9.2 Developing Presentation Skills

Suzan Last; Monika Smith; and Robin L. Potter

Like any kind of advanced communication skill, the art of giving effective presentations is not in-born; it requires deliberate practice.  View the video below for some tips on giving effective presentations.


(7 Tips to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking, 2017 )

An excellent way to learn more about delivering effective presentations is to follow a systematic process:

  1. Observe others.
  2. Study their strategies and reflect on their effectiveness.
  3. Select and practice strategies that will work for you; reflect and get feedback from others.

Step 1: Observation

You can learn a lot simply by observing how successful public speakers “work the room” and engage their audience. Observe what they do. How do they use their voice to make it work as a tool of communication? How do they deploy tone, pausing, pacing, and projection? What do they do with their hands? How do they make use of the physical space around them? Take note of how speakers physically operate, either in person or in media: Identify what they do, make note of what you feel works well and what doesn’t, then put what you’ve learned into practice.

As a student, you might start by observing your professors. Aim to identify what makes one professor a great lecturer and another less engaging. Compare what they do with their voice, their hands, their gestures, their movements. Pay attention to how they pace their talk to draw you in and create emphasis. Reflect on what they do to convey a sense of enthusiasm for what they’re talking about—or fail to do so. You want to know what kinds of things to avoid—a dull monotonous tone, for example—as well as what kinds of things to adopt to ensure your voice comes across as a powerful tool for communicating your ideas clearly and emphatically.

EXERCISE 9.2.1: Observation in Action

Whether observing your favourite professor give a lecture; watching your favourite podcaster, TV or YouTube presenter; or viewing the videos linked below, turn your observations into an active learning experience: Create a list of what the speakers do well as speakers, and then use them as role models. The goal is to create a toolkit of practical tips, approaches, and ideas for building confidence, developing your own “spark” as public speaker, and engaging your audience. In short, watch, observe, and learn.

Here are some public speakers on film that you may enjoy watching and learning from:

As you are watching these presentations, take note of the following characteristics to build a short inventory of elements you would like to emulate in your own presentations:

  1. Openings: How do the presenters open their speeches? How do they introduce the topic? Do they straight-away announce their main point, or do they engage the audience first and lead into their thesis?
  2. Transitions: How do the presenters move from one idea to the next? Do they pause and announce the next topic, or do they smooth the flow of ideas by using transition devices and thematic content?
  3. Tone and style: What tone is used to present the information? Super serious? Humorous? A balance of both? Is the content high-information focused, or does it consist of a balance of high information and story-telling?
  4. Voice and facial expression: How is voice used to support the tone and the content? Is the speaker using a mono-tone or is the speaker modulating voice for emphasis and engagement? Do you feel the ideas as well as hear them? Is the speaker smiling and showing enjoyment in the speaking process? Is the speaker looking down and reading text, or is the speaker looking outwards and making eye contact with the audience?
  5. Gestures: How is the speaker making use of the body and gestures to emphasize ideas and engage the audience?
  6. Closing: How does the speaker close the presentation? Are you left with a memorable statement that will help you remember the key point?


Knowledge Check

Step 2: Study and Reflect

Learning from experts who lay out a set of simple techniques is a confidence builder because it shows that great speakers are made, not born. With deliberate practice, anyone can do this. There are no mysteries, just specific, applicable strategies that anyone can adopt to establish rapport with an audience and make a meaningful impact.

Here are some more great online resources to help you develop your presentation skills further:

Videos are helpful because they not only provide information, but visually demonstrate the ideas (both showing and telling); however, you can also learn from many books on the subject. Check out Lee LeFever’s, The Art of Explanation: Making your Ideas, Products, and Services Easier to Understand (2012), which invites you to become an “explanation specialist” by using simple elements to motivate your audience and inspire them to say “yes!” to your designs and ideas.

Figure 9.2.1 Tips to make you a more effective public speaker (The Impact Lawyer, 2023).



Take notes from the sources while you study them.  Making written notes about points you want to remember is an effective way to promote deep learning. As you watch each of the videos, identify two-to-three key tips. If you are doing this activity in class, share your “top two” tips with classmates and make note of their “top two” tips in turn.

Then consider the value of the tips and strategies you’ve compiled. What makes them seem to work so well and, equally important, how could you feasibly incorporate them into your presentations to make them your own?

Step 3: Practice and Assess your Progress

Now that you have identified strategies that you find effective and think might work for you, try putting them into practice. See if the strategies you have learned add some extra “oomph” to your presentation style. Try creating videos of your own practice sessions. Use them to observe your technique and to improve on your delivery. Either by engaging in self-reflection, or by asking for feedback, consider how well these strategies worked for you and whether you need to further hone, adapt, or change the way you used them. These “draft” videos allow you to focus on aspects such as voice, volume, pace, and gestures. Reviewing these will help you build confidence, speak fluently, and hold an audience’s attention.

EXERCISE 9.2.3 Build your repertoire

Just as you did when watching your videos, make a list of key tips that you want to adopt as a presenter. Select a “top three” strategies, reflect on those three, rehearse them and put them in practice when you get a chance. Going through these steps will get you primed and ready to put the tips into play when the time comes to actually deliver your talk. Keep adding tips to your repertoire until you’ve got a good, well-rounded set of strategies designed to keep your audience alert, engaged, and wanting to hear more!

Knowledge Check

View the video below and answer the questions presented.


Cityline. (2017).  7 tips to overcome your fear of public speaking [Video].  Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL5WNcLz8t

Gault, Terry. (2016, April 29). 10 most common rookie mistakes in public speaking.  Prezi Blog. https://blog.prezi.com/10-most-common-rookie-mistakes-in-public-speaking/

LeFever, L. (2012).  The art of explanation: Making your ideas, products, and services easier to understand. New York: Wiley.

MindTools. Better public speaking. https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/PublicSpeaking.htm

Pausch, R. (2007, September 18). The last lecture: Achieving your childhood dreams. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo

Pease, A.  (2013, November 17). Body language, the power is in the palm of your hands. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ZZZ7k8cMA-4

Rigsby, R. (2017, October). The wisdom of a third grade dropout will change your life. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg_Q7KYWG1g

Rosling, H. (2010, November, 26). The joy of stats. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/jbkSRLYSojo

Stephen, Will. (2015, January 15). How to sound smart in your TEDx talk. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S0FDjFBj8o&feature=youtu.be

St. John, R. (2007). Secrets of success in 8 words [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6bbMQXQ180

Toastmasters International. (2012, May 7). Five basic public speaking skills. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AykYRO5d_lI


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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Suzan Last; Monika Smith; and Robin L. Potter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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