Presenting your best side: how to engage your audience

I’ve really enjoyed supporting Smart Resourcing Solutions’ excellent assessment centre simulations over the last few weeks.  The events are a great way for students to experience the realities of the graduate selection process, and it has been interesting to see how they approached the presentation exercise in particular.  Some of the undergraduates were understandably nervous, but others (from Hertfordshire, Coventry and Kingston) were very impressive – much better than I would have been at that stage.

I’ve always been interested in what makes a great presenter.  My first boss at Logica had the ability to really hold the room, and taught me about the importance of pace to help the audience understand key points.  More recently I’ve enjoyed watching Charlie Reeve’s excellent TEDx talks (@creeve76), Carolyn Parry’s compelling career coaching sessions (‪@CareerAlchemy‪), and Matthias Feist’s innovative use of technology and social media when he speaks (@matthias_feist).

I’ve delivered many presentations myself – student workshops at Logica, business cases to my Vice Chancellor at City, and ideas for projects to prospective new clients at Graduate Transitions.  Here are my top tips:

  • Preparation is key. Research your audience, think about what is important to them and imagine the perspective from which they will view your presentation.  I find the “so what” test very useful: for each point on each slide, ask yourself “So what?”.  What does the audience learn from this?  What does this point add to your message?  It is a good way to cut down on unnecessary detail.
  • If I am using PowerPoint I put a lot of thought into the transitions between slides. How does each slide set the audience up for the next one?  Are you creating a good flow?  Practicing out loud helps me to check this, and makes the potential trip hazards very obvious – the places where I might stumble in the presentation.
  • I stick to a simple three-part structure: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you’ve told them”. Repetition is helpful – remember, your audience doesn’t understand your material as well as you do, and this structure gives you three chances to get your key points across.  For the same reason pauses are good – they give people time to process what you have been saying.
  • <pause>
  • I combat nerves by writing down the sentence that I will start with in longhand. That way, I know there is no chance of me forgetting it!  I also try to get the audience to say something in the first 60 seconds, to make them feel more involved and to give me an idea of their enthusiasm and level of knowledge.
  • Finally, less is usually more. The best presentations I’ve seen make two or three key points really well.  What message do you want your audience to remember when they walk out of the room?

I’ve had my share of disasters too, most memorably when I was delivering a Logica presentation one evening at Imperial College.  I somehow managed to freeze the laptop, and spent the next 10 minutes trying to fix it while our UK Chief Exec delivered his talk.  Unfortunately, the laptop decided to freeze while showing the desktop background, which was a photo of my colleague’s new-born daughter.  She was projected in all her 10 foot high glory on the screen behind him!  I was mortified – not the impression we wanted to give as a cutting edge technology company…

Anyone care to share their own presentation tips – or their most toe curling disasters???


  • Thanks for the mention.

    Special note – I liked your use of the [pause].


  • Dawn Leggott says:

    I agree entirely with your top 5 points and I would add ‘practise, practise, practise’. That was one tip I discussed with Manchester Metropolitan University’s Fashion students when I was an assessor for Smart Resourcing Solutions last week. As well as helping to reduce nerves, it can give the students the confidence to rely less on their notes when speaking. Another point we discussed last week was the one you made about engaging your audience by getting them involved right at the start. Like you, I was impressed by the quality of many of the presentations. The students had clearly taken this mock assessment centre opportunity seriously and really benefited from it.

    • Gary Argent says:

      Thanks for your comment Dawn. You are right – practice, practice (and more practice) is so important, not least because it helps develop confidence which in turn leads to a better performance. You can spot those students that have tried to do it off the cuff a mile off; conversely, those that have prepared properly really stand out from the crowd!

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