How to Improve Your Presentation Skills

Interactive designers obviously need to know how to communicate visually. But strong speaking skills also are critical. Whether you’re an employee trying to sell your boss on a particular design direction, or you’re a freelancer pitching yourself to prospective clients, it’s your presentation abilities—not just your ideas or portfolio—that can make or break you.

If you’re great at coming up with innovative ideas but not so keen on presenting them, you’re not alone. Many professionals find any form of public speaking intimidating, even if the audience is only one or two people. The good news is you can become a polished presenter with a little work. Consider these tips:

Tackle your fears head-on. The best way to overcome public-speaking anxiety is to (you guessed it) speak publicly. Start by delivering short practice presentations to “safe” audiences comprised of your closest colleagues or a few friends.

If you’re a member of a local design association, volunteer to give a quick talk or announcement at an upcoming meeting. You also might consider joining Toastmasters International, a public-speaking organization with more than 13,500 chapters across the world.

Join Mary Zalla, CEO of Landor, for her featured presentation at HOW Design Live: Selling Creativity. You’ll learn from a pro how to inspire and persuade clients to see the potential in the work you’ve created. Learn more at HOW Design Live.

Do your homework. Preparation begets confidence, so it’s wise to try and learn as much as you can about your audience. In addition, whenever possible, use quantifiable information found in white papers, industry surveys or case studies from reputable sources to support your position. When you’re soliciting new business, share anecdotes and metrics related to how you’ve helped other companies or clients achieve their goals.

Rehearse and refine. When it comes to public speaking, winging it and hoping you’ll rise to the occasion once the spotlight hits isn’t a sound strategy. Practice your presentation until you know the material inside and out.

Rehearsing in front of a mirror or recording yourself can help you identify trouble spots and make improvements. An even better option is to run through the presentation with a mentor or member of your network. Ask for honest criticism. Was the content cogent, concise and persuasive? Use the feedback to edit any parts of the talk that were unclear or could be cut.

Watch your words. Tailor your talk to the audience. Remain mindful that certain clients or coworkers from other departments won’t have the in-depth design or tech background that your creative peers do. Adjust your language and level of detail accordingly. For instance, getting into nitty-gritty specifics of “dynamically loaded AJAX elements” could muddle your overall message and leave people scratching their heads.

Send the right signals. Be aware of your non-verbal communication. Distracting body language can override your words. For example, fidgety hands will make you seem nervous, while a downward gaze can convey a lack of self-assuredness. Display confidence and poise by smiling, projecting your voice and maintaining good eye contact.

Conduct a tech check. If you’re using technical equipment as part of your presentation, double-check that everything is working properly beforehand. There’s no better way to lose an audience than by spending half your time fussing with a glitchy file or projector. Technical difficulties also underscore why you must be intimately familiar with your material—you can’t afford to let a laptop or tablet malfunction derail you.

Finally, don’t just focus on your formal presentation. Try to anticipate every conceivable question, concern or point of resistance you could hear from a manager, colleague or client. No matter how impressive your initial pitch, you’ll undermine your effort if a follow-up question catches you flat-footed. “Hmm, I hadn’t considered that” or “I’ll have to get back to you” aren’t compelling responses.

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