Focus: Communication

Delivering a Presentation That Zings


“Can you hear me?” bellowed the speaker at the start of a large education conference several years ago. A few heads nodded in the front row, but most of the audience was silent.

“Great, then I don’t need this microphone,” continued the speaker in a loud voice. The gentleman happily pushed the microphone aside, lowered his voice to a more normal speaking level and delivered his presentation to the nearest 10 people in the room who could hear him.

Ron DietelRon Dietel

A portion of the 50 or more people in the audience slowly disappeared out the back door while others patiently waited in hopes that the next presenter would not violate a key rule for delivering an effective speech: Make sure the audience can hear you.

As a communications director at UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, I’ve developed a set of recommendations to help our researchers improve the quality of their presentations.

•  Practice, practice, practice. At a recent talk about making better presentations, I asked my audience, “How many of you practiced your last presentation before you gave it?” Half of the hands went up (and I think a few people were stretching the truth). If the only thing you do is to rehearse your presentation a few times before you give it, you are already in the top 50 percent of all speakers.

Repeated practicing improves what you say and how you say it, tells you if your timing is correct and will help you make effective transitions between key points. Practice increases your confidence, reduces jitters and improves virtually every part of your presentation. Practicing also helps you know what to leave out.

How many times should you practice? I suggest a minimum of three to four times, including a final practice one to two hours before your actual speech. 

•  Less content is better. Covering too much content has many negative effects. You may start to speak too fast and become nervous. You may end up going over your allotted time and make other presenters and your audience angry. Finally, if forced to cut content in the middle of your talk, you likely will need to cut the most important parts of your speech, the findings and conclusions!

Reduce both content and visuals so that you emphasize the big ideas. Leave details to a paper, report or the Q&A. Estimate one minute of speech for each PowerPoint slide, two minutes if you are showing test scores or a table, even more if the audience is allowed to ask questions as you speak. 

•  Offer no excuses. Don’t make apologies, even if something is less than perfect, but especially if it is a mistake you could have prevented. Avoid referring to other presenters on your panel. Never say, “That’s a tough act to follow” or “How much time do I have left?” Such remarks tell the audience you either lack confidence in your presentation skills or have not practiced your presentation. 

•  Smile, make eye contact and get close. Nothing warms up an audience like a big smile at the beginning of your presentation and at other key moments. Be enthusiastic and your audience will be enthusiastic. Work your eyes around the room, with a goal of making direct eye contact with each person at least several times. Create a pattern for yourself, such as moving your eyes up and down each row. If possible, physically move close to your audience instead of standing behind a podium or conference table. 

•  Check logistics and technology. Arrive at your room a minimum of 30 minutes before your talk. If presenting in a room where there is no session prior to yours, make a full run-through of your presentation, allowing time to check microphones, LCD projectors, acoustics, temperature and lighting. If a microphone is there, use it.

Arriving the night before your presentation is even better. At one large conference I attended, several presenters were desperately trying to find their room just moments before their session was to start. They arrived late to their session. 

•  Use the 666 rule for PowerPoints. Putting even a moderate amount of information on a slide or visual often results in a speaker reading his or her presentation instead of making an effective speech. Tables, models and figures are almost always difficult to read on a projected slide. The 666 rule will help.

The 666 rule says no slide should contain more than six bullets, no single bullet should contain more than six words, and no graphic should contain more than six information points. An information point is any item that an audience needs to read or attend to on a graphic.

Another important number is 18. That’s the minimum font size that you should use for any text you want your audience to read on your slide. Add the digits in 666 and you have 18. Generally, your slide title should be 30 or 36 points while major headings should be about 24 points. Project your PowerPoint onto a screen in a room the approximate size of the one in which you will present. Stand in the back of the room and click through your slides to see what your viewers will see.

Less Is More
How do you get the time to do what may seem like a lot of extra work to make a better presentation? Follow rule 2. By covering less content you will reduce the amount of time you need to spend creating it. That will give you more time to practice and deliver a presentation that zings.

Ron Dietel, a former school board president, is assistant director for research use and communications at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA. E-mail: