In this article, you will take a deep dive into English business presentations, looking primarily at the soft skills and smart habits that contribute to successful, engaging presentations that will leave you feeling proud and leave your audience feeling impressed.
Do you have an important business presentation coming up? Gotta do it in English? :-/. Check out our Business English Masterclass. Six hours to success.
Before you start this article, please be an assertive reader and just find the items below that are useful for YOU. Some of these tips may already be part of your presentation preparation process (great!), but others may be new, valuable skills. So scroll through, take what you need and leave the rest. But first…
Before your next presentation, PLEASE take an honest inventory of your spoken English. How is your pronunciation, articulation, intonation, voice quality, rate of speech, pausing/phrasing? Are you easy to understand? Does your voice sound pleasing to your audience or is it staccato, harsh, high-pitched, nasal, flat (lacking intonation) or halting (lacking fluency)?
Read more about The English Center’s Spoken English Test
Read more about in-company business English training in Amsterdam and online.
Liever in het Nederlands over bedrijfs training lezen? In-Company Cursus Zakelijk Engels
PRONUNCIATION. Accents and pronunciation are a big topic, but the bottom line is that when your English contains too many sound errors, such as sound substitutions or missing sounds, your English can be tiring to follow and hard to understand. Accents can be fine and add a certain charm to your English, but it is best to find out what errors you’re making and how significant they are. In other words–do they interfere with communication? If they do, you need to fix those mistakes. It’s that simple.
Get a professional evaluation of your spoken English pronunciation, because your friends won’t tell you! And if you want to go for the “gold standard,” a near-native sound, you can request a free intake appointment to learn more about spoken English coaching and accent reduction.
What is a good voice? What is good voice quality in a given language? That depends on the language. Be aware that the “normal” voice quality in your native language may be very different than that which the English ear finds pleasing. That does not make any other language-sound right or wrong, but it is a practical matter that you do not want to irritate, confuse or bore an English-speaking audience. Business is competitive, and your sound must capture your audience.
If your spoken English needs improvement, contact The English Center. We can help!
Looking for a relevant book from a top Ted.com speaker? Check out Julian Treasure’s, “How to be heard: Secrets for powerful speaking and listening.” Or maybe Chris Anderson’s “Ted Talks.” Both books are widely available.
The most popular English voice is a throat or chest voice with a relatively low pitch. It is sometimes called “the daddy voice,” regardless of gender. This voice signals seems to trigger confidence and will automatically put your audience at ease. If you already have a mid to low voice, you are in luck! If not, there are ways to try to lower your voice pitch. Read “How to make your voice deeper.”
If you think maybe you speak through your nose,” try this little test. Say ah in your normal way. Then use your fingers to pinch your nostrils together so that no air can come out. Then repeat the ah sound. If the sound does not stop or change quality, you do not have a nasal voice. A nasal voice is not generally considered attractive in English, although American actress Fran Dresher made it her trademark in the popular TV show, “The Nanny.”
A nasal or unusual voice can be an asset for business presentations, voiceover work, etc. – if it makes you memorable, so if you have an unusual voice and you can’t or don’t want to fix it, embrace it!
How fast should I speak when giving a business presentation? Pace, like pitch, tends to go up when we are under pressure. Control your pace in order to give your audience time to process what you are saying. Do not try to impress by speaking quickly. You will only leave your listeners behind; without enough time to derive meaning from your words. And do not go fast because you imagine that people will not notice your errors if you go fast enough. Or they will think you speak English well because you speak it fast. That doesn’t work.
The best presenters take a moderate pace and use phrasing (pauses) to delineate meaningful units of speech. Listen to Obama. He does a great job of phrasing: delivering bite size units of meaning that build on one another, leading the listener gently and confidently on precisely the path he has chosen. No listener is left behind with his expert phrasing!
See this collection of Obama speech snippets from NBC News.
Most experts say about 150 WPM is a good rate for a business presentation. Read your script with your timer on to calculate your pace and do your best not to speed up when you’re on stage.
Control your speed and you will not only give people enough time to process what you are saying; you will signal confidence. It’s like you’re letting the listeners know, “Hey, this is my time. I have something of value to say and I’m not going to rush through it.”
Be sure that you are correctly using intonation (the ups and downs, fast and slow, stretches and contractions of English words and sentences) to carry meaning. Without proper intonation your English prsentation will lack meaning. Let me repeat that. Your spoken English will lack meaning in the ear of the listener because English relies on language music (intonation) to carry meaning. Without the proper use of intonation, your English presentation can sound confusing, bored, lifeless or just plain lazy.
After you have prepared your instrument (your voice), you can proceed. Next…
Define the purpose of the presentation for yourself. Why are you giving this presentation? Identify the main goal of your presentation; know your motivation. This is internal information and may or may not be shared with the audience, but just like an actor has to know the motivation of the character, you have to know why you are going to take the stage and present! Whether it’s simply to deliver a standard weekly presentation for your team or it’s a C-suite, high stakes, make-or-break performance, know your “why.”
Ask yourself: What are the intended takeaways for this business presentation? Takeaways are the most important thoughts and facts that the audience will not forget. These are usually bitesize, memorable and repeatable soundbites. If the audience leaves your presentation with no repeatable takeaways, you did not succeed.
And please consider how your audience should feel when they leave? You might call this an emotional takeaway. Should they feel…?
Your register is simply the level of formality you will use. Getting this right is important, but for those of you presenting to your own company, maybe even to your own team, this will be super easy. You know your company culture perfectly. But when you are out of the office or go abroad, keep it in mind. Company culture is trending hard toward less formal, but it can differ from business to business and certainly from country to country. Being too informal can be insulting and being too formal can make you appear pompous and socially distant / lacking empathy. As an extra note, when you do leave the country, please be sure that you are well versed on social norms so that you do not, as we say, “put your foot in your mouth.”
Now begin gathering your information in your platform of choice. Collect the relevant data, facts, and supporting materials. Start building the business presentation in your presentation platform – whatever program you like. Of course your company probably already has a template in a particular platform.
Organize your presentation into a logical structure with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Each part should flow smoothly into the next. Be sure that the beginning and end are strong and clear.
Edit the outline for a narrative or story arc. If you can create some excitement, tension, or anticipation, that helps bring your business presentation to life. Add some surprise or humour if appropriate. See Nancy Duarte’s “The Secret Structure of Great Talks” for help with this.
A hook is a great way to capture your audiences attention at the beginning and get them really engaged. It can be something as simple as an interesting fact about your topic, a question about your topic that you will answer by the end of the presentation or a funny saying that relates to your topic. What is most important is that you don’t start with the same introduction as most other presenters…..”Hi, my name is Jane Smith and today I am going to talk about The History of Concrete Production in The Netherlands”. Zzzzzz…..
Source or design engaging visuals: Create simple, clear, engaging graphic slides that complement your message. Keep the screens clear and uncluttered. Obviously, use appropriate branding.
Resist the temptation to have lots of text on your screen because humans are really not good multitaskers (trust me on this), and they will stop listening and start reading when they are presented with loads of small print. The text in your presentation should only be points that you elaborate on during your talk…..NOT every word that you say. That’s why the program is called PowerPOINT.
If a line or two of text is so compelling that you must put it on the screen–then put it on the screen all by itself. Those big words will be quickly read and will signal that THESE. WORDS. ARE. IMPORTANT.
When the business presentation outline and slides are in good draft form, you are ready to…
Yes, write a script. Giving a good presentation is a bit of theatre, so just like a good actor, write and learn your script.
Practice, Practice, Practice: Rehearse your business presentation script many times. Practice speaking confidently and at a comfortable pace. Familiarize yourself with your content and visual aids. The best ways to practice are standing, with a mirror, a friend/partner, with your phone’s native audio recorder or with your phone’s video function.
Listen to feedback and listen to your recordings / watch your videos. There’s always room for improvement. Keep rehearsing until you feel good about what you hear. It does not have to be perfect or to sound native, but it should be (given time restraints) your personal best. When you know your “lines,” add those lines to the note section of your screen (visible only to you) or go “old school” and use index cards with key words and phrases to keep you on track with your more-or-less memorized script.
Once you know the script rather well (perfection is not required) you can work on other aspects of your presentation stage craft, such as…
Body language is, according to some experts, more important than your words. Whether that is really true or not is unimportant, but please be assured that body language does matter a lot. Use these tips for better body language in presentations–
Smart Tip #1: More about body language and stage fright: Some research shows that “making yourself big” before going on stage or entering the conference room may help you feel more confident. Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED presentation, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” It’s been viewed 69,198,787 times!
Smart tip #2: Use your phone’s video recorder to how you how you really look on stage and edit your body language accordingly.
Smart tip #3: Watch this great video from American university’s Stanford Graduare School of Business, “Make Body Language your Superpower.”
Coming from your neutral, hands-at-your-sides position, use the–
Did you know that the maximum length for a Ted Talk is 18 minutes? Of course, your business presentation may be shorter, but be aware that a longer presentation means you have to work harder to keep the audience engaged.
When rehearsing, trim or extend your presentation to fit the allotted time or your content. And if there is no required length, plan to keep your presentation “short and sweet.” Keep it to the point. Be concise and yes, leave them “begging for more.” OK, enough idioms.
Time tip: Use your phone’s native timer to keep you on schedule. Plan for questions and discussions, if applicable. (More about handling questions later.)
Incorporate interactive elements, story/stories, show-stopping stats and can’t-look-away visuals to capture your audience’s attention. We live in a very visually and auditorily stimulating, TikTok kinda world, so do not deliver a lecture or simply instruct. Thou shall not bore thy audience. Use your content, voice, body language and slides to keep them focused on you and the info you are sharing.
In some cases, you will want to encourage questions and participation during the presentation. In other cases, you will ask the audience to hold question till the end, but in any case, you must prepare for potential questions. Be ready for expected questions with well-researched answers. But what happens if you do not understand the question? This is a real and understandable fear for presenters.
First of all, always have a helper in the audience. This person (a strong English speaker) will help you handle difficult questions. Next, accept the fact that you will not understand every question and that this doesn’t always mean your English listening skills aren’t good enough. It may simply mean that the questioner has a strong accent or used confusing word order, bad grammar, etc. So don’t worry about it. Just politely ask them to repeat the question. When you think you understand, restate the question and then answer it. If you still do not understand the question, ask your helper to restate the question. Failing that, tell the questioner to chat with you after the presentation. You have to keep things moving.
In a bigger hall, you might have several helpers, working the crowd with a microphone and repeating questions in an easy-for-you-to-understand manner.
Also appropriate for a big crowd is to have the helpers collect the question and then speak them to you. In that scenario you do not get questions directly from the audience and only have to listen to one person (your helper), who’s accent and manner of speaking you know and easily understand.
Of course, you should also practice likely questions with best answers. Remember, the best answer is concise and to the point. Don’t go on and on. Most people have pretty short attention spans and you have to allow time for several questions. Do not get stuck.
Test all necessary equipment and technology (e.g., projector, microphone, laptop) well before your presentation. Have backup plans in case of technical issues. Tech issues are common and when “all eyes are on you” it’s not pleasant to have to solve those problems in real time. And definitely have a designated tech assistant who can assist as needed and certainly jump in if you have a technical glitch.
Finally, remember the famous quote, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Confidence, enthusiasm, clear speech with good pacing/phrasing plus a pleasant voice will combine with a well-structured message for a successful presentation.
Brenda de Jong-Pauley for The English Center
Contact The English Center about all things business English training related. We’re here to help you succeed in Business English.
How to speak so that people want to listen (Julian Treasure)
TEDxEast – Nancy Duarte The Secret Structure of Great Talks
TED Studio – Chris Anderson TED’s secret to great public speaking