Presentation Skills Advice From a Professional Magician

Darren Delaney giving a talk at The Magic Circle

As someone who spends most of his time performing and speaking in front of groups of people, people often ask if I can help them deliver better talks and speeches. Whether you need to give an important speech, or make sure that your business presentation hits the right spot, I’ve pulled together some tips to help your presentation skills. I hope you find them useful!

1. Practice out loud

You know your topic inside out and you’ve gone over the slides a few times. That means you’ll give a great presentation, right? Thinking you’ll know what you’ll say and talking through what you will actually say are not the same thing. When it comes to good presentation skills, rehearsal is everything. Practice your whole talk from beginning to end, out loud, as if you are really presenting it. You might feel self-conscious if you’re doing this alone, but nobody’s died from this, so just get on with it!

If it’s possible, record yourself delivering the presentation. Just the audio is fine, but ideally video too. I know it can be cringe-worthy listening to yourself speak, but it’s worth it for the lessons you will learn.

2. Edit, edit, edit

When I’m performing, I aim to script everything I will say first and then edit down as much as possible. When you listen back to the audio recording of your talk, you’ll likely notice an abundance of “urms”, “urrs” and other unnecessary fluff. The good news is, if you follow step one above and practice your talk out loud a few times, this should be minimised.

If you have time, transcribe everything you said in the practise run-through and go back through it. Consider how you can simplify, condense, and remove any excessive verbiage.

3. Have a clear beginning, middle and end

Any good stage performance, film or novel has three parts. First, a beginning which makes you want to continue watching or reading. Then the main content that keeps you engaged throughout. Finally, a clear “punchline” at the end which leaves you thinking about what you’ve seen or read for some time afterwards. A great presentation should have the same.

Advice that’s commonly given is:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
  2. Tell them
  3. Finally, Tell them what you told them

That’s not a bad structure for most commercial presentations and will give you the structure of beginning, middle and end to hang your talk on to. This technique apparently dates back to Aristotle, the master of rhetoric himself!

4. Get somebody to watch

If you can, get somebody to watch you delivering a practice run-though. Preferably, you’ll want someone you can really trust to give honest feedback.

Ideally, I’d recommend running through your talk with two separate people. Somebody who knows the topic you’re speaking about well, and someone who knows nothing about it. The insight you’ll gain from this is invaluable if you choose the right people.

5. Walk the venue

It’s the big day. You’ve written, practiced and edited your talk, and then practised some more. A great way to reduce your nerves is to familiarise yourself with the space you’ll be presenting in. If there’s a stage you’ll have access to in advance, go and stand there as you would while presenting. Take a walk around and sit where the audience will be to get a feel for what they’ll see.

6. Don’t allow poor audio to let your presentation skills down

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and went to a few of the talks. At least half of them had poor audio, worsened by the fact the stages were in noisy environments. It was really hard to pay attention. Good presentation skills aren’t just about what you do, the equipment and environment will play a big part too!

Assuming you’re using one, get some time with the tech team to test out any audio equipment such as microphones. I’ve been to so many talks which have failed because of poor audio quality. Test it in advance and make sure everybody will be able to hear what you have to say. Be aware of any background noise that might affect this too, which may not be present while you’re trying things out.

Pay attention to body language

Good body language doesn’t just make you appear confident. There’s research that suggests it can make you be more confident. I could write a whole article on body language, but here are some quick tips you can use straight away:

  • Keep your back straight and your body open. When we’re nervous, we tend to make ourselves smaller and cover our face or body with our hands and arms. As a quick fix, imagine a straight pole running from the top of your head to the floor holding your head upright and your back straight. Keep your arms comfortably by your sides, and your legs shoulder width apart
  • Smile! Smiling releases endorphins in your brain, making you feel happier, and more likeable to others.
  • Avoid fidgeting. When we’re nervous, we release adrenalin which makes us shake or fidget. A couple of ways this shows is when we move our hands too much, or pace about. Try pinching your first finger and thumb together with each hand. I’ve no idea why this works, but it will help you from gesticulating too much. Keep your feet planted to where they are on the floor. A little gesturing is fine of course, you don’t want to look like a statue, just don’t overdo it!

8. Make eye contact

Have you ever sat through a presentation where the speaker delivers the whole thing looking at his notes, the slides, or the floor? If you have, you’ll know it’s pretty painful to watch and hard to maintain interest in the talk.

Maintaining eye contact with your audience will make you appear more confident and authoritative. It encourages a sense of involvement and connection, and will make people feel like you’re speaking to them individually, rather than preaching to anyone who happens to hear.

If you’re presenting to a larger room this is challenging, and you can’t maintain eye contact with everyone in an audience of 500 or more. This is harder if the lights prevent you from seeing the audience – I’ve performed in many venues where I’m lucky if I can see people in the front row! In these instances, look out towards the audience, and shift your gaze frequently to different spots in the room. Even if you can’t physically see the people there, they will feel your gaze and feel more involved.

9. Use your voice effectively

Like body language, how to use your voice could warrant its own article, so here are some tips to get you started. If you want more on how to use your voice, Julian Treasure’s TED talk is a great place to look.

  • Slow down. When we’re nervous, we tend to talk too quickly, often without realising we’re doing so. When you’re delivering a presentation, make a conscious effort to slow down. And don’t be afraid of pauses. Moments of well-placed silence in a speech are very powerful.
  • Vary your pace, pitch and volume. It’s no surprise that monotone (“a continuing sound, especially of a person’s voice, that is unchanging in pitch and without intonation.”) and monotonous (“dull, tedious, and repetitious; lacking in variety and interest.”) are from the same root. Varying the pace of your speech and altering the pitch and volume that you speak at help to create variety and hold listeners’ interest.

10. Remember, you’re the expert!

No matter how nervous you might be, always remember that you are the expert about whatever you are speaking about. You’ve been asked to deliver the talk for that reason (or at least hopefully so!) You probably know more than your audience about at least some of your topic, and you’ll deliver at least one thing of value to somebody. Remember that before you step onto the stage!

More resources to improve your presentation skills

Finally, if you’re serious about improving your presentation skills, it’s worth looking at this playlist on TED. There are some great talks there about different aspects of public speaking and presenting, from some of the most shared talks in the world!

Want to add some genuinely magic presentation skills to your next conference? Get in touch to find out how I can help with that.

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