Presentation hygiene: The good habits of effective speakers

Your parents were right! By eating healthfully, keeping fit, and sleeping well, you can improve your well-being—plus help alleviate your presentation anxiety and improve your memory, increasing the chance that you’ll remember all your points in a presentation. Like a long-distance runner carbo-loading for a marathon, you will find it helpful to eat certain foods—in this case, to facilitate memory formation and retention—ahead of your presentation. Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and foods that contain flavanols (such as grapes, berries, apples, and cocoa) are good choices. Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness and mental haziness. And plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity, but it also invites jitters, dry mouth, and flighty memory. It may make some sense to go for the triple mocha latte when you’re preparing a speech, but it’s not a good idea the day of. (Remember, the effects of caffeine linger in the body for a number of hours.) Finally, it may be tempting to use alcohol to calm your nerves, but evidence suggests it causes forgetfulness and “loosens the tongue,” which could lead to regret.

Exercise plays an important role in both memory and anxiety resilience. Fit presenters respond better to both the mental and physical aspects of stress. Additionally, physical activity increases lung capacity and bolsters mental focus, two very important aspects of speech delivery. Finally, exercise provides an avenue for releasing pent-up anxiety and stress. Try to go for a quick swim, jog, or walk prior to writing or practicing a speech. The resulting calming effect comes not just from getting outside and distancing yourself from the stressor, but also from your body’s natural endorphins, which are often released when you exercise. Memory research clearly shows that the less stressed you are, the more information you will retain. Exercising after practicing a presentation can help, too: Short, intense bursts of exercise that follow new learning have been shown to increase memory retention.

Sleep is also critical. Good-quality, deep sleep prepares your brain for learning and consolidates newly learned memories so that you can recall them more easily. When you are preparing a speech, pulling an all-nighter is the worst thing you can do.

Part three: Presenting

Use questions to connect with the audience

Audience connection is the key characteristic that distinguishes a memorable presenter from an average one. Are audience members participating with the speaker, or simply listening to the speaker? Questions provide a great way to foster engagement. Questions by their very nature are dialogic. They’re two-way: You ask and your audience responds. I recommend using three types of questions throughout your presentation to get your audience’s attention:

Rhetorical questions build intrigue

Asking your audience a question for effect (rather than one you expect them to actually answer) prompts them to think about the issue.

Example: “Would you believe that companies are making robotic honeybees to pollinate crops in locales where bees are dying off?”

Polling questions make the audience part of your point

When asking your audience to respond to your query, be sure to signal how you want them to do so (e.g., model raising your hand as you ask your question, or explain how the online poll works if you are virtually presenting) and comment briefly on the response you get (e.g., “Just as I expected, about 50% of you … ”).

Example: “How many of you have ever been stung by a honeybee?”

“What if?” questions root your presentation in time

Inquire about a possible future or the historical past; and as with rhetorical questions, you may not expect a literal response, but you definitely focus your audience’s attention on the time period you’re describing.

Example: “What would it be like if all crops were pollinated by robo-honeybees?” Or,“Remember when modern science made it possible for genetically modified vegetables to yield more crops?”

The art of the graceful recovery

Drawing a blank when you’re standing before an audience can have dramatic and traumatic implications. Consider politicians and how memory gaffes can damage their credibility. For example, Texas governor Rick Perry suffered a long memory lapse during an early November 2011 nationally televised debate among US Republican presidential candidates. Perry’s painfully awkward stumble provided endless fodder for political observers, media pundits—and stand-up comedians. So what can you do if you forget parts of your presentation?

First, try not to be too hard on yourself. Often, speakers blurt out comments that reduce their credibility: “Sheesh, how could I forget?”, “I’m so nervous,” or “I can’t believe how stupid I am!” If you must overtly acknowledge your forgetfulness, simply apologize and collect your thoughts.

One of my students once addressed her forgetfulness in a clever way that portrayed a potentially negative occurrence as a byproduct of a positive trait: “You’ll have to excuse me, but I am so passionate about my topic that I sometimes get ahead of myself. Allow me to review my previous point.” Most audiences are very forgiving, and some may actually be thankful for the pause because it allows them time to process what you’ve presented.

To help get yourself back on track, focus on what you’ve just said. Too often, people who blank out try to figure out what they need to say next. But you are more likely to continue smoothly if you reorient yourself by looking to what you said previously.

The following techniques can help you get past a memory block:

Paraphrase your previous content

Pausing to say, “So just to step back for a moment, I’ve already covered how X and Y are relevant…” gives you a moment to remember point Z, and even frame it as a point you’ve been building toward.

Ask your audience a question—maybe even a rhetorical one

“What seems to be the most important point so far?” Asking a rhetorical question not only provides you with a chance to collect your thoughts, but it also boosts your confidence because you know the answer, and launching into that answer will likely get you back in the flow.

Review your overall speaking purpose

“So we can see that [insert your core message] is really important.” This option works well when you are struggling to remember your place at big transition points because it allows you to return to the overall importance of your message. Mistakes happen. It’s a simple fact of life. But when you’re in front of a roomful of people and you’re trying to think of your next point, but all you can picture is… nothing, the key to a graceful recovery is to step back for a moment and regain your bearings.

The power of the paraphrase

When you are giving a public presentation, don’t you hate it when you face… the dreaded question. You know the one: the emotionally loaded challenge that serves to undermine everything you presented prior. You had hoped you wouldn’t get it, but here it is. Or, you may face… the obnoxious meeting participant. You know this guy: He thinks he’s Mr. Smarty-Pants and wants everyone to know it. He ruins your meeting by going on long rants that contribute little and waste much.

These two situations can make even the most confident and calm speaker nervous. One powerful way to navigate your way through these two tricky communication situations is to rely on paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a listening and reflecting tool where you restate what others say in your own words. The most effective paraphrases concisely capture the essence of what another speaker says. For example, at the end of your presentation a questioner asks: “In the past you have been slow to release new products. How soon will your new product be available?” You might paraphrase her question in one of the following ways:

Effective paraphrasing affords you several benefits. In Q&A sessions, for instance, it allows you to:

Make sure you understood the question correctly

After your paraphrase, the question asker has the opportunity to correct you or refine his or her question.

Think before you respond

Paraphrasing is not very mentally taxing, so while you are speaking your paraphrase you can begin to think of your response.

Acknowledge emotions prior to addressing the issue(s)

Occasionally, you may find yourself confronted with an emotionally-laden question. In order to be seen as empathetic, and to get the asker to “hear” your answer, you should recognize the emotion as part of your paraphrase. To a questioner who asks, “I get really exasperated when I try to use some of your features. How are you going to make it easier to use your product?” you might say: “I hear that you have emotion around the complexity of our offering.” By acknowledging the emotion, you can more easily move beyond it to address the issue at hand. Please note that you should avoid labeling the emotion, even if the asker does. If someone seems angry, it is better to use terms such as “strong emotion,” “clear concern,” and “passion.” I have seen a number of speakers get into a labeling battle with an audience member when the speaker names a specific emotion that the asker took offense to (e.g., saying an audience member seems frustrated when he is actually angry).

Reframe the question to focus on something you feel more comfortable addressing

I am not recommending pulling a politician’s trick and pivoting to answer the question you wanted rather than the one you got. Instead, by paraphrasing, you can make the question more comfortable for you to answer. The most striking example I have come across was in a sales situation where a prospect asked the presenter: “How come your prices are ridiculously expensive?” Clearly, the paraphrase “So you’re asking about our ridiculous pricing” is not the way to go. Rather, you can reframe the issue in your paraphrase to be about a topic you are better prepared to address. For example, “So you’d like to know about our product’s value.” Price is clearly part of value, but you start by describing the value and return on investment, which will likely soften the blow of the price.

Using paraphrases can also help you in facilitation situations, such as a meeting. In meetings, paraphrasing allows you to:

Acknowledge the participant’s effort

For many people, contributing in meetings can be daunting. There are real consequences for misspeaking or sounding unprepared. By paraphrasing the contributions you get from others, you validate the person’s effort by signaling that you really listened and valued their input.

Link various questions/ideas

You can pull together disparate contributions and questions and engage different participants by relating a current statement to previous ones. For example, you might say: “Your comment about our profitability links to the question a few minutes ago about our financial outlook.”

Manage over-contributors

Someone who over-shares or dominates a meeting with his or her opinions can be very disruptive and disrespectful. If it is your meeting, then the other participants will expect you to manage the situation. If you don’t, you will lose control and potentially credibility. Paraphrasing can help you move beyond the over-contributor while looking tactful. Fortunately, even the most loquacious person needs to inhale once in a while. During a pause, simply paraphrase a meaningful portion of the person’s diatribe and place focus elsewhere—to another person or topic. For example, you might say, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. Laurie, what do you think?” Or, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. What other issues are affecting our release schedule?” In both cases, you have politely informed Forrest that he is done, and you’ve turned the focus away from him and back to your agenda.

Beginning a paraphrase can sometimes be tricky, and people often ask me for suggestions for ways to initiate their paraphrases. Try one of the following lines to help you start your paraphrase:

Paraphrasing has the power to help you connect with your audience, manage emotions, and steer the conversation. And once you begin to use the technique, you will realize it has the power to help you not only in presentations and meetings, but in virtually any interpersonal conversation.

Avoiding speaking habits that can damage credibility

Even the most confident and compelling speakers can work against themselves by allowing certain credibility-killing words and vocal habits to creep into their presentations. As a presentation skills coach and teacher, I often hear presenters chip away at their command of the room with three common speaking habits: hedges, tag questions, and up-talking. These verbal and vocal habits cause an audience to pause and question the assertiveness and commitment of a presenter. Here’s what they are, and how to stop them.


Hedges are soft word choices such as “I think,” “sort of,” or “kind of” that litter many a presentation. In some interpersonal conversation situations, phrases such as these can actually help by allowing you to appear less dogmatic and more open to collaboration. But in presentations, hedges have the effect of softening your position, reducing your authority, and making you seem wishy-washy and unsure of what you are saying.

The best way to address hedging? Substitution. Find stronger, more powerful words to replace these less assertive ones. For example, “I think” becomes “I believe” or “I know.” “Kind of” and “sort of” can be replaced with “one way.” Finding more assertive substitutions affords you a way to make your point more clearly and definitively.

Tag questions

These occur when you add a question to the end of a phrase, such as “This is a good hamburger, isn’t it?” Again, in interpersonal situations tag questions can work in your favor, in this case by inviting participation from your interlocutor.

But when speaking before an audience, tag questions diminish your potential impact, and should be eliminated. The first step to ridding yourself of tag questions—or any verbal tic for that matter—is to become aware of when you are speaking them. To raise your awareness, you can have a colleague notify when you have asked a tag question or you can record yourself speaking and note them yourself. In either case, you are moving an unconscious speech act into consciousness. Eventually, you will transition from recognizing that you just asked a tag question to noticing that you are about to ask a tag. When this anticipatory awareness exists, you will be able to eliminate asking these superfluous questions. Removing them will take practice for those in the habit of using them, but the benefit to you is a stronger, more assertive speaking style.


This habit centers not on the words you choose but rather on how you speak your words—specifically at the end of your sentences. If you are an up-talker, then the ending of your sentences rises in pitch, essentially making your declarative sentences sound like questions. Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like “Our profits are expanding,” yet it sounds like “Our profits are expanding?” Your goal as a speaker is to use your voice—its volume, cadence, and tone—to help your audience understand your message, not to confuse them.

The best way to correct up-talking is to focus on your breathing. If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term “landing” your sentences and phrases. Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought. (This does not mean lower your voice volume, but instead empty out your breath while maintaining your volume.)

A useful way to practice this is to read out loud while placing a hand on your belly. When you up-talk, your belly will contract inward as you end your sentence (this results from your inhalation). If you land your phrase, your belly will extend with your exhalation at the end of your sentence.

When you’re giving a presentation, it’s critical to command the room—if your audience doesn’t believe you’re confident and credible, they won’t even consider what you’re actually saying. Among the many ways to do this are smart word choice and speaking your words powerfully. Bad habits like hedges, tag questions, and up-talking distract your audience and undermine your impact. But with awareness and practice, you can eliminate them so that you appear more commanding and your message seems clearer and stronger.

This post originally appeared at Stanford Business.

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