How to improve your presentation skills

Students working together

Whether you are at university or a workplace, presenting to an audience is something you will have to do many times throughout your life. At university, presentations are a common way for your teachers to see how much you have learned.

Why are good presentation skills important?

From convincing a potential new client to sharing your knowledge with your peers, presenting helps you get key ideas and beliefs across to a large audience. However, how you deliver that information is important. It’s one thing to present information, but presenting it well takes practice; lots of it. It’s a skill used by many but mastered by few. 

Presenting is a skill and something you can improve with time, practice and patience. If you’re looking to get started in developing effective presentation skills, these handy tips will allow you to level-up your presentations.

Know your subject and audience well

The first step to improving your presentation skills is to consider what you’re presenting and who you’re presenting it to. This will influence the type of presentation you are going to give. A presentation on biology to a group of university students will have a very different approach than a business pitch aimed at your company boss. 

What you say, how you say it and the level of detail you go into are all decided by your target audience. Know them, and your subject, inside out.

Take your time

One of the biggest mistakes people make when delivering their presentation is that they speak too quickly or quietly. There is no rush when giving your presentation (so long as you are prepared and know when you’re stopping). Speaking more slowly shows confidence in both yourself and the subject you’re talking about. If you speak too quickly, people will find it hard to understand you.

It’s also important to make sure that your voice is loud and clear (known as projecting your voice). This allows everyone, from the front to the back of the room, to still hear you. Every member of your audience is important.

Use open, friendly body language

If you want a quick way to improve your presentation skills, open and friendly body language is a great starting point. 

There are more subtle ways to show your confidence and friendliness than what you say and how it’s said. Do not stand at the front of the room and cross your arms or keep your hands in your pockets. This body language suggests that you would rather be somewhere else, which is the last thing you want your audience to think!

One way to include come across as more friendly is using gestures to keep your audience engaged. You can use your hands if referring to something that is big or small, or direct your audience and point to your slides if there is something you want them to see.

If you have a lot of room to move, consider moving around to create visual interest.

Practise, practise, practise!

The easiest way to improve your presentation skills is to practise. Practising alone in front of a mirror, even if a little embarrassing, can help you identify what you’re doing well and what needs improving. Consider recording audio of your presentation to give you an idea of how long the presentation is, or if some sections need changing. Most modern smartphones allow you to do this and it is a great way to identify areas for improvement. 

You might even feel brave enough to practise in front of a small group of friends!

Keep it engaging and structured

You may have a great idea for a presentation, but unless you present it in an engaging, exciting way, people will be less likely to listen to you. 

Think about how you’re going to deliver your information. Do you have any stories to share? A video or images? A joke or two can help relax your audience and keep them interested.

A good presentation is well-paced, moving forwards before the audience loses interest. Make sure you ensure each section does not run for too long.

Keep your presentation slides simple

While not essential, supporting slides (created in an app like Microsoft PowerPoint) can help reinforce your points, giving audience members a visual summary of what you’re talking about. 

However, too much information on a slide can prove distracting, or even discourage people from looking at it. Don’t fall into the trap of sharing your entire script on your slides.

When designing slides to accompany your presentation, stick to bullet points that cover what is being discussed. Visual aids, like pictures, can help you reinforce a point you are making.

Make eye contact with your audience

One way to help keep your audience engaged and invested in what you’re saying is to connect with them on a personal level. Something as simple as eye contact shows you are engaged and talking to them, not the wall at the back of the room. 

When the people you’re speaking to see that you’re noticing them, they will pay more attention to what you’re saying. If this makes you uncomfortable, remember that you don’t have to maintain eye contact for too long!

Avoid filled pauses when speaking

Filled pauses (umm, err) are the sounds we make when we’re talking, but we’re not sure how to respond. You will use them a lot when you’re with friends or family, as it gives you time to think of what to say. Using these in a presentation, however, suggests that you aren’t confident. 

Remember: we only use filled pauses when we’re not sure what to say. 

If you practise and rehearse your presentation, you’ll know what to say and when. This will help you come across as confident, knowledgeable, and charismatic.

Be yourself

The most important thing of all is to be authentic. While it’s good to watch other presentations to get ideas you can use, don’t become someone you’re not. Your presentation should be as unique as you, showcasing all your strengths in a way that nobody else could copy. 

Types of presentation

There are many presentation styles to choose from, each with their own unique strengths:

  • Visual Style: Heavy use of images on slides to get your point across.
  • Freeform Style: Use of stories and a loose structure. Good for shorter presentations.
  • Instructor Style: An approach used by university lecturers. You have the information; you are imparting it to your audience. 
  • Coach Style: Energetic and inspirational, used when trying to get across what an idea is, rather than how the idea might happen.
  • Storytelling Style: Use of examples and personal anecdotes (things that have happened to you) to emotionally connect with your audience.
  • Connector Style: Connect with your audience by showing how similar you are to them. Good when you feel you're learning and growing with your audience, or presenting to your peers at work or university.
  • Lessig Style: Keep it short and snappy. Talk about each slide for no longer than 15 seconds!
  • Takahashi Style: Use of large, plain text on slides. No images, typically 1-2 sentences. A good style to use if you’re short on time and want to get straight to the point.

Your path to the University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield International College helps prepare international students for UK university study. Benefit from a range of programmes, designed for every aspiration, and gain the skills and knowledge you need to progress to a world top 100 university

From the welcoming, culturally diverse campus to degrees that are recognised all around the world, the International College is the perfect starting point in your university journey.

Frequently asked questions

What skills do you need for a presentation?

Presenting requires a lot of skills. As well as knowing a lot about your subject, you need to be prepared. Include slides (visual content) and use stories and jokes, where appropriate, to keep the audience engaged. Positive, open body language will show that you are friendly and charismatic. 

All these elements together will ensure your presentation will be the best it can be.

What makes a good presentation?

A good presentation is one you have practised and keeps the audience interested throughout. You can achieve this by researching your chosen topic, so you have the required knowledge, as well as speaking clearly and confidently to ensure your audience wants to keep listening to you. 

Make sure your presentation has a clear aim. What do you want your audience to know?

How can I be less nervous during a presentation?

  • Be organised. If you know exactly what to say and when to say it, you will feel more confident. Know your content inside and out.
  • Focus on what you’re saying and not on the audience. They are more focused on the information you’re giving them. 
  • Do not fear silence. If you lose track of where you are in your presentation, use silence to not only let the audience take in what you’re saying, but also as a chance for you to take a deep breath and get your focus back.
  • Practise!
  • Remember that everyone watching has likely had to do a presentation themselves at some point. They know how scary it feels and understand you might be nervous.