6 Ways to Improve Your Teaching, Public Speaking, and Presentations

Speaking and writing are such gifts: they let you put together ideas, deep ideas, rich ideas, and share them with an audience. In a world of quick conversation and superficial conversation, books and well-thought out presentations can still carry the weight of an idea across rooms and minds.

It takes a lot of work to put together a great talk or a complete book (sometimes years or decades of research) — and this wisdom is often the distillation of hundreds of hours of research and thought. Networking conversations and even dinner conversations don’t always go as far into a topic or an idea.

Whenever I have the opportunity to share what I’m working on, I know that it’s an honor to have other people listen to my ideas and words, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I want to be as useful and helpful as possible.

My friend Ryan recently asked me for my thoughts on speaking, presenting, and teaching, so in addition to all the advice that’s out there on the internet, here’s my take on what to do (and what not to do) to put together a powerful presentation. In it, I go into my process of preparation in more detail, if you’re curious.

1 — Find and establish your own sense of presence

Being present is very hard to do.

Our minds run forwards and backwards all the times; by some estimates, we spend four hours in daydreams all day, thinking about things that aren’t about where we are right now.

I’ve learned a lot about presenting and speaking from my training in swimming, yoga, and meditation. I used to have to memorize all of my lines and use note cards, and think a lot about what I was doing right then in the moment. Whenever I’m working through new material, as well, I’m less able to improvise and be present with the room.

As I’ve gotten better at presenting (with lots and lots of practice), I’ve started to be able to tune into the energy of the room, and channel the right ideas to match the people and the pace of what’s happening right in that moment. Some people call this idea “Flow.” I think that in order to get really good at something, and be present, sometimes you have to move through periods of awkwardness, where you’re learning and practicing. As you get better and better at it, you can become more and more present with the ideas in the room.

As my swim coach used to say, “we’re practicing this much so we can take the thinking out of it.” As you rehearse and learn your material, both physically and mentally, over time you spend less energy mired in the moment and more time in flow.

And then it gets really fun.

2 — Use silence and pacing wisely

One of the best things you can do as a presenter is slow down. My mouth moves at rapid speed, but it’s a kindness for the audience to pause and breathe during a presentation.

Just because you know the idea and you’ve worked with it for years doesn’t mean the audience knows it right away. Give them time to think, to respond, to reflect, to absorb. Sometimes the best part of your presentation are the moments when you’re not talking.

It takes a powerful presence to be able to stand still, without speaking, on a stage.

3 — Don’t rush through your content or skip over things

Often I see people get nervous that they’re wasting people’s time, so they start to rush through their slides and sometimes skip content. Don’t skip that quote! You put it in there for a reason. Read it, slowly, and enjoy it. Your experience of this moment is different than everyone else’s. Just because you’ve read it a thousand times doesn’t mean everyone else has!

4 — Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!

Everyone has their own rehearsal techniques. Here’s how I rehearse:

I do a series of preparations that work really well for me. I spend a lot of time writing and organizing in preparation. Once I have a thesis, an outline, and a set of points I know I want to hit home, I put together my slide decks. In the beginning, my initial slides are all full of words — like an essay distributed across hundreds of slides. Over time, it’s my goal to move them all to images and visuals, with a few supplemental quotes or key phrases, and as few words overall as possible.

Some of my slide decks have hundreds of slides, with just single images on each one. It can take weeks of research to find great images to support the ideas I want to share. Once I begin to prepare the talk, I put my slides up and create a series of cue cards for the main ideas (usually 5-10) that accompany the talk.

Then — and this is my unique process — I use my slides to write out the story of the talk from scratch in Evernote sheets. It’s like writing and re-writing the stories and ideas in my head each time. I play with words and phrasing. I probably go through this process maybe a half a dozen times.

Each time I write, it’s like I’m putting together a thesis or a paper, and the more I work with the ideas, the easier the references and ideas stay with me.

Then, I perform it. I don’t perform it more than a week in advance of the talk (typically), because I want the content to still stay fresh. I’ll run through it two to three times as a rehearsal a week before, and then work through different pieces of the talk a few minutes each day. Two nights before, I’ll give the whole thing; the night before, I’ll rehearse again.

On the day of the talk, I don’t rehearse out loud. Instead, I flip through the slide deck and write the first sentence down for each topic with a few notes. I also do yoga, focus on my breathing and presence, and like to sit quietly without any noise or distractions. I’ll do a few vocal and physical warmups as necessary, and try to drink tea (not coffee) to keep my energy stabilized. Then I’ll get excited and go give the talk!

5 — Learn as you go: pick something new to learn with each talk

I’m always proud of a rookie, because you have to start somewhere. You might be bad in the beginning, and as long as you’re learning, that’s okay. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of mistakes, and I’m still learning.

In my own practice, I focus on one new thing with each talk. It’s hard to think and perform at the same time, so I give myself only ONE new thing to focus on in each new talk. In one talk, for example, I spent my extra attention focusing on my arms and my hand gestures. In another, I focused on adding pauses. In another, I learned how to stand still.

Each time, you learn a new skill as a performer and add it to your repertoire.

6 — Don’t make this rookie mistake

There is one thing that makes me cringe, though, when watching a speaker.

Here’s the one thing NOT to do in your talk: what makes me frown is when someone doesn’t prepare, and then they say so on stage. I find that to be so disrespectful. The audience, filled with dozens or hundreds of people, has spent valuable time, money, and energy to get here, to be in this location, and to improve their lives by learning new things.

When someone says, “I just put this together last night,” or “I should have prepared more,” what that says is “you weren’t worth my time or attention to bother putting anything together.”

Here’s the trick: even if you prepared last minute, don’t SAY so. Get up on stage and deliver like you’ve been working on this for months.

You shoot yourself in the foot if you disrespect your audience at your opening, and even if your ideas are great, people will be less likely to root for you or to listen. Give yourself a chance and prepare as much as possible, and even if you’ve only had a few minutes, smile like you’ve been doing this for years.

And afterwards: how do you know you’ve done a good job?

I know I’ve done a good job when people come up to me afterwards and want to continue the conversation. A great presentation connects you to people in a way that’s purposeful. I’ve met so many people who have become great friends, both from watching them speak or from presenting myself. We get to see more deeply inside of each other’s minds, and initiate a rich connection.

It’s okay to learn, to grow, and to change. There’s a quote I love — “You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.” The most important thing is to sign up for your first talk as soon as possible. Don’t worry about being great. Do your best, and you’ll be surprised where you end up in five years.


Get my monthly newsletter, not available anywhere else: The SKP Monthly.

7 Responses to 6 Ways to Improve Your Teaching, Public Speaking, and Presentations

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks for all of this! I don’t have opportunities to speak yet, but it’s part of my goals for the next five years. I appreciate you sharing your expertise. I’ll put it into practice.

    • Sarah says:

      Congrats on wanting to speak, Christina! I started with small teaching gigs, volunteer projects, and groups of 10-20. It’s blossomed over the last 4 years and the largest gig I’ve done so far is about 150 people. My goal for the next few years is to speak to larger audiences — or rather, to develop research pieces and talks that are designed for bigger stages. Good luck with your journey!

  2. Kat Pedersen says:

    Thanks, Sarah! Love this! If I remember correctly, you used to live in SF. Did you ever take any helpful presentation or facilitation classes in that area?

    • Sarah says:

      There are a number of things I’ve done that have really helped — yoga teacher training; taking an acting class; teaching with General Assembly, and a few others. Even just joining Meetup groups and speaking to small groups of people has helped a lot as well,

  3. Dave says:

    And, for goodness sake, don’t read all of your slides to us. If you have to emphasize something by reading it word for word, do that, but, assume your audience knows how to read your slide and amplify, simplify or explain it.

    • Sarah says:

      Absolutely! If your slides are notes that need to be read, you didn’t develop your talk fully. I start my talk preparations by creating long lists of notes, but that shouldn’t be the FINAL deliverable for the talk.

      One small exception to this is: sometimes I use paragraph quotes to demonstrate a point, particularly when I’m teaching on writing. I’ll excerpt a passage from a book I love because the example is so vivid. THEN, I’ll read the entire passage to the audience. People in the back often can’t see, and it’s a good gauge for how long to leave the slide up. But these are 1-2 slides in the entire series, max, and serve a specific point.

  4. Ian Street says:

    Love this list and tips.

    I don’t often have opportunity to speak and as a pretty anxious person, it is really hard. One thing I’m going to start doing is recording myself doing an audio introduction to my blog posts and having the file there to play in the post. I doubt many will listen, but it’s a way for me to practice scripting, wrtiing, and presenting with my voice.

    I also think that when outlining a talk or you think you have the slides down, go through it backwards to make sure the slides link together well and there aren’t any huge gaps in logic/story. This works with writing as well.