Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Keys to Giving a Normal Presentation at Work (Because Not Every Talk Is a TED Talk)

You have a really important meeting at work—you’re giving a quarterly report, trying to sell a huge client, or talking to the big boss. So, you start prepping by reading up on public speaking tips. Then you remember that there’s no stage at work. No microphone. No TED logo. (Unless, OK, you work at TED—which you can do by clicking here.)

Instead it’s you, with the SVP, in a small conference room with no windows and the smell of an old apple still in the waste bin.

The vast majority of public speaking advice is focused on how to give a formal speech to a huge crowd. But at work, you’re probably giving project status reports, budget updates, marketing plans, a financial analysis, sales pitches to small groups, and updates to your boss’ boss.

Work presentations are primarily designed to inform and persuade—rather than to entertain and inspire. They are given to small groups, in an intimate setting, seated (not to crowds in an auditorium, standing up). They tend to be detail-focused and data-intensive, with assertions proven with facts and less of a reliance on anecdotes. And finally, they are rooted in a clear, logical structure—as opposed to a performance.

What does all this mean? It means that a lot of the traditional public speaking presentation tips are actually steering you off course. That doesn’t mean you should ditch the PowerPoint and the eye contact, but instead it means you should cater to your (small) audience’s needs. Here’s how to do that.

1. Don’t Lead With a Joke

“Hey boss, did you hear the one about the priest and the rabbi?”

Remember, your discussion with your supervisor, customer, or colleagues is not your opening night at The Improv. So, instead of writing jokes, spend your time identifying the question the other person wants you to answer. Write out your answer in advance in the form of slides.

Then, don’t wing it. If it's important enough to do, it's important enough to do well. Write a voice over script to accompany your slides. This script shouldn’t be a verbatim copy of what's in the presentation; instead it should be a translation and an elaboration.

Finally, map out in advance what you want your audience to do at the end of the meeting (after you’ve answered their question).

2. Don’t Create Overly Simple Slides

This one is controversial. You’ve likely heard (over and over) that slides should be simple—the simpler the better.

However, your manager and your clients don't want simplicity: They want clarity. Your slides should be clear, that’s much more useful than simplicity, for simplicity’s sake. Most times, this will require more than eight words and a photo. Maybe a graph and some data. Remember, if it's for internal use, you can send the presentation around after the fact—all the more reason to include more information.

Make sure the slides contain a single core message in the headline, with evidence supporting the main idea. Use a minimalist presentation design-style to focus the audience on your answer to their question—not on how pretty your deck is. (You can get a template from Graphic River or SlideHeroes.)

Display quantitative data and other evidence in simple and clean charts. Read up on chartjunk and how to eliminate it. Include enough text so that the presentation can be read in advance and understood.

3. Don’t Obsess Over Delivery

“Project your voice.” “Make eye contact.” “Smile!’” “Pause for at least 10 seconds for dramatic effect.” “Speak unusually slowly.” “Share a genuinely emotional story.” “Be aware of your body language.” “Gargle.”

This isn’t bad advice. It just misses the mark in terms of relevance.

Before you enroll in voice coaching lessons to improve your diction and projection, try following this four-step list:

Identify Who Your Audience Is

Profile them. Understand who the decision makers are, how decisions get made, how the audience likes to be spoken to, how they like to consume information.

Determine Why You Are Speaking to Them

Identify the question for which you will develop an answer. Often this is the presentation topic. Re-frame the topic as a question you’ll answer. In other words, “marketing plan” will translate to: How do we grow revenue by 25% next year?

Determine What Your Answer to Their Question Will Be

Do the analysis, thinking, and work required to develop a complete answer.

Decide How to Best Communicate That Answer

Obsess about how you structure your thinking. Use concepts like the Rule of Three; Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE), and the Pyramid Principle to create this structure and organize your ideas.

Those big presentations at work—they’re a key part of your business communication skills. Work hard to become good at them and your career will take off. And in the meantime, you’ll know what to do the next time you’re asked to speak at a meeting.

Photo of presentation courtesy of Shutterstock.