9 hacks guaranteed to make your next presentation world class

Vinay’s note – Sharing your expertise with an audience can be a powerful way to reach more people and gain followers. It can also be a nerve-racking experience. In this post, veteran speaker, Hugh Culver shares 9 uncommon ways to help you prepare and make a presentation that is world class.

Congratulations! You’ve been asked to speak at the next industry conference. So, why are you so nervous?

The thought of speaking in front of an audience makes most people want to run the other way. After all, who wants to look out at a room full of blank stares and crossed arms?

On the other hand, bringing your message to a live audience is a powerful way to attract clients and investors and start a movement. It’s also a great way to get instant feedback on your ideas, solutions and products.

Even though we live in an age of tweets, pins, shares and blabs, nothing beats the power of 1 person sharing their story and solutions and inspiring action in others. For evidence, just look at the massive popularity of TED talks or the thousands that flock to events like Fincon, Social Media Marketing World, New Media Expo and SXSW—we love to be inspired and the experience of learning in real-time from an expert.

The good news is that with a few tricks and tweaks, you can command any audience and inspire people to take action in their work and lives. In fact, your presentation can stand out from any other presenter at the event.

Here are 9 hacks guaranteed to make your next presentation world class.

1. Nail the timing


A common mistake is to start slow and end fast. The speaker opens with a with long-winded story about their childhood on a farm in Iowa, gives us a mishmash of forgettable ideas and then frantically tries to make up time by rushing through their last 25 slides. Don’t be one of those.

After delivering over 1,000 presentations, I’ve discovered a reliable timing break-down that helps you avoid the “start slow, end fast” trap, plus ensures you protect enough time to deliver the real heart of your presentation. The formula is: 35% of your time is for opening, 50% for content or lessons, and 15% for the close. Let’s break that down a little more.


Your opening needs to get the audience leaning in, so start with a relevant story (see “Start With a Story” below), meaningful statistics or a bold claim about the solutions you’re going to deliver.

Following that, prove you understand their pain—what problem are you here to solve? I speak about productivity, so after my opening story, I talk about the challenge of trying to get everything done in what I call our “Age of Distraction.” I’ve already interviewed a handful of delegates, plus I’ve been researching this topic for over 10 years, so I know they’ll be nodding in agreement. Now they’re ready to learn.


Roughly one-half of your time should be dedicated to your content – lessons, insights or key points you want your audience to learn. A neat format I follow for each lesson is: story, lesson, examples. It looks like this:

  • Anchor each point to a story. It doesn’t have to be long or extraordinary, but it should get the audience’s attention and relate to the lesson you’re about to deliver. Months later, a well-told story will help delegates recall your lessons.
  • Deliver the lesson as simply as possible. Maybe you’ve written a thesis paper on the social psychology of new media, but we just need to know how to get more followers on Twitter.
  • Wrap up your point with multiple examples of how delegates can use this lesson. The more practical and specific the examples, the more value you will create for each person in the audience.


The final 15% is protected for the close – rush this and the focus will be on your poor timing, not your message. A good close should have a summary (see “Deliver less content, better,” below), call-to-action, closing inspiration (see “End with a bang,” below).

A tip from the pros: If you’re running out of time, simply type the number of the slide you want to jump to and presto! You’re back on time and no one is the wiser.

2. Start with a story

If you want to stand out and be memorable, start your speech with a story. In fact, skip the “I’m-so-glad-to-be-here” self-serving babble and jump right into your story. A good story paints an image in our mind, gets us leaning in, and it can help with memory recall. When we use a story to deliver our lessons, according to Stanford professors Gordon Bower and Michal Clark, we can improve audience recall of the lesson by as much as 6 to 7 times.

If you want to stand out and be memorable, start your speech with a story. Click To Tweet

I often start with a story about trying to pay-it-forward at a drive-through Tim Horton’s. As I tell the story, I’m in the scene acting it out—I want the audience to be glued to me. As I get closer to doing the good deed, I get even more animated.

The punch line is I got the wrong breakfast and the other person, the one I was trying pay it forward to, got my dry toasted bagel. It’s a short story that segues perfectly into my message about assumptions and being open to challenging their beliefs and habits.

The story works because I’ve practiced it, shortened it, and I tell it like it’s the first time (even though I’ve told it to hundreds of audiences). “The beginning of speech is critically important,” says speaker and comedian, Ron Tite, “and kicking it off with a humorous anecdote can go a long way to silencing a room, focusing attention and establishing the tone for what will follow.”

A well-told story, even about something mundane, like a drive-through restaurant, will always beat a poorly told story about, say, winning an Olympic medal.

3. Use fewer slides

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Your PowerPoint (or Keynote) slides can help bring your speech to life, but they can also destroy an otherwise good presentation—don’t fall victim to “death by PowerPoint.”

“The power is not the point,” best-selling author of UnMarketing and UnSelling, Scott Stratten told me, “You’re the expert and if all the content is on the screen, you’re sort of useless.”

Reducing the volume of slides and content per slide is de rigour advice that’s worth repeating. Follow these rules and your slide deck is more likely to help, rather than hinder, your next speech.

  • Less is best – instead of repeating what you’re going to say on the screen, reduce each bullet point to 8 words or less and present them in a large font. “Use them as visual compliments to your talk, not as your talk,” says Stratten.
  • Fade to black – when you’re making an important point, get the audience’s attention by switching the screen to black (if your remote doesn’t have this button, hit “B” or PERIOD on the keyboard).
  • Go big or go home – don’t make your audience work at reading your slides. Use bigger fonts with more space on the slide (author, speaker and technology evangelist, Guy Kawasaki recommends 30-point font, or larger) and your audience will thank you.
  • Practice safe slides – never grab a picture off Google Images for your slide deck—practice safe slides. For free, public domain or Creative Commons Zero license images, I rely on pixabay.com, unsplash.com, stocksnap.io and pexels.com.
  • Don’t read your slides – your slides are there to punctuate what you say and help audience members track your points. If you think you need to read your slides, you’ve got too much on them.

4. Make them move

There’s an old line in the speaking profession, “The brain can only absorb what the butt can endure.”— you need to let people move. During my speech, I plan for some kind of activity about every 10 to 12 minutes. Follow that formula and your presentation will stand out at any event. Here’s how:

  • Journaling – asking your audience to write is a great way to get everyone involved and wake up kinaesthetic learners (people that learn by doing). For example, ask them to write down 3 challenges they face in their business, or 1 goal they have for the year.
  • Turn to your partner – a fail-safe exercise is to ask the audience to share a challenge or insight with the person next to them. To avoid anyone being left out, invite them to form a group of 3, if they need to.
  • Stand and find a new partner – people tend to sit with friends. Encourage new perspectives by asking the audience to stand, find a new partner and share what they’ve learned.

Any excuse to get your audience to move will increase their attention and retention and make you look like a rock star.

5. Be funny

Question: “Do I have to be funny in my speech?”

Answer: “Only if you want to get invited back.”

Adding humor to your presentation is more than just a way to keep the audience’s attention (and it will do that) – it’s also a way to help them learn. When we laugh, we release feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. We’re also more able to think creatively about problem solving.

I don’t think I’m funny—I went to school for an MBA, not training at Second City. But, I’ve learned being “funny” on stage doesn’t have to be about telling hilarious jokes or having a face like Jason Hewlett. I can be funny just by sharing when I’ve goofed up in business or in life—we’ve all had those moments.

I was coaching a speaker recently who complained she wasn’t funny. She then went on to describe how at a recent event her stiletto heels were threatening to get caught in the carpet on stage. At one point, she envisioned herself face down on the VIP table. That could have been the perfect moment to stop, point out what was going on, and warn the front table that she might be joining them!

“Comedy is really the art of surprise,” says Tite. “They’re expecting one thing – be it a brilliant solution or famous quotation—when you deliver something unexpected, it can jolt them into laughter.”

Over the years, I’ve built an inventory of stories that I know get a laugh and can be segues into my lessons. I store them in Evernote. Some are about my girls growing up, some about my business flying people to the South Pole (some things are always funnier in hindsight), my marriage and some about my work as a speaker.

When I know I need to break up the delivery and wake the audience up, that list is invaluable.

6. Get social proof

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An opportunity most speakers miss is to get social proof. Let me explain.

In his brilliant book Influence (which, by the way, any entrepreneur worth their salt needs to read), Robert Cialdini defines ‘social proof’ as the phenomena of tending to believe what other people are doing is the right thing.

For example, if you drive into a new town in search of a place to eat, you’re more likely to park at a restaurant with a parking lot full of cars, as opposed to one with few cars. Same applies for getting an audience to love you.

About halfway into my speech I pause, turn to the audience, and ask them 2 questions: “Are you enjoying this?” and “Has this been valuable?” Right away I get applause and smiles. Now, here’s the secret. At that moment, anyone who might have been reserving judgment – not sure if they related to my message – typically joins in the applause. They buy into the social proof, and now I’ve got them.

I usually repeat the same questions just before my close. Those simple questions prime the audience to rate my presentation higher, get me more standing ovations, and lead to better reviews and more referrals. Pretty good return for 2 questions.

By the way, if you don’t get a unanimous thumbs up, now’s the time to win the audience back—don’t wait until your speech is over to learn what they think.

7. Connect with the audience

People learn from those they connect with. This is true in management, sales, love and your next presentation. “The more you connect with your audience,” WishList co-founder, and speaker Stu McLaren told me, “the more open they become to your message.”

People learn from people they connect with. This is true in management, sales, love and your next presentation. Click To Tweet

Let me prove this with 2 scenarios:

Imagine the Emcee is reading the next speaker’s introduction, which gushes on about this uber-successful business titan. You’re impressed and can’t wait to soak up gems of their brilliance. And then he walks on stage.

You can’t help but notice the arrogant way he takes command of the stage or his thousand-dollar wingtip oxfords or the bespoke suit and glittering Breitling arm-candy. He opens by complaining about flight delays, uncomfortable airline seating and how first-class travel isn’t what it used to be. Ugh.

Now, picture a different speaker who also gets a glowing introduction from the Emcee. But this time they walk on stage, pause and scan the audience – making eye contact. You notice they’re nicely dressed, but not showy. Their opening story is about mistakes they’ve made on their rise to the top. They seem genuinely excited to be here, to share what they’ve learned and to help you to avoid the same mistakes.

Who would you connect with?

In addition to how you dress and open your speech, you can connect by literally getting closer to your audience. “Don’t let how a room is set up keep you from getting closer to your audience,” says speaker and author Linda Edgecombe. “You and they will feel the energy shift when you get off the stage and walk into them. And if you can do this and tell a story that shows your vulnerability, well, you will have them in the palm of your hand.”

8. Deliver less content, better

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When designing a speech, a common mistake is to equate more content with more value. One point after another, the speaker throws advice at the audience al dente-style, hoping something will stick. Big mistake.

Here’s the reality.

Within 24 hours, most people will have forgotten 80% of what you said. Not only do they have a hard time remembering your presentation, yours was probably 1 of 4 they went to that day.

If you want to be memorable, impact the audience and even turn your speech into sales, you need to deliver less content, better.

Here’s how:

  • When in doubt, delete it. All of your stories, examples and insights should support your main message. Even though your dog story gets a laugh, if it doesn’t reinforce a key point – drop it. You’re better off reinforcing a point you’ve already made (see “Get them moving”, above) than taking them down a trail that goes nowhere.
  • Deliver no more than 3 points. The Rule of 3 reminds us we tend to remember 3 things better than 4, 5, or more. The Rule of 3 shows up in children’s books (Goldilocks and the 3 Bears), politics (Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), and movies (The good, the bad and the ugly) – it should also show up in your speech.
  • Anchor every lesson to a story. We love a good story—a picture created in the minds of your audience will always be stickier than some statistic about cell phone usage in Uruguay. When in doubt, add a story.
  • Improve your slides (see “Use fewer slides”, above). If using slides, avoid these 3 mistakes: 1) too many slides, 2) too many words and 3) boring (or lack of) visuals. For inspiration, see Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte or any of the late Steve Job’s presentations at WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) events.
  • Repeat the best parts. A simple technique to boost retention is to repeat your key lessons at least twice. I typically revisit my main points once in my summary and again in my closing.
  • Use props. Even a simple prop will make your lessons more memorable. My friend David Irvine brings a rubber ball and a glass ball on stage to represent the parts of life that are resilient and the parts that are fragile, non-negotiable, and need to be protected (see what I did there? 3 points).
  • Give them examples. Don’t assume your audience is relating your message to their life/work—give them examples. For example, if I’m talking about creating Time Boundaries to get work done, I’ll suggest a 90 minute boundary when you first arrive at work, an afternoon boundary to catch up and plan the next day, and boundaries at home for reading, exercise or music.
  • Summarize. A quick summary toward the end of your speech reminds the audience of your key points, shows you’re organized and segues into your close. If I have time, I follow my summary by getting delegates to announce to their partner the most important lessons they’re going to put into action.

9. End with a bang

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We tend to remember the first part of an experience (like your first time walking through the gates at Disneyland) and the last part of the experience (like, “Luke, I am your father”).

In psychology, those moments are called primacy and recency – use them to your advantage.

After reading this article, you will, of course, be kicking off every speech with an attention-grabbing story (see “Start with a Story”, above). Next, it’s time to plot your ending.

For many years, I closed my speech with a motivational quote—it was predictable, safe, boring and forgettable. Later, when talking with delegates, nobody mentioned the quote. So I dropped it.

Now, I always use a story.

Your story can be a simple reminder of the main direction of your message. For example, if you talk about leadership, find an example of an underdog who did remarkable things. Try to avoid well-worn examples, like Oprah, Mother Teresa, Michael Jackson or Martin Luther King—lesser-known is better.

You can also return to your opening story. This “looping” technique hits on both primacy (reminding them of your opening) and recency (layering a “punch line” on your first story).

For example, if I open with my story of co-creating the world’s only airline in Antarctica, I stop just before I get to our inaugural flight to the South Pole. I want to build suspense, so I promise to finish the story at the end of my presentation. Now I’ve got them.

With about 10 minutes to go, I ask if they’d like to know what happened when we flew to the pole. Of course, they scream, “Yes!” It’s a routine I tried one day (I think I was feeling a little sneaky), and it worked so well I’ve used it ever since.

You don’t have to start an airline (not recommended) to make this work. Start with your opening story, find a natural break, then hold off on delivering the ending.

Whether recording a training video, kicking off a staff meeting or on the main stage, a little extra preparation plus a few hacks will make any presentation world class – including yours.


Hugh Culver teaches experts the business of speaking. He co-created the world’s most expensive tours (to the South Pole), started five companies and is the author of Give Me a Break. www.hughculver.com

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