How to Give a Compelling Presentation

Speech coach Tricia Veldman breaks down the essential business skill.

Tricia Veldman combined her love of languages and psychology into a career as a speech pathologist. While pursuing a master’s degree in speech therapy at Columbia University, she secured a prestigious internship at New York Speech Coaching and, as a part of the program, received speech lessons herself.

“They gave me so much insight on how to be a better presenter and how to communicate effectively, in general,” she says. “A big part of it was growing my confidence and I realized it was something I wanted to help other people accomplish.”

Now an associate instructor there, Tricia spends her days helping people develop their voice, accent, and speech into something they love. She believes that, in business, we should never feel limited to express our opinions due to a fear of speaking out loud.

“In order to share ideas and advance our careers, it’s important to be comfortable speaking across a variety of settings,” she says. “Public speaking isn’t limited to giving a seminar or a TED Talk; it can be as simple as going into a meeting with three other people.”

We sat down with Tricia to pick her brain about articulation, engaging an audience and easing those pre-speech nerves. Here’s what she had to say:

Practice tongue twisters

Tongue twisters and reciting Shakespeare out loud (anything that forces you to hit every sound) are the best articulation practices. A tongue twister is designed to mess you up. If you can get good at those, real-life conversations will be much easier by comparison. On the day of your presentation, enunciating your words isn’t something you want to think about.

Record yourself for pacing

Film yourself or use the audio recording on your phone to hear how you sound. Most people speak more quickly than they think they do. Almost always when giving a presentation, err on the side of speaking slowly because the likelihood of sounding too slow is slim. Imagine speaking at a snail’s pace because you’re not going to—you’ll actually be at a more practical pace.

Make a mental roadmap

I recommend not relying on notes because they can get distracting. If you have a PowerPoint, it’s okay to look at the slides every once in awhile but you really want to maintain eye contact. Make a mental roadmap, instead. If your presentation covers three key points, visualize those points as bullets in your mind. Use pneumonic devices or visual imagery to help. Too often people look at their notes, lose their place and get flustered. If you have points solidified in your mind, that won’t happen because there’s more freedom.

Perform relaxing techniques

Engage in diaphragmatic breathing, a type of breathing used in yoga and meditation to physically calm your body. Also referred to as “belly breathing,” your stomach and back expand with a deeper, fuller breath. It’s the opposite of what most of us use naturally, clavicular breathing—quick, shallow breaths that move your chest and shoulders, and actually activate your body’s stress response. Then, give yourself permission to feel nervous because telling yourself to suppress nerves doesn’t actually ease them. Recognize that the feeling is temporary and, at the end of the day, a presentation is not a life or death situation. After that, if you still have anxiety, channel it into excitement. Our bodies process both feelings much the same way.

Steer clear of verbal hedges and upspeak

Know what you want to say and commit to it. Limit your number of verbal hedges—unassertive words like “I kind of think this might be helpful” instead of “this would be helpful.” Avoid upspeak which is ending a statement in the form of a question. Cut out habits that make it seem like you’re asking for permission rather than stating an opinion or idea in the form of an authoritative statement.

Avoid filler words

You want to speak slowly enough that you can think about your words before you say them. If you have that luxury, you’re not going to plant an “um” or a “like.” Filler words don’t get us any closer to our end goal; they’re not conveying any information. If you stay connected to the content and focus on what you’re saying, you can easily eliminate them. When you’re about to say one, simply breathe—it’s a nice chance to relax ourselves and slow down at the same time.

Incorporate vocal variety

When it comes to keeping your audience’s attention, adjust your pitch, rate of speech and volume so they’re not the same throughout the presentation. If you say all your words exactly the same way, people aren’t going to stay focused or enjoy listening because we habituate to monotonous stimuli. Connect your energy and emotion to reflect the content of what you’re saying. If it feels like you’re giving the information by rote, you’ve memorized it or you’re reading off a paper, it’s not going to be as engaging.

Brush off mistakes

Stumbling over your words is not as big of a deal to the audience as it is to you. They’re thinking more about the overall content of what you’re saying. If the error is bigger and more glaring, like if you get someone’s name wrong or deliver the wrong information, acknowledge it and clarify with something like, “Excuse me, I misspoke earlier. What I meant to say was…”

Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo.