How to give a presentation with confidence

How to give a presentation with confidence
Image: Jopwell
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

To deliver a great presentation, you need to speak with confidence. If you are hesitant and tentative, you will not be particularly convincing or credible. People might think, “What is he trying to hide?” or “If she doesn’t seem very certain in this recommendation, then why should I support it?”

The challenge, however, is that it is easier to say “Be confident!” than it is to actually feel confident.

Fear is a normal part of presenting. When research firm Gallup surveyed people about their fears, snakes topped the list. Speaking in public was a close second, well above spiders, mice, heights, and the dark. Public speaker Scott Berkun notes that humans are wired to fear standing alone, in the open, with no weapon, in front of a large crowd.It is also natural to be nervous when presenting, because the stakes are high. If you speak well, people will think you are smart and strategic. If you bollox the opportunity, people will doubt your skills and capabilities.

Being fearful or nervous does not mean you cannot be confident. Indeed, you can be nervous and confident at the same time. I have delivered many presentation where I was 100% confident in the analysis and recommendation, but I was still nervous.

The goal when presenting is to embrace both fear and confidence. You should be nervous: on-edge, excited and focused. At the same time, you should be confident: assured, believing.

Here are five ways to feel more confident.

Create a strong presentation

The most important thing you can do to present with confidence is to create a strong recommendation. If you know your presentation is tight and logical, you are more likely to stand up and deliver it with conviction.

This means you need to spend the time to make sure your presentation is optimized. Have the basics: an executive summary, agenda, and conclusion. Put a headline on each page that states the main point. Tell a story, with one headline leading to the next. Have simple pages, with just the information you need to support the headline.

It takes time to create a powerful presentation, so don’t leave it to the last minute. You want to create the presentation and then tighten it, and then tighten it again. Jim Kilts, former CEO of companies including Kraft Foods, Nabisco, and Gillette, would revise a presentation fifty or sixty times, tightening the logic and polishing layout.

Remember the altitude principle

When developing a presentation, it is useful to remember what I call the altitude principle: It is best to encounter turbulence when you have some altitude.

To understand the concept, consider an airplane flight. At the beginning, turbulence is a dangerous thing. Dropping 20 feet is a notable problem when you are just 10 feet of the ground. Turbulence is also dangerous at the end of a flight, as you come in for landing. In the middle, however, a few bumps don’t matter so much. When you are flying along at 30,000 feet, you can lose 20, 50 or 100 feet and simply carry along.

The altitude principle works when presenting, too. At the start of a presentation, you don’t want a lot of turbulence. You want smooth sailing. You want to get people smiling and nodding. This will help you settle down and feel confident. It will create a bit of momentum. In the middle of the presentation, you can manage some bumps; you can explain an analysis or deal with tough questions.

So build a presentation that reflects the altitude principal. Start with some easy material that will let you gain some altitude. If something is particular complicated or controversial, put that in the middle of the presentation. Close with an easy finish, too. You don’t want to end with controversy.

Double-check your numbers

Numbers are the most dangerous part of a presentation. Every figure in the document is a potential problem, an opportunity for disaster.

Many business executives tend to focus on the numbers. If the figures are correct, they will be confident and likely to approve a recommendation. If the numbers are wrong, there is little chance that things will move forward.

When presenting, then, it is essential to double-check the numbers. You want to be 100% certain that they are correct.

Check two things. First, is the number accurate? It is very easy to transpose a figure: 13,463 looks a lot like 13,436. And even a small mistake like that will raise questions about the accuracy of your presentation. It also will cause you to doubt yourself. You might think, “Shoot! If I got that number wrong, then maybe the other ones are off, too!” Your confidence will naturally fall.

Second, where did the number come from? For every figure, you want to know the source and the meaning. This is not as easy as it seems. Take a figure like “34% market share.” That seems pretty simple. But what does that figure mean, anyway? What time period does it cover? What geography? Is that unit share, or dollar share? Is that share of category A, or the larger category B? Does it include the 53rd week?

If you know all of your figures, you will present with more confidence and be ready to answer questions. It is just that easy, and just that hard.


One of the keys to presenting success is pre-selling, or meeting with the key players before a meeting. This is a powerful way to build your confidence. If you’ve done your advance work, you will begin your presentation knowing precisely where you stand. Ideally, everyone has seen your presentation already and supports it. With this dynamic, you will naturally feel confident. If some people have concerns, you know what they are and can respond.

Remember: You are the expert

It is important to put yourself in the right frame of mind before a presentation. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: You are the expert. You know more about your topic than anyone else in the room.

In most cases, this will certainly be the case. If you are presenting an update on a new technology, you probably know more about the new technology than others in the room, because you’ve been studying it. If you are giving a business update on sales of mustard in Kenya, you probably know more about mustard sales in Kenya than anyone else present. This is certainly going to be true if your audience is made up of senior executives. They have to keep track of many different things. You just have to keep track of your mustard business.

When you embrace the idea that you are the expert, you shift your perspective. If someone asks a question, you probably know the answer. If someone has a different idea, you probably know why it isn’t ideal. You just have to explain your thinking. Trust your knowledge.

Confidence is essential to a successful presentation. The best way to build confidence is to spend the time preparing appropriately: create a strong presentation, embrace the altitude principle, double-check your numbers, and pre-sell. Then, just remind yourself that you are the expert in the room.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming book, How To Wash A Chicken—Mastering the Business Presentation.