by Steve Roche

Preparation – the words

Have a well-formed outcome or goal for this task. Time invested at this stage will be amply repaid. It also feeds into your confidence about your ability to perform well.

‘To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.’

Just because it’s a cliché, this doesn’t mean it’s not true.

So, when should you start to prepare? As early as possible.


At the start of a new project, if you know you will need to present the results at the end, plan the presentation first. The outline presentation gives you a great focus for the project, plus the basis for producing a project plan. Note that you can only do this if you have a clear brief and equally clear objectives.

Creating notes

Think of a presentation when you watched someone struggling with unwieldy notes.

  • Did it get in the way of contact between speaker and audience?
  • Did it stop you feeling the speaker had confidence and reserve power?
  • Did it destroy much of your interest?

It is perfectly possible to speak without notes once you have gained a bit of experience and confidence, and have a few tools in your kit-bag. Most trainers, however, advise that you never stand up to speak without any notes. If you feel you need notes for your talk, then by all means use them.

Guidelines for notes

  • Keep them clear, tidy and as brief as you can manage.
  • Write them on cards that are easy to handle.
  • Number the cards and staple or tag them together.
  • Make the notes easy to see – the message has to jump up at you.
  • Only use key words (except for opening and closing lines).
  • Develop a colour scheme – have different colours of card or ink for parts you can skip if you are short of time.
  • Note at what points you want to be a quarter, half and three-quarters of your way through.
  • Write messages to yourself, such as ‘go slower’ or ‘look at the audience’.

Which presentation?

At any one event, there are actually several presentations:


Which of these presentations is the most important?

  • The one you prepared
  • The one you actually delivered
  • The one the audience heard
  • The one they remembered afterwards.

They are all different, so you can take the pressure off yourself to deliver what you prepared.

Practising with notes

Never – absolutely never – plan to read out a talk; it will be deadly dull. Instead, turn each point into a note, ideally in the form of one or two key words that will remind you, and write them on cards.

Practise giving the speech until you can fluently turn the notes into sentences. They won’t come out the same every time and that’s OK. In fact that’s ideal, because you will still sound fresh on the day.

Never try to memorise a presentation. If you have an important business meeting, do you try to memorise exactly what you are going to say? No: you think about it until you are clear on the main points and know how you will illustrate them.

The exception is your first sentence. It’s worth learning this word for word, as knowing exactly how to start will help you feel calm as you begin to speak. The same is true of the last sentence – know exactly how you will finish. Don’t just tail off; finish with a bang and a full stop.


  • Learn the start and finish, practising to make it sound natural.
  • Rehearse the whole talk until you feel really comfortable using your notes.
  • If possible, record it and watch or listen to yourself.

Managing time

Prepare more than you need and be willing to throw chunks away. Be flexible on the day – have sections that you can use or not, depending how it goes.


Never forget the golden rule: finish on time.

Finishing on time shows basic courtesy to audiences, organisers, the chair and other presenters. The speaker who blithely runs over the agreed time shows a lack of respect and is likely to lose rapport. People will assume that the speaker is unaware, lacks the skill to prepare properly or just doesn’t care.

On the day, if you know you are going over time and it really is essential that you finish, then say so early. Negotiate with your audience for permission to extend; don’t assume it (this courtesy applies even if you are their boss).


Help your listeners by offering periodic signposts. You might, for example, pause, change position and voice and say: ‘So much for the current problems. I’d said I’d move on to the way forward, but before doing that I want to spend a few minutes on the subject of competition.’

By chunking down in this way, and labelling the chunks, you make it much easier for the audience to follow your thread and understand the structure.

A signpost does just what it says: it points out what’s coming. People like to have an overview and they also like to know where they are. Once they feel comfortable with the presenter, they stop asking ‘where is this going?’ and instead say, ‘OK, sounds good; what comes next?’

Below is an example of a project manger introducing a project review meeting with a short presentation.


Let’s be sure we are all clear what we need to do in the next hour or so. I’m going to bring us up to speed on progress to date, then call for section heads to comment about their own areas. After that, we need to see what new actions are needed to keep us on track to hit the deadline, and what must be done before the next meeting.

This overview statement might be followed by more signposting as the first part begins:

Right, let’s get up to date. First I will comment on what stage we have reached, then cover how costs are working out, then give details about feedback that may mean some fine tuning.

And this might be followed by more, at the next level down:

Turning to costs, we need to think about materials and staff separately. I will begin with materials...

It is hard to overdo signposting – and the longer and more complex the presentation, the more useful it is.

It can also be used to flag individual elements, telling people both what’s coming and the nature of what’s coming:


Here’s an example of how that works... (stating specifically that an example is coming)

Let me digress for a moment... (making it clear the next thing said will be aside from the main content)

And on a less serious note... (alerting them to an aside that may amuse).

You can increase the value still further by adding the why of the matter:

Here’s an example that will link what I’ve just said to your day-to-day work.

Language to avoid

We weaken our language when we are unsure of ourselves, using filler words, ums and ers, and stock literary phrases, instead of clear strong words. Empower yourself and your audience by eradicating weak language.

Many presenters weaken their case because of the words they use. Read the two paragraphs below out loud. Which sounds stronger?


Ladies and gentlemen, I believe the proposals in this report show how the company’s profitability could rise from 4 to 6 billion pounds. If the company adopts these policies, positive changes could be effected in terms of profitability within the next 18 months.

The proposals in this report are designed to increase profitability in 18 months – not just by a quarter; not just by a half; not even doubling profitability – that would be good enough – but trebling it. If we don’t reach that, we’ll still be winning.

We can do it. Take a look at the proposals. I think you’ll like them.

Weak words

Do you ever suffer from embolalia? Most of us do. It’s the use of... um... virtually meaningless filler words, phrases, or... er... stammerings in speech, whether as... uh... unconscious utterings while arranging one’s thoughts or as... like... a vacuous, inexpressive... you know... mannerism... OK?

None of us would write like that, but a lot of people do speak that way.

Avoid pompous words

  1. For ‘facilitate’, use ‘make it possible’.
  2. Show people how to ‘put new ideas into practice’ rather than ‘introduce new concepts’.
  3. Rather than offering ‘a wide range’ of anything, give specific descriptions of what it is you offer, as in the following example.

We advise our clients to make wills. We insist the title deeds to their houses are registered and we hope they never need us to protect them against injustice... If they do, we’re here to do our best.

This sounds so much stronger than:

We offer a wide range of services that can help you plan for a more secure future.

Look out for pompous language and purge it from your speech.

Avoid conditional phrases

‘I’ll be happy to give you more information and answer your questions.’ is stronger than ‘If you’d like me to answer any questions, or if you’d like me to give you any more information, please don’t hesitate to ask.’

Starting a sentence with ‘if’ weakens its content.

Avoid run-ons

Powerful speakers end their speeches powerfully:

...this much we pledge – and more.


...from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

John F Kennedy, inaugural addressMartin Luther King, I have a dream

The example of a conditional phrase given above is typical of the way a run-on sentence weakens the end of a speech. Of course, people with this unfortunate tendency often further weaken their cause with pointless run-ons:


I’m here to help. So I’ve told you all I have to say on the subject of financial security. Thank you very much for your attention, and as I said, if you have any questions, now is the time to ask them. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Avoid polite introductions

Don’t waste your opening sentence by using a worn-out stock phrase:

  • Ladies and Gentlemen,
  • It gives me great pleasure...
  • Unaccustomed as I am...
  • Good morning/afternoon/evening. I’m here to...

Forget the above and use your first few seconds to make a strong impression on your audience.

Language to use

If you don’t communicate your message in a way the audience understands, you waste your time and theirs. Remember the adage: the meaning of a communication is the response you get. It’s your responsibility to make sure your listeners understand what you are saying.

Clear and simple communication

Common mistakes include using over-formal language and too many words. The best speech and writing is simple and direct. Don’t change the way you communicate just because you are doing a formal presentation.

For example, suppose you want to explain that problems will be swiftly dealt with under an agreement. In old-fashioned business language or ‘legalese’, it might come out like this:


The contract makes due provision for the expeditious remedying of abnormal functioning conditions that may from time to time arise.

Try asking yourself how you would explain this to a friend. If you’d say ‘We promise to sort out your problems quickly’ then say that in your talk. Listeners will understand immediately. If they want to know exactly how it will work, they can follow it up later.

Ordinary words

If it’s worth a minute, give it thirty seconds.

Ken Dodd

In place of abstract, conceptual words, use specific, tangible, everyday ones. Instead of ‘strategy’, say ‘this is what we intend to do’. True it’s longer, but it’s still easier to understand. Why? Because you can’t picture ‘strategy’ in your mind. But you can picture someone doing something.

Don’t ‘implement’ a scheme, set it up. Don’t ‘commence’ it, start it. Don’t talk about its ‘effectiveness’, say how well it’s working. If you wouldn’t use these words in ordinary conversation, why use them when speaking in public?

Accentuate the positive

Two presenters from financial companies that were launching new investment packages ended thus:

  • ‘...the important thing is we really want to make sure that you don’t lose all of your money.’
  • ‘...we will ensure that you get a return on your money, even though we can’t guarantee its safety.’

The message put across was essentially the same, but the internal representations that the audience created were very different. So whenever you are presenting, say it the way you want it.

  • ‘I don’t want you to think our product is too expensive.’

They may not have thought it before, but they will now! Leave your audience with what you really want them to think about, rather than what you don’t want them to think about.

Strong public speaking patterns

Learn and use the strong verbal patterns that have been proved to work in public speaking.

1. Series of three

  • Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
  • Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The above are well-known examples of series of three. They work best when they crescendo through your speech, gaining in momentum with your thought.

2. Alliteration

Phrases such as powerful presentations, radical reports or seditious speeches have more impact than strong presentations, provocative reports or rebellious speeches.

But don’t spice up your speeches with purple prose through the allure of alliteration just for the sake of it – the content must live up to the demands of the form.

3. Antithesis

Using a pair of contrasting ideas in close succession creates a powerful effect.

We shall have to learn again to be one nation or one day we will be no nation.

Margaret Thatcher

Government and cooperation are in all things the laws of life: anarchy and competition the laws of death

John Ruskin

Consider how you could use this device in a speech.

4. Oxymoron

This is a paired combination of two words that appear to be contradictory, such as living death, burning cold, bitter sweet or deafening silence.

They can used to make a humorous or ironic point: military intelligence or airline food.


A strong oxymoron will naturally make your listeners stop and think, so leave time for them to absorb your message before continuing.

5. Analogy

Different items are compared with the idea of explaining something unknown in terms of something known, as in ‘the operation of a computer presents an interesting analogy to the working of the brain.’

Analogies can provide instructive insights. They tend to suggest that existing similarities imply more similarities: ‘An efficient human resources department is as important in helping a company run smoothly as an efficient blood supply is in keeping a person healthy.’

6. Units

Units are stronger than numbers. One month sounds longer to the listener than thirty days. You are more likely to get a contract if you quote for twelve hundred pounds than if you quote for one thousand two hundred pounds.