The 5 Secrets of a Presentation Ninja

Even with great products, wonderful news, and groundbreaking announcements, one thing still determines if the presentation is a success or failure: the presenter.

A great presentation can change the path of your career, steer your company to untold success, and ignite people’s interest in your product or service. But even with great products, wonderful news, and groundbreaking announcements, one thing still determines if the presentation is a success or failure: the presenter.

Does the thought of standing in front of your peers fill you with dread? Do you lie awake wondering if your slides are in the right order? Is there a lump in your throat every time you imagine the moment of truth?

If any of that seemed remotely familiar, there’s good news. Whether it’s a huge corporate event or an intimate presentation in front of your team, these five secrets will turn you into a presentation ninja faster than you could have imagined.

1. Warm up: It is important to get in the right mental state before your presentation, and a great way to help focus the mind is to engage in a brief physical warm-up. A warm-up is exactly that: a physical activity used to “warm up” the body so you are energized and ready to present. A great warm-up you can do alone before you present is an improv exercise called “Shake ’em 8’s.” It works like this: Hold your right arm out and shake your right hand, counting up to 8, then repeat the shake and count for your left hand, right foot, and left foot. Then repeat the whole process counting up to 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 until you finally shake each limb one time. Hint: Every time you decrease a number, you should increase speed. This exercise will get you on your toes, get your heart pumping, get your energy rising, and get your mental state focused and ready for the game.

2. Relax and rely on improv: The (bold) assumption is that you know your material, and if you know your stuff, then “Yes, and…” yourself. Using the phrase “Yes, and…” is one of the cornerstones of improv. Here’s how it works: “Yes”—accept what just happened at face value, regardless of who said it, why it was said, or what happened in the room, etc. “And”—do something with it. That way, you can look at every unanticipated twist and turn in a presentation as an opportunity to seize the unexpected and adapt to changes in your presentation as they occur. If you know your content inside and out, you will be able to handle curveball questions, breakdowns in technology, and surprise interruptions. Also, remember that you don’t have to memorize every word in a speech. (No one will remember every word anyway.) So, just hit the big points hard, and then simply talk with and adapt to your audience.

3. Deliver a message, not just data: Keep in mind, you are not simply providing information. If that were the case, you could save everyone precious time by sending them an e-mail with data points. This is about delivering a message—a need, a story, essential information, or even a motivation—and you’re doing it for a specific reason. Define the desired message and make sure it drives your presentation, not the data.

Why? Behavioral psychology tells us that listeners are more engaged with content that has an emotional story than they are with content that simply is presented as numbers, statistics, and data points. For example, a study led by a Wharton marketing professor presented subjects with five $1 bills and two letters from charities asking for donations (Small, Deborah, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic, “Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable Statistical Victims,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102 (2006): 143-53. Science Direct. Web). One detailed the plight of a young girl from Mali named Rokia facing the threat of extreme hunger and possible starvation. The second was a factual list of statistics outlining food shortages in Africa. As you might have guessed, the subjects overwhelmingly gave more to Rokia than they gave to the pure stats. Now, maybe your subject is less dramatic, but no matter what the information is, there is a story in there that is worth telling, and if you find it, you’ll win the audience.

4. Focus on engaging: Put your energy on the audience and make sure you are communicating your points cleanly and effectively. You are not talking to a group. You are talking to individuals within the group. Keep your eyes on individuals. They will tell you what they want to see more of (or less of). They also will tell you what they do or do not understand. Look at them as your team and look to support your team. Then engage your audience by interacting with them. Look at a presentation as an opportunity to have a conversation, and conversations are two-way streets. No one likes to be talked at. So talk with your audience instead.

5. If all else fails, have fun: Remember, you are not bound by your slides. Your slides are there to support you (not vice-versa). Don’t worry about being a “proper presenter.” Let your natural energy come out and your personality shine. Be honest, be vulnerable, be fallible, and be present in the moment. In other words: Know yourself and bring YOU to your presentation.

With these five secrets, you can drastically change your presentation game. Remember them the next time you are asked to speak in front of any size group and you will be amazed at the difference they make. And your audience will be grateful to be in the presence of such a presentation ninja.

Bob Kulhan is CEO and co-founder of Business Improvisations, a leader in developing experiential learning programs for businesses, combining improvisational training with behavioral psychology. He’s a former member of Chicago’s Second City and adjunct professor of Business Administration for The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University as well as an adjunct professor of Business for Columbia Business School, Columbia University. For more information, visit