August 29, 2022

4 steps to give a winning presentation (hint: sound like a human)

hero image for blog post

by Sam Buti, Section member and podcast producer

You’re about to deliver a presentation. There’s no question about it: you know your stuff.

This is your area of expertise. When you close your eyes, you can see yourself, standing in front of your board, using your voice to convince, charm, and motivate. As you finish your talk, colleagues applaud and shower you with compliments.

“This is brilliant,” one person says. “Just exceptional,” another adds.

But then you remember where you are. You open your eyes. Your presentation hasn’t even started. A colleague clicks off the lights, the projector flips on, and your title slide casts a shadow over your face. The room feels cold. You clamp down and open your mouth to begin and…a whisper comes out.

“This is going to be an uphill battle,” you think, as your voice slides further and further into your throat. “What happened?”

What happened?

Often when we’re speaking, we forget to be ourselves. Somewhere along the line, you remove yourself from the presentation and essentially stop being human. Instead, you become a robot programmed for recitation – and a short-circuiting one, at that.

Worse, your words may have looked great on paper. They could have even rolled off the tongue when you were rehearsing in the bathroom mirror.

Delivering a presentation that connects with an audience, however, is a unique challenge. It’s the difference between writing well and speaking well. And while one supports the other, there’s a personal quality that’s necessary when speaking.

As a former commercial voice actor and now as an independent podcast producer, voice director, and consultant, I’ve learned that to make great audio – much like making a great business – the central idea has to resonate with a living, breathing human.

That means you need to remember to be human first.

The perks of being a human

While “be human first” seems obvious, let’s look at it from a different lens. In the Business Strategy Sprint, Scott Galloway argues that today’s most valuable companies excel at appealing to the head, the heart, the gut, or the genitals (or some combination of the four).

If, for example, you’re in Section, you’re likely attracted to businesses that appeal to the head. And if you follow Scott Galloway, you’re likely attracted to businesses that appeal to both the head and the heart (with a big ol’ fig leaf of irreverence).

The bridge between a listener and a speaker begins with your shared humanity. What makes you human? And who’s the human on the other side of your story?

How to speak like a human

Learning to speak like a pro doesn't have to be a challenge. It’s just a matter of changing your perspective.

Below is a framework to help you speak with conviction, gusto, and authenticity, no matter the business situation. It’s a simple framework that you can use at any time, even if you’re under-prepared or speaking on the fly.

If you’ve taken the Storytelling Sprint, this approach goes hand in hand with Will Storr’s framework. The only difference is now we’re looking at storytelling through the lens of a specific medium: your voice.

1. Identify what matters to you.

By starting with yourself, you build a bridge to your audience.

What matters to you? What motivates you? If you can answer those questions with simple language, you’ll be positioned to connect with your listener.

Perhaps you’re driven to support your aging parents, or to provide a better life for your children. Maybe you’re driven to retire early to make up for years of enjoyment you missed while taking care of your family. Or you could be driven to help your clients live their most fulfilling lives.

Whatever your reason is, define it. Your reason should be unique because your uniqueness is your humanity. If it matters to you, it will matter to your listener.

So before you next start to speak, ask yourself this question and fill in the blank: “I’m driven to speak because______ .”

2. Pick one person to talk to.  

Now that you know why you’re talking, consider who you are talking to.

When you’re chatting with colleagues before a presentation, you’re not talking into a vacuum. You’re one person talking to another.

The best speakers take this mindset onto the podium and act like they’re talking to someone specific.

So ask yourself: “Who am I talking to?”

This one detail will profoundly change your speaking voice. Even if you’re speaking to thousands of people on stage at TED, if you treat them as if you’re talking to one – and only one – person, this will activate your humanity and bring both you and your listeners to the table. This will put you at ease and make you less concerned with how you sound.

Enrich your listener as if they are someone you know, trust, and deeply enjoy. Pick your favorite person. Got them? Good. Now talk to your audience as if they are that individual.

I’ll give you a personal example. Before I speak, I often think of one of two people: my wife or my best friend. When I think of my wife, I’m connected to build the best life I can for our family. And when I think of my best friend, I'm motivated to make them laugh, smile, or simply have a good time.

3. Uncover your listener’s problem. Then solve it.

Borrowing language from Will Storr’s Storytelling Sprint, remember that you are not the hero. Instead, you are the light that guides the hero to their solution.

Remove yourself from the center of the story. The hero is your audience. They’re faced with a problem. Your role is to be their guide.

So learn what their problem is. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, take your best guess. It can even just be an attitude of “I’m here to help.” They wouldn’t be in the room in the first place if they didn’t need something solved.

Next, empower yourself as if you have the solution. Solve your audience’s problem on every line. If you get lost, remind yourself that you’re there to solve their problem.

4. Smile. It’s that simple.

Lastly, smiling is one of the best things you can do to improve your speaking.

From now until the end of time, smile when you talk. Though it might feel absurd, smiling brightens your speaking and improves your tone, pitch, and tempo.

Even if the subject of your speech is too serious for a smile, thinking of smiling is nearly as good as smiling itself. Remember how a smile feels and use it when you talk. Your body will redirect your voice. It’s a subtle thing that can do wonders.

To recap

How you sound is part of your special sauce. It’s what makes you you. And you are very difficult to replicate.

Combining your natural, authentic voice with this framework will allow you to move toward that standing ovation; to receive the connection, motivation, and inspiration you desire; and to move an audience with your voice and your words. Being human is more powerful than you may have ever imagined. Try starting with it before you give your next presentation.


Want to know more about using your voice to influence your audience? Reach out to Sam at his website.

Greg Shove
Sam Buti