Presentation Skills – Tips and Techniques

October 13, 2011 — 19 Comments

Texas Society of Architects - group presentation with Bob Borson

Unlike most professions, architects are fairly accustomed to standing up in front of a group of people and publicly speaking … but that doesn’t mean they like it (or even worse)  – that they are any good at doing it. The concern going through almost everyone’s head before they get up in front of a group is that they will look stupid, sound stupid, or generally come across as someone who shouldn’t be talking about whatever it is they are talking about. If that’s you, the good news is that you are not alone.

I consider myself many things, most of which I should be medicated and seeing a licensed therapist about, but public speaking isn’t something that I struggle with. There are a few tips and techniques I have picked up along the way that have made the process a lot easier for me and I thought I would share them with you today. Regardless of the number of people you need to address, knowing just a few things can virtually guarantee that you will look like you should be there.


Stage Presence

  • Try and be comfortable in your own body. If you aren’t a suit a tie person, don’t pick presentation day to change.
  • Movement is important. Too often a prop (like a lectern) is available and the impulse to stand behind it and lock your hands down with a Klingon death grip on the sides. Resist!! At the very least, stand to the side a bit so that you can take advantage of our natural impulse to gesticulate with our hands.



  • Identify to yourself the objective of your presentation – what’s your big idea. Figuring this out can help guide you when trying to determine if you are on the right track.
  • Tell a story. This is really important because if you want people to listen (and that’s sort of the point) give them something to connect with. This might be difficult for some people but since I am already prone to hyperbole, I try to make this a strength. Telling a story personalizes the information and connects people to your big idea … at least that’s the intention.


Know Your Topic

  • Sincerity is  key when presenting, the more you know about your topic, the more believable you will  be to your audience. This can be achieved by actually knowing everything there is to know but that’s a little unlikely for most people. The next best thing is to speak with conviction … you must know enough to be sincere.
  • Keep your presentation focused on the areas that you are most comfortable speaking. This simply means that instead of trying to learn all 100 things about “x”, learn 10 things exceedingly well about “x” and stick to those items.


How to Present

  • Which method is the best? From worst to best, I’d go with Manuscript, Memorization, Outline (PowerPoint), Extemporaneous, and then Improvisation. Nobody wants to sit in on a presentation where someone is simply reading their lines, at least I know I don’t. When you know your material so well that you can see a word and know what information you are supposed to cover, that sort of spontaneity makes for the best presentations because they have the most energy.
  • Choosing a presentation format is really a function of audience size – but try to make it as interactive as possible. I normally try to ask some sort of question in the very beginning that everyone can answer. It should be a question that you can tie into your topic – before I presented at the Texas Society of Architects Convention on the Purpose of Social Media for Architects, I asked, “How many people have ever been to my site before?”. Afterward, I realized I should have asked people something far less specific like “How many people use the internet during business hours?”. Getting people to engage, even at the smallest level, really makes a difference.



  • Make yourself heard – but don’t yell. Project your voice towards the back row unless you are in a huge room and you have to use a mic.
  • Find the light … and then stand in that light. Pay just a little attention to how the space is lit and make sure that you are standing in the light. If people can’t see you, they can’t hear you. It really is that simple.

So despite all these straightforward tips and techniques, most people only follow a few. My biggest fear when speaking in front of a group of people falls in line with what everyone fears – sounding like an idiot (looking like an idiot I have little control over). I have come to accept that my obvious shortcomings are simply aspects of my personality and those traits don’t always find a receptive audience. I don’t want to change who I am or how I act because it wouldn’t be me and my sincerity would be lost. My personality actually trends towards public speaking pretty well because I like to tell stories and subsequently use those stories to get my point across. This manner of presenting is far more entertaining than reading facts and figures verbatim from a PowerPoint slide presentation. I do have one glaring problem or issue that I struggle with – talking too much and knowing when to get off the stage. That’s why I’ve saved these pointers for last:


Adios Muchachos (goodbye my friends)

  • If you have 20 minutes allocated for your presentation, plan to fill 15 minutes. That extra 5 minutes will sometimes (unfortunately) get filled with ah’s and uhm’s, but since you should be working without a script, you will embellish parts and add some flourish along the way. It always happens.
  • Nobody ever cares if you run short but everybody hates when you run long. Don’t. Run. Long. If it looks like that’s what’s going to happen, instead of speeding up and running through the presentation material like a jacked up Ewok, skip ahead in your material and reset so that you can maintain the conversational tone to your speaking.

There are many different resources available out there that can provide you with some additional tips and techniques – these are just the ones that I try to follow.



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  • Thanks Bob.  I have met with dozens of clients for that ever-important interview/consult and am having another one this evening.  I have always felt like I’m better at it than most because I AM comfortable in my own skin, so my presentations become more of discussions, where I lead the audience through the points I want to hit through stories like you.  I’ve found that timely self depricating humor goes a long way to showing my audience that I AM HUMAN, just like them (flipping your comment about the audience).  

    I think my weakness lies in “closing” both presentations and “the sale”.  Perhaps this is from lack of experience.  You’d think I’d be good at that with my ease, but maybe I’m too easy going?  I’m not sure.

  • Anonymous

    As a public speaking professional I can only commend these tips.
    But when training Architects to pitch new projects we concentrate on one thing first. 
    What do they want to know?

    Now if you are amusing, entertaining, filling some time this is less important, but in pitching for new business it’s vital.
    It’s that 20 minutes of discussion/brain work that delivers great selling presentations.

    Most presenters focus far too much on their own needs – it’s human nature – we’re the star in our own movie. But if you can really think your way into the audiences minds and work out what they want to know and need to know, then you will be great.

    For example, many Architects spend a couple of minutes at the front of Presentations explaining about their practice. Actually I’m being polite, they say they will spend a couple of minutes, and ten minutes later we’re just reaching the 70’s in the company history…

    Have a a look at this:

  • Great tips Bob. I’ve been trying to present all the time but I never seem to get the hang of it. I seem to freak out every time. How many years did it take you to be comfortable at presenting? The only times when I feel that I get the attention deserved is when I can crack a joke (or practically embarrassed myself by unintentionally pulling silly faces) during the presentation itself. That’s after I’ve sweated myself out as usual. Thanks for sharing

  • Mike Ayles

    One of the best tips/techniques on public speaking I have read.  I’m sharing it with my office ASAP.

    I agree with EVERYTHING in this article and I would add one tip that I use that is sure to settle most people down right before, and after, they start (and it is not imagining the audience naked, though that does work for some!).  Know the first 30 seconds (or more if you can … the more the better) of your speech verbatim.  Setting the first impression is key – if you immediately need to start looking at notes when you start, you (and your audience) will feel uncomfortable.  Feeling and looking confident is critical and if you get off on a good foot, you will feel more confident, start to relax, and the rest of the speaking will come more naturally.

  • Dutchie

    Great tips on public speaking! The best tip I can give is just to get experience, and prepare as well as possible. 

    One thing I do not agree on is the point where you say that a 20 minutes presentation should filled for 15 minutes. My personal experience is that I go faster (not to fast)  then when preparing, and that I forget some (unimportant) things. When I prepare I usually fill 5 extra minutes, but that could be just me 😉

  • Mae

    What a great overview & refresher on public speaking. Just the act of preparing (by following your list of tips, for example) can improve a person’s presentation.

    There was one additional thing I thought of but you may have intended as part of the motivation/know your objective point: know your audience. Are they in the trade? Are they new or are they seasoned professionals? Are they non-industry types? Just something I like to think about.

    Thx again for this!!

  • Scott Dillow

    A great post.  It took me years to get to the point where I can relax enough to follow many of your tips.  I always wondered why crits in architectural school were so intense and stressful.

    One item that I have found helpful: Keep in mind that your audience are just people like you. I’m friends with many people who would be downright intimidating if they were strangers I had to address from a professional perspective.  I just pretend I know them all personally and speak to them as if that’s the case (minus all the salty language of course).

    • I love salty language outside of a few particular words … been even known to use them in my presentations!

      Thanks Scott

  • Jeremiah

    awesome! I’m giving a Pecha Kucha presentation in November. My hands sweat and I feel dizzy just thinking about it. Will be biggest presentation I’ve ever given. Timely post! Thank you! 🙂

    • Don’t freak yourself out – you will care a lot more than the other people watching. Just remember, you know more about what your presenting than the people listening, so act and project your presentation like you are the expert (because you are).


      • Jeremiah

        Dang. Best 15 second pep talk EVER. 😉

  • Great tips and very timely as I look to put together my first in-person 20 min. or so session.  I readily agreed to the session when it was explained as a panel discussion on social media.  Now, about 3 weeks out before the presentation, I’ve started realizing that I’m on the spot to speak (and knowledgibly) about social media for 20 min.  Partly, it feels like you can’t scratch the surface in 20 min. and partly it feels like that is a really long time to avoid tripping over a cord or something. 🙂  But, I will certainly use your tips when preparing and I agree that memorizing is best.  I find that when I have something in front of me, I rely on that and look down, even though I know it.

    • I have given various presentations on that subject and if I can offer some unsolicited advice that you touch on …

      With only 20 minutes, you can only present very high level information. If you get into too much detail, you will create more questions than you can answer in that time span. I learned that lesson the hard way a year ago.

      Best of luck

  • Anonymous

    Good advice, Bob. Not everyone is in touch with that “natural impulse to gesticulate with our hands,” though. It took a lot of practice for me to get good at that. For those who struggle with this as I did, the first thing to do is observe. Watch people who move their arms a lot and see what kind of motions they use. Watch speakers on TV, at talks you go to, in YouTube videos… 

    It’s also possible to get rid of the uhs and ahs, or at least reduce them greatly. Again, it takes becoming aware of them and then making the conscious decision not to let them into your talk.

    In general, I agree with your hierarchy on how to present, but a lot of people in the past week have watched one of the great speeches of this century given by someone who was reading. I’m talking about Steve Jobs’s commencement address at Stanford. It’s definitely an exception, though, and inexperienced speakers would be wise to follow your advice.

    • Moving my arms and hands around comes very naturally to me but that probably has as much to do with the fact I like to tell and act out stories. I like your advice about watching how other people are moving because I pay attention to that and I learn what to NOT do as much as anything else. You can tell when someone is consciously thinking about using their hands or waving around – it looks forced and unnatural. What I strive for is how I might move if I was having a casual conversation.

      That hierarchy list from worst to best could also be used as a measuring stick to gauge the experience level of the presenter – the more you present o a subject, the less likely you are to rely on props – those are there for the people sitting in the audience.

      Thanks for adding a great comment and extending the conversation.


  • Great tips for public speaking. I haven’t had to do much lately but when I used to,  I did many of the things that you suggested. I also would just be myself and found that worked the best.

    • you are right about that – if you aren’t yourself, people can tell you are outside your comfort zone and they might think it’s because you don’t know what you’re talking.

      Thanks for commenting Todd, I appreciate it

      • These are really good tips!! Better than what they tell us at uni. I had my first presentation and it was very scary, I hope these tips can help me in the future!