There was a point in my life when I would have rather gone over Niagara Falls in a snake-filled wicker basket than have to give a public presentation. I'm still not overly fond of the practice, but here are some tips that helped me become better at it:
Know your goal ahead of time
What's your goal, or what do you want people to take away from your presentation? This is important because your goal should never be "speaking for an hour" or exercising your vocal cords. Are you looking to persuade your audience to try a certain technical solution? Maybe you're doing a presentation on the role your department plays in the organization. Make sure you keep this in mind when you start writing your presentation. After you're finished, ask yourself if that's what you've achieved.
Now, if your goal is to impart information, take care that you don't indulge yourself in all kinds of technical detail just to impress those listening. You want your audience to enjoy the experience and not just come away with the impression that you're a genius but not being able to recall anything specific you've said. They know you have certain credentials. Your job is not to prove that further but to close the gap between what they know and what you know about the topic at hand. Don't use too much detail and use everyday analogies to explain complex ideas. (Here's a blog that gives some examples.)
Use PowerPoint wisely
I would recommend you use some kind of visual accompaniment with your presentations. When you associate something you say with some kind of interesting visual element, it makes it easier for those listening to remember the point. If you use PowerPoint, use it wisely, however. Don't run slides that contain the words you're saying out loud. Those types of slides are unnecessary. Use images to support what you're saying.
Videotape yourself prior to the presentation
Don't think that the only thing that matters in a presentation is that you're smooth and your voice is well modulated. You could have some kind of repetitive tic or behavior or verbal phrase you use frequently, that could become the only thing the audience notices. And if your audience is prine to playing drinking games (where they take a drink of an alcoholic beverage every time a certain word or phrase is uttered) you could have an unruly mob on your hands.
I once attended a seminar in which the speaker—I'm assuming he was terrified to be up there—closed his eyes every time he lifted his head from his notes to address the audience. He'd open them to look at his notes, and then close them again when he lifted his head to face the audience. Suffice it to say, I don't remember a thing he had to say because I became so preoccupised with that behavior.
You may find that you have some mannerisms that you don't even realize. And if you're the type who unconsciously peppers your speeches with trite phrases like "at the end of the day," try your hardest to correct that or you'll lull your audience into a collective coma.
Don't practice all the interest out of your presentation
We've all seen those presenters who look like they've read the Big Book of Acceptable Hand Gestures in Public Speaking. (A lot of former sports stars who are now commentators on ESPN do this.) There's nothing wrong with a little over-gesturing—it shows passion—but keep it at a happy medium.
You don't have to keep your voice modulated with the same cadence or vocal rhythm to be professional. Keep your listeners on their toes—turn up the volume a time or two if it's called for.
And you need to be prepared for some ad-libbing, particularly if there is a question and answer period afterwards. But if you know your subject front and back (and by that I don't mean the presentation itself), you'll be up to the challenge.
Know your audience
For some reason this stands out in my mind: I went to a seminar on "modern" management trends. For some reason, the speaker illustrated the gender roles in a workplace by using an example of how to trick his wife into "letting him" play golf. All of a sudden, I was in I Love Lucy. It was a real throwback kind of example and my faith in the presenter just went out the door.
If you're presenting a technical concept to a non-technical audience, keep it simple. If your audience is interested in the ROI of a specific technology, don't waste time talking about its inner workings.
Make your presentation feel like a conversation
Anyone who's ever had to take a 101 lecture class in college knows how easy it is to drift off. Those are the classes you have to take furious notes for because they're so impersonal, they're unlikely to stick in your head in any other way. Sorry to use a tired old adage but be yourself!
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.