I still remember the feeling. I was onstage at a tech conference getting ready to deliver a keynote presentation when suddenly, the screen flickered. Not only were my slides not working, but the entire system had crashed. It was every speaker's worst nightmare. As nervous IT staff worked frantically to fix it, I made a decision: The show must go on. Presenting without my slides wasn't ideal, but neither was wasting the audience's time to get it fixed.
Was it the best presentation I've ever given? Definitely not. But it taught me that improving your public speaking skills takes a lot more than pretty slides. Whether you run a company, team, or startup, effective communication and presentation are part of the job. So if you, too, want to become a stronger, more confident public speaker, these four tips can help:
Know your stuff, not your slides.
I've seen far too many leaders prioritize slides over substance when preparing for a big presentation or talk. Knowing your transitions and flow is important, but not as much as knowing the key insights you want your audience to walk away with. Spend time drafting the messages you want to communicate, understanding the ins-and-outs of the topic, and doing a little bit of research on who your audience is in advance. Being well-versed in the content will show up in your confidence, delivery, and communication. And while I hope the above incident never happens to you, every leader should be prepared to deliver a message even if technology fails them.
The worst presentations I've ever given were when I tried to mimic someone else's style. While we all want to present like Apple executives, we're better off finding our own voice, because when it comes to communications, authenticity is queen. For example, I often film my weekly team Loom presentation while wearing workout clothes and mention what I'm listening to that day (Justin Bieber's Tiny Desk concert was the latest). They're not fancy, rehearsed, or Steve Jobs-level polished. But my department gets the information and transparency they need from me, imperfections and all. It's good to learn from your favorite TED Talk speakers and thought leaders, but the best presenters are authentically themselves.
Play to your strengths.
HubSpot's co-founder Dharmesh Shah is an incredible keynote speaker, but he dislikes panel discussions. I'm the opposite: I avoid long keynote presentations and gravitate toward panel opportunities. Discussions with a great moderator and minimal prep fire me up because I love reacting on the fly and learning from other panelists. Given that, I invest more of my time building thought leadership with panels and less time with keynotes. If you're great at written content but struggle with big audiences, then embrace that. Wherever possible, pick mediums and venues that suit your strengths and lean into them.
Find your "at bat" song.
My former boss and mentor JD Sherman loved talking about people's "at bat" songs (the song baseball players choose as they walk up to the plate in major league stadiums). I've since realized that they're not just for athletes; every leader needs an "at bat" song too. When it comes to giving a big presentation, you can't control the weather, the technical difficulties, or the dynamic in the room, so I focus on what I can control: my soundtrack. I put on my headphones before it's showtime and spend a few minutes getting energized (usually with Beyoncé's help). There are dozens of ways to boost your confidence before a big presentation, but this small ritual can be a great source of confidence at a critical time. All you need is the right song.
From presenting to employees or customers to delivering a keynote or investor pitch, leaders are doing some form of public speaking constantly. And it isn't easy. I'm still finding my groove and iterating on my presenting style. But the last tip I've learned is that practice makes (almost) perfect. So keep finding opportunities to build that skill, find your style, and make mistakes. And if all else fails, put on your "at bat" song and be yourself. That's the most underrated leadership communications trick I know.