation, the key here is practise. You don’t have to be word perfect. You just need to be clear enough that when you stumble or lose your train of thought, you can easily get back on track. You might find that while practising you often stumble at the same point. If so, find a way round the problem.

These tips will help you develop a presentation that your audience will regard as authoritative. Having done your homework, clarity will shape your words, your tone and your narrative. You will look and sound confident, you’re ready to deliver.

Of course, there’s still the chance that things might go a little wobbly just before you start. Losing confidence just before you begin is disorientating. It can stop you working at your best, and it can take a while to recover. Fortunately, this is something you can prepare for in advance.

How to boost confidence before a presentation

When an emotional wobble disrupts cognitive understanding, rational and reasonable thoughts are overwhelmed by a knee-trembling urge to drop your laptop and run.

Emotions in this context can include an influx of hormones such as adrenalin. When we feel the familiar dry-mouth sensation of a fight-or-flight emotional response, it’s hard to see that things are OK – we’re just delivering a presentation, and neither fight nor flight are needed.

Confidence is the ability to keep emotions in check, even in difficult circumstances, so that understanding isn’t overwhelmed. The fight-or-flight response can’t be easily brushed aside, better instead to accept it and prepare for it in advance.

The importance of confidence in a presentation

The weakest moment in any presentation is the start. The audience are still assessing you and your content. It’s important to give them something positive to think about, even if you’re not feeling it just at that moment.

As part of your preparation, anticipate an initial wobble. Give yourself solid handles to hold on to. It helps to have an autopilot way of working for those moments when you feel apprehensive. Intensively practise your first few lines so that you can hold on to them no matter what.

Once you’ve learned your opening sentences, focus on what happens next, again preparing something solid for your autopilot to work with. This process of anchoring down solid thoughts will help you through the opening moments of your presentation. You’ll then be able to relax, so that the rest of the presentation will come more easily.

The Working Voices training course in presenting with confidence can give you a helping hand, locking down key points to remember. Building deep-seated confidence is an ongoing process. With practise, you’ll reap the benefits of presentation skills including others’ recognition of your abilities in analysis and communication. These are the skills that lead to pay-rises and promotions. Most important of all, you become trusted as someone who can hold a room, winning applause and praise that echoes even after you’ve stepped down, and gratefully handed over to someone else.


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