chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 40, No. 2

Presenting … Tips and techniques to help anyone become a better speaker

by Marilyn Cavicchia

If you’ve ever heard Tim Eigo speak at Annual or Midyear meetings or at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute, you know that this is a guy who loves to present.

While it is true that Eigo, editor of the State Bar of Arizona’s Arizona Attorney Magazine, loves presenting, it’s also true that in elementary school, he would almost get sick at the prospect. Overcoming his nerves and learning to present well was a choice he made along the way, Eigo told attendees at the 2015 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Orlando.

Moreover, Eigo believes that everyone else who is in a position to give a presentation should do whatever it takes to make that same kind of decision. The idea that some people are great presenters and others are not—and that the latter should allow themselves to just muddle through and do a less-than-great job—is “really a delusion, and kind of a lazy one at that,” Eigo said.

But what can help? Simplicity, technology, and, on the other hand, the ability to go low- or no-tech might be your best allies in becoming a better presenter and helping others do their best, too, said Catherine Sanders Reach, director of law practice management and technology at the Chicago Bar Association and herself a frequent, skilled, and comfortable presenter.

Together, Eigo and Reach offered a wide range of tips to help any speaker, at any level of expertise and comfort.

Preparation is key

“There’s no replacement for preparation,” Eigo said, noting that it takes him a day and a half to prepare his presentation and another eight hours over the course of a weekend to hone it.

No matter how well you think you know your material, he added, practice can help you through the nervousness that may strike when it’s time to present.

“Freak out in advance,” Eigo advised: Go into a stairwell and yell, or recite something dramatic even if it has nothing to do with your topic.

Once you’re in the room where you’ll present, see if there are any adjustments you can make to help things go more smoothly, Eigo suggested. For example, can you move some chairs so more people will sit closer to you?

If the lights are dim, turn them up. “Research shows that people laugh more and learn more in a bright room,” Eigo noted.

Connect with individuals

“When someone is giving you the fantastic gift of looking engaged, reward them,” Eigo said. “Look at them.”

You might even want to take a tip from a lot of politicians, especially Joe Biden, Eigo added—they often point as if singling out one special person in the audience.

Younger audience members often wish to connect even after the presentation, he noted: “[Millennials] like feeling like they’re in a community of learners.”

Share your Twitter handle, Facebook name, and other social media information, Eigo recommended, and invite the audience to share thoughts and further discussion that way.

The power of storytelling, and surprise

Humans are hardwired to love storytelling, Eigo said, which means that a good anecdote can serve as “unconscious proof” of the factual information you’re presenting. In fact, Eigo noted, research shows that facts activate two areas of the brain, but stories activate seven.

Don’t be afraid to surprise the audience with a story that seems unrelated to the topic but then spins back around to make its point, he added: “Surprise works because people are exhausted and drained and stressed beyond measure,” and the little treat of a good story can help alleviate that.

A story also makes a great ending, Eigo said—much better than a question-and-answer period, he believes. In fact, he stressed, a speaker should “never, ever” close with Q&A.


For one thing, you can’t control the direction, he explained. Many people don’t ask questions very well and may take the opportunity to give a speech themselves or to get into minute detail.

Another reason, he said, is a psychological phenomenon called recency. “The last thing heard is the thing most remembered,” Eigo said, and you want that final thought to be yours, not an audience member’s.

Do Q&A 10 or 15 minutes from the end, he suggested, and then close with one last story.

Keep it simple and low tech

Eigo loves pop culture references, but Reach advised caution. They can work, she said, but you have to know your audience. If they’re young, she noted, there’s a good chance that your jokes or analogies will go over their heads.

Likewise, Eigo loves animation, but Reach said this should be left to the professionals. If you don’t know what you’re doing, she explained, there’s a big potential for glitches.

Instead, she recommended, use high-resolution graphics that don’t move—and don’t use clip art. “Microsoft doesn’t even provide clip art anymore,” Reach noted. “It’s that bad.”

If you include a chart, she advised, have a stranger look at it and tell you what it means—it should be that clear and simple.

Practice your presentation until you can give it in the dark, Reach recommended, noting that you just might have to. “Be prepared to have no technology,” she said, because the typical hotel meeting room AV set-up is full of potential pitfalls. Reach herself has had to deal with plenty of nonfunctional tech while speaking—which is another time when simplicity can be helpful.

If you’re helping someone else who’s not very familiar with PowerPoint, Reach said, performing the simple task of clicking the slides for them is a valuable bit of tech support. Often, she explained, an inexperienced speaker will forget to advance the slides to keep pace with what he or she is saying.

“Lawyers love words,” Reach noted, so she does give the audience words on a screen to look at. But often, she added, she doesn’t even reference her slides as she’s speaking—they’re present to back up what she’s saying but are not the main focus.

Keeping things simple can help you avoid the common blunder of reading your slides, which Reach called the No. 1 sin for any speaker. If the words you need aren’t on your slides, she said, there's no way you can read them verbatim and consider that to be your presentation.

Helpful tools for speakers

Reach mentioned a number of tips and tools that can be helpful for presenters, including:

  • Use the notes field in PowerPoint to create handouts that include information that goes far beyond what appears on your slides.
  • Check out any of the several good alternatives to PowerPoint, including Prezi, SlideShark, or Sway. SlideShark is an app that allows you to run your slides from an iPad rather than from a laptop. Sway, new from Microsoft and available only with the online version of Office, helps you easily incorporate graphics and video into your slides.
  • Another PowerPoint-type tool, Google Slides, is great if you’re collaborating with another speaker.
  • Apple’s Keynote app is another good option, but be aware that if you transfer PowerPoint slides to Keynote, it will ruin the formatting.

To avoid the dreaded clip art but still secure professional photos and images cheaply or for free, Reach recommended the websites Unsplash, MorgueFile, and Canva has handy image editing tools, she added. You can also do a Google image search, click on “Search tools,” then “Usage rights,” and indicate that you only want images that have been cleared for reuse, which means you’re free to use them without having to pay for them or give attribution.