Six ways to feel less nervous about next week’s presentation

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

There’s a lot I could say about nerves. Nerves are a source of shame – we all feel like we shouldn’t be feeling nervous like those ‘confident’ people we see around us.

But, let me tell you, I’ve coached thousands of presentations from people from 22 countries at all levels of seniority and everyone gets nervous sometimes.

I ran a workshop on presentation nerves a couple of weeks ago. Hippy that I am, I like to start by getting everyone to answer a simple question, so that everyone has heard all the voices in the room. My question this time was: What type of presentation makes you the most nervous?


~ All of them!
~ Small groups is fine, but bigger than 20 is awful.
~ I’m fine with presentations to colleagues, but strangers is terrible.
~ I’m fine with any number of strangers – give me a room of a thousand strangers, no problem – but people who know me? Yuck.
~ Pitching. Pitching ideas when there’s a lot at stake.
~ My team is fine, but senior people or customers – that’s when I get nervous.

Two things to notice:

1. Pretty much everyone gets nervous at some point. Generally people who don’t get nervous have practiced some serious strategies.

2. Different things make different people nervous. It’s not the situation itself, it’s the things we think about it that make it hard.

There are various reasons for nerves – physical, mental, generic and specific – and getting to zero nerves is a bit of a long-term job.

But. There are some things that you can do which will at least let you take the edge off your nerves, if not bring them down to a manageable level.

1. Practice unclenching.

Between now and your talk, practice unclenching. Relax the muscles around your eyes. Relax your jaw and your nostrils. Become aware of your peripheral vision. If you can soften your neck and your shoulders, so much the better.

You’ll probably find that within seconds, the tension is back again.

That’s kind of the point.

We have built tension habits, nervous pathways (hah!) which have been reinforced again and again.

If you want to feel more relaxed, then you have to practice it, again and again.

Set a reminder on your phone to go off at various points in the day. Or look for a random reminder app (look for them in your app store) and set one up for 10 times a day, or whatever.

Or put a dot on your laptop screen, or tie a piece of cotton to your finger, or paint a nail a different colour, anything that will remind you to practice unclenching.

As any of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I’m a bit of a Twitter junkie. And I check it more than I tweet, so, well, I’m on it a lot. What I did was take Twitter off my phone’s main screen, so I had to go and look for it. That tiny action was enough to remind me that when I was looking for Twitter, that was time to unclench. I had a ready-made 50-times-a-day habit, so I harnessed it. It worked, for a while anyway.

You’re trying to create a bit of momentum, a new habit.




So that when you want to unclench and relax, your body is more used to it.

You can extend this too. If you can practice relaxing more thoroughly, then find a way. Download some relaxation self-hypnosis audio. Try a couple of simple yoga postures. Look up a stretching routine.

The more you can get your body used to being relaxed, the more you’re able to have it available to you when you need it.

2. Lower your expectations.

This is a weird one but I think it’s worth saying. You’re not changing the world, here. You’re doing a talk. If you, consciously or unconsciously, think you’re going to change the world with your talk, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself. The more risk you pile on, the more nerves you’re going to feel. (And the more disappointed you’re going to feel afterwards, by the way.)

What’s a realistic outcome to this presentation? Let’s start with: surviving. Getting through it, talking about most of the points you were planning on, answering some of the questions in an okay manner. Survival.

Then, what? Part of the purpose of a presentation is to lead to discussion, both immediately after and in the coming days. Keep in mind that your presentation is just the start of something (and a 30-minute/45-minute start at that), and you’ll stop thinking you’re going to solve big problems in the world. Keep focused on the actions you’re aimed at, and make those actions probable and doable and you’ll keep things more in perspective.

3. Do a Find Five.

Find Five is something I use when I’ve got a situation coming up that is causing me anxiety. Fear comes from a part of you thinking something bad is going to happen. The anxiety often comes from being overly certain of that ‘bad’ outcome.

In order to counteract that uncertainty, I do what I call a Find Five, which is finding five possible outcomes to the situation.

I find:

1. A terrible outcome. eg: losing your job and all credibility.
2. A mildly bad outcome. eg: You forget a bit of what you were going to say, and maybe you fluff some answers to questions.
3. A mildly positive outcome. eg: You get through all your points, the reaction is positive, the energy in the room is good.
4. A wildly positive outcome. eg: You are on fire. New things occur to you that you follow, you make people laugh at the right points, and as a result you get a promotion or a new client.
5. A surprising, life-changing (and positive) outcome. This is a bit difficult to predict, because, er, it’s a surprise. What I tend to think is that I’ll look back on this talk as a turning point in my life. Maybe I meet someone who becomes a great friend, or I learn something that changes my thinking on a topic, or someone recommends a book that I love, or one of the people attending my session changes the direction of my future somehow.

All of the outcomes have to be possible but not necessarily probable.

Look at each one of these five outcomes and see that they are all possible, and really you have no idea what the outcome of your presentation will be.

I find this reassuring, as it helps me to undermine my false certainty that disaster is coming…

4. Rather than ‘performance’ think ‘conversation’.

You know those TED talks that do the rounds? I’ve referred to a lot of them in the past, and they can be pretty inspirational.

There is a downside to them, though. TED talks are specific to the TED event. They are a platform for people to talk about a surprising or ‘inspirational’ aspect of their work or life. Only the really ‘good’ ones get shared and watched, by and large.

And, from a certain perspective, that can be intimidating. We end up thinking that our conference talk needs to be ‘inspirational’ and life-changing and remarkable.

That’s (a) a tall order, (b) largely out of your control, and (c) most often inappropriate, all rolled into one.

The concept of ‘performance’ contains within it many unhelpful ramifications, including the requirement to be entertaining, the idea that you’re the main event, and, also, nerves!

Just think for a minute. If you were one-on-one with one of the people attending your session, could you have a conversation about your topic?

If so, then you can do a presentation.

What topics would that person be interested in? What recommendations would you make? What kind of words/level of detail would you go into?

Go with that. It’s just a conversation – admittedly a slightly strange mainly one-way conversation – that you know how to do.

Yes, this doesn’t mean all nerves go away, but thought about in the right way, it can help you to be a bit more pragmatic about what you’re setting out to do.

5. Set parameters.

As we discussed in the article on how to be an interesting presenter, one of the habits of interesting presenters is to set limits at the beginning of the session, and, indeed, in the title and blurb of the talk itself.

If you clearly say, “What I’m not going to be able to do in 45 minutes today is… What I am going to aim for is…” you’re more able to set limits as to what people are expecting, and which questions you’ll be willing and able to answer.

This helps with your nerves because you’ve been really clear with your listeners about what you’re setting out to achieve, and that that is achievable for you.

Disappointment comes from when real-life doesn’t match our expectations. If you set people’s expectations at the right level, well, then there’s no disappointment.

This also gives you a way of dealing with questions that are outside the scope of the talk. You can just say ‘That’s a little outside the scope of what we’re covering today…’ and handle it however you want to handle it, including but not limited to just moving on to the next question!

So you can stop scaring yourself with Q&A horror movies…

6. Work out how not to die.

There is a part of us that thinks that giving this talk is actually going to kill us, that somehow everything is leading up to this presentation and then that’s it. If you look beyond the talk, there is just the grey fog of nothingness.

Unsurprisingly, this creates some distress.

One of the best things you can do in this situation is to imagine what you’re going to do straight after the talk. Where will you be, what will you do?

Then what will you do later that day? That evening?

What is happening the next day?

What about the day after that?

The next week? What do you have planned?

What are you going to do with friends or family?

Next month?

Reassure the scared part of you that life will continue, populate your future with full-colour plans. It’s okay – you will survive.


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

How to tell stories like a pro

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Having coached thousands of presentations, the most reliable indicator of if someone is going to be an engaging presenter is: Do they tell proper stories from their life?

Why you must put more stories into your presentation

Stories are a subtle way of talking about your experience.

One of the phrases I dread the most in a presentation, especially at the beginning, is, “Let me start by telling you a little bit about my history.” (Trumped only by “Let me start by giving you some history of the project.”)

Now, you are right that one of the silent questions people have about you is “Who is this person and why are they qualified to speak to me on this topic?” There are two truly effective ways of answering this question.

1. Show you understand what people are thinking and feeling about your topic.

2. Tell stories that are appropriate to your topic that also show the projects you’ve worked on, the problems you’ve solved, the clients you’ve worked with.

As you’re going over the story mining you’ve been doing, find examples that help to build your credibility, but kind of by the backdoor, as it were.

You come across as experienced.

Experienced people have experiences to share. If you share your experiences, people remember you as experienced.

Stories are memorable for you.

With a only a tiny bit of practice, all you need in your notes is a keyword to remind you of the whole story you’re going to tell, as opposed to having to remember a bunch of facts.

Stories are memorable for them.

It’s almost a truism to say that people don’t always remember the facts, but they remember the stories. Why do you think that case studies and detailed testimonials feature so heavily in marketing material? And magazines! Whenever a magazine is looking at an issue, they almost always find the ‘human’ side of it by telling it through someone’s story. Stories are naturally memorable.

We are hungry for stories.

As human beings, we hunger for stories. How much of our spare time is spent listening to stories, reading stories, telling stories? Think movies, novels, gossip. In fact, story is one of the universals in every human culture.

Our sense of interest is designed for stories.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that our sense of interest is designed for story, if not by story. So in telling stories, you’re giving yourself the best chance of being perceived as interesting, because you’re using the thing that our minds are most easily interested in, the thing that is the epitome, the essence of interest: story.

The three levels of presentation story zoom.

I spend a lot of time with clients working on their ability to tell stories smoothly and in a way that adds to their credibility.

A major issue I see is that people default to the wrong zoom level when telling stories. Functionally, there are three levels of story zoom, each with a different difficulty, impact and risk.

1. Snippet

Zoom: looking at the story from very far away
Difficulty level: easy
Impact: minor
Risk: low

Snippets are what inexperienced storytellers default to when I initially ask them to tell stories. They’re what presenters point to when I say to them, “Where were the stories?” They are the lowest risk but also lowest impact way of introducing your experience.

Snippets are one to four sentence examples of things that have happened to the speaker.

They go something like:

We had a client who got into trouble doing this. As soon as she started implementing this system, she soon saw things turn around.

I mean, it’s alright. But it’s hardly attention-grabbing, and doesn’t give your listeners much to get their teeth into, as it were.

Snippets are good for a bit of spice, and perhaps a bit of variety, but need to not be the only form of stories in your presentation.

2. Full event

Zoom: eye level
Difficulty level: medium
Impact: significant
Risk: medium

Full events are stories, about a specific event that generally happened on a specific day, or series of days. Whatever, you can date it. It’s about a time you faced a specific problem, and came out the other side. Normally between 1 and 4 minutes to tell.

Full events are the zoom level that fascinating, natural speakers use.

3. Extended setpiece

Zoom: super close-up
Difficulty level: harrrrd
Impact: potentially life-changing
Risk: very high

Extended stories take maybe ten minutes or more to tell. They are highly practiced, and can sometimes be the whole of a presentation. “Inspirational” speakers – ex-sportspeople, mountaineers, etc – often use them as the base for their spiel.

Every now and again, they are beautifully done, and can provide a very immediate and moving message that drives home deeply.

Mostly, they come off as somewhat overrehearsed, stretching a point, or just told for the sake of being told.

Almost categorically, I would recommend you avoid these stories – the risk of screwing up is much too high.

Types of story

The type of story you tell depends on your purpose. Here are a couple of the major types to get your thinking going.

Warning story

A warning story is a way of setting a limit, of saying “If you go all the way over here, bad things will happen.” For example, if you’re recommending people adopt a certain standard, tell a story of a disaster that happened when you didn’t follow that standard. (This might be an occasion for using something you were just involved in, rather than as the main protagonist, but make sure you’re not regugitating an urban myth.)

To be compelling, the story needs to demonstrate how not following your advice means your listeners will lose something important to them. (Go back to your presentation prep when you were thinking about what your listeners need and value.)

Benefits story

This is the flipside of the warning story. Talk about a time when you followed your recommendation and things turned out really well. Again, make sure the things you gain are things that your listeners value. Talking about a time when you learned a mnemonic for an apostrophe rule might be super-appropriate to other writers/grammar mavens, for others maybe not so much.

Analogy story.

When you’re explaining something your listeners may find strange or complex, that’s when you need an analogy. Like those movie pitches that go “It’s like Rocky III meets Avatar ON A SUBMARINE” it gives people something to grasp, something from their current experience. Analogies start “It’s a bit like…”

Analogy stories start “It’s a bit like when I…”

To choose an analogy story you go:

1. What aspects of this topic need to be more familiar to my listeners?
2. What else that they are familiar with shares one or more of those qualities?
3. What has happened to me from that familiar domain that helps to highlight that quality?

Don’t dismiss non-work examples, here.

The four parts of an Event Story

I mainly want you telling Full Events, or what me might call Event Stories. There are four parts to telling a story that grabs people. It almost doesn’t matter how ‘interesting’ or ‘significant’ the story seems to you. If you include these elements (and emphasise them in the way I’m going to suggest later on) you’ll have a story that holds people’s attention.

1. Context

Start by saying when this story happened, where you were, and who you were with and what you were doing. Simple.

2. Problem

The thing that makes it a story is there is a problem that you solved. Tell us about the problem. why was it particularly important or hard for you in the moment?

3. Actions

What sequence of actions did you take?

4. Result

End with the happy (or sad) result.

Follow these rules like a recipe. Make sure you have all four ingredients, in that sequence, and you’ll be, as they say, golden.

The things you must never do when telling a story in a presentation

Don’t make it up

It’s hard to tell a story that isn’t yours and your listeners will feel it. Also, why are you making this hard on yourself? Find a story that fits the point you’re trying to make and tell that one.

Don’t embellish

There is no need to add more drama in. I’ve heard thousands of stories in presentations, and believe me, if you have the four ingredients above in the right order, your story is fine. If you want to amp it up, I’ve got some advice for you in the next section, but embellishment or exaggeration are not the way. Plus, if people find out that you’re not telling the whole truth, they can feel betrayed.

Don’t sabotage yourself

Too often I see presenters decide they’re going to tell a story, then they begin doubting their story halfway through. They being to comment or apologise for how ‘boring’ their story is, they start skipping around the four ingredients, or they miss things out to speed through it. Then – ta daa! – their story is crappy. Don’t do this, eh? If you’ve started in on your story, follow the four ingredients all the way through to the end.

Mistakes of inexperienced storytellers

There are three easy ways to make your story sound professional. Avoid these mistakes and your stories will go up in their impact.

Not enough context

Make sure you set the story in it’s temporal context. That is, tell us when, where, who, what. Don’t take off before we’re on board, okay? Without this context, we don’t feel like we’re listening to a story, and so none of us get the benefit.

Not enough significance.

Ever go to a movie and find the plot less than gripping? Get to the end and find it mildly unsatisfying? That will almost definitely be because the writer didn’t make their characters go through enough hard times. Stories that grip us are when we really see that the main character (that’ll be you) is really up against it.

I’ve heard great stories about insignificant events. Tiling the bathroom, getting a chest of drawers up three flights of stairs, getting a new running habit. Stories do not have to be life-alteringly massive to be engaging during a presentation. We have to understand why, in that moment, this problem was hard. We have to understand why, in that moment, this problem was important for you to solve. Make the stakes really clear.

If you show us why this was important to you, we’ll be rooting for you when you work on solving it.

Result is inconclusive.

Don’t wimp out on telling us how things ended up. If it’s a warning story, describe the repercussions. Don’t exaggerate, but describe. If it’s a benefit story, let us really see the happy ending.

Story is a complex beast.

Writers work their whole life making stories that really resonate. There is a lot involved in such long-form stories. For presentations, however, particularly for Event Stories, follow this advice and your impact will rocket up, just from talking on things you know about. Good, eh?


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

How to be a more interesting presenter

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Once you have your main structure down, it can be good to think about how to optimise.

Here are a few… ingredients? elements? that are (largely) easy to implement and make a big difference to the impression you make.


A major way I see speakers make themselves less than interesting is by not bringing in enough contrast into their presentations. Like most things, you can, of course, go way too far in this arena, but the much more common error is making things too similar.

Ask any coach worth their decaff chai, and they’ll tell you that when clients come to them with a difficult decision to make, often all you have to do is to help them separate out the options.

“If you went for Option A, what are the upsides? The downsides? If you don’t go for Option A, what are the upsides? The downsides? If you go for Option B….”

Once the options, and their attendant repercussions, are clear, all too often the decision is obvious.

Emphasise the consequences of following your recommendations. If you make your recommendations seem too similar to the status quo, people won’t actually take action, and then, well, you haven’t actually helped them, have you?

And, whilst we’re on the topic of the status quo, the principle of scarcity tells us that we are often more motivated by what we stand to lose than what we stand to gain. And your real competition is always: the status quo. We love the status quo, even if we hate the status quo. So don’t expect your recommendations to stand on their own. Clearly lay out how your listeners will get more of what they want if they follow your recommendations, and how they will lose some of what they want if they stay the same.

It’s a good habit to get into to make sure you’re introducing benefits of following your advice (and downsides of not following it) as standard as you move from point to point. Depending on your character, your national culture, and the national culture of your listeners, you can be more or less definite about it, but see if you can make it a pattern.

Unexpected benefits

One of the things I often do when teaching a presentation class is to get people to make a three-minute recommendation presentation. After seeing hundreds of these (yes, hundreds), you know the easiest way to make them have more impact?

Make one of the benefits a surprise one.

You know when you try something new, and after a few weeks, it’s doing you good, but in ways you didn’t expect?

Sharing those benefits, the ones that only someone who has implemented your advice would know, makes your topic really compelling.

The unexpected wakes people up.

For example, I’m working from a makeshift standing desk. It’s a couple of boxes, and a really nifty laptop stand which is the size and thickness of a piece of A4 card. I’ve also got an ergonomic keyboard which not only separates the two hands, but tents.

There are obvious benefits. I got RSI for a couple of years, largely from typing on the tiny keyboard on my tiny netbook. So having a better posture means I avoid pain in my thumbs. I can also type longer without fatigue.

The other thing is: I look really weird, so people come up and chat. They ask about my setup, and, if they’re nice, I can introduce myself. So, yes, I’m the ergonomic tower guy, but I’m also the shy ergonomic tower guy, so it acts as an ice-breaker. It’s nice.

What benefits have you experienced putting your recommendation into practice? Which of those have surprised you? Do they, perhaps, overlap with the things that are important to your listeners?

Proper verbal signposting

Signposting. Very important. As in: Now we’re talking about this. Now we’ve finished talking about that. Now we’re talking about this.

Using sequence words like, ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, ‘point three’ ‘finally’, as well as more emotional signal words like ‘unfortunately’, ‘surprisingly’ or ‘this is really important’ can do a great deal to keep your presentation clear.

There’s a more subtle level of transitioning from point to point which most people miss.

There are ways of signposting that can kill the interest in your talk, and ways that can kindle it.

To keep your listeners listening to your presentation, you want to balance safety with uncertainty. Too much safety is boring. Too much uncertainty is unnerving.

If you meander from story to story, even if you have a clear plan in your head, people can get restless because they’re not sure what’s happening. Do you have a plan? What are they learning? What does this relate to?

The flip side of that is telling them exactly what topics you’re going to talk about, and even some of the subpoints, probably through one of those bulleted and sub-bulleted slides. This means people will know exactly what is coming up, so there is no uncertainty, but it means that people know exactly what is coming up, so there is no uncertainty. No uncertainty can mean no curiosity.

No curiosity = boredom

You have to tread a fine line here.

Two signposting suggestions:

1. Tell people your points in advance, but give them keywords that don’t immediately make sense. (“There are two aspects to this. Burnout and broccoli.” NB That’s a real example from a friend of mine.)

2. Let them know the questions they will have an answer to by the end of your presentation. Someone who does this well is Robert Cialdini, the guy who wrote the classic book on influence (called ‘Influence’). When he presents his six principles, he doesn’t say “We’re going to talk about six principles: Reciprocity, Social Proof, Liking…” He says, “By the end of this presentation you’ll have clear, scientific answers to the following questions: 1. When listing your prices, should you put your lowest or highest price first? 2. How should you discuss the downsides of your offer?…”

The listener thus gets clarity and structure, but their curiosity stays peaked all the way to the end of the presentation.

Signposting finesse

~ It’s generally not a bad thing to reinforce when you’re moving from point to point. “So that was…. Next…”

~ You don’t have to let people know your points in advance, either. You can say ‘There are three aspects to this. The first is….” and then go through it in full. Then “The second aspect is…” Even this can just add a little extra oomph.

Focus on recommendations

Think about two people you know, maybe from different domains. If you were recommending, say, a restaurant to them, you might recommend a different one, right? Depending on what you know about their preferences. I’m not going to recommend my local sushi bar to my 92-year-old Nan, for example (“Ooh, sounds like a fishmonger’s.”). And you’re not going to recommend a place that you don’t think is a good place.

You’re even unlikely to recommend a place you haven’t tried, not without saying “Well, I haven’t tried it, but I hear…”

Recommendations imply that you genuinely think what you’re talking about will make the other person happy. Recommendations are tailored to the people in front of you.

Another benefit of focusing on recommending courses of action is you can talk from your own perspective, avoiding the need to pretend to be an expert.

Make stats human-sized

One of my favourite books on statistics (what??) is The Tiger That Isn’t. The first chapter is called ‘Is That A Big Number?’

I love that question.

Whenever you hear a number, it should be the first question you ask.

~ Help people to understand the scale of your statistics by bringing them down to human size. What does that mean for a person? What’s the base rate?

~ Compare the numbers to other numbers so we know what’s happening.

Three things people love

1. Behind-the-scenes.
2. Über-practical tips.
3. The unexpected.

If you can sprinkle those in, you’ll raise the Interest Quotient (I just made that up) of your presentation.

Tell stories

That one deserves its own article. Coming soon…

Have simple slides

Don’t get me started on PowerPoint. I’m limiting myself to just one piece of advice here.

Bullet points lead to list intonation. You stop interacting with your listeners, and start reading (and often rushing) through your boring-sounding list.

Move the heading to the centre of the slide. Move the bullet points into your notes and their handouts.

This one bit of advice immediately allows you to keep your conversational tone of voice.


Yes, there are plenty of other ways to make your presentation interesting, and yes, there are plenty of interesting speakers who break the guidelines I’ve just mentioned. However, when I queried my mental presentation database, these are some of the patterns that came out.

Stand by for: stories.


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

How to liven up your presentation with stories

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

There is one thing you can do which will make your presentation a whole heap more engaging, and it’s not too hard.

Before I tell you how, let me tell you when I notice this the most.

When I MC conferences, I get to hear a lot of presentations.

And you know what?

I can draw a line straight down the middle between the boring presentations and the interesting ones.

The one most reliable factor that allows me to do that?


Boring speakers don’t tell stories.

Interesting speakers? Tell stories. And not apocryphal stories. Not other people’s stories. Stories from their own life. Often small, everyday, recent stories.

One day I’ll tell you about my theory of the hierarchy of story, the worth of different types of stories in the context of a presentation. Suffice it to say for now that recent stories from your life have the potential to get people very engaged.

As human beings, we hunger for stories. So much of culture is built around story. Think about it. Novels. Movies. TV series. Stories are what we pay good money to read and watch.

Plus it’s the way that informal information is passed between people, and it’s what we hear from each other several times a day.

~ How was your weekend? Leads to: story.
~ How did your talk go? Leads to: story.
~ Did your Mum have a good time when she came to visit? Story. (No, really. Ask me. Bless.)
~ What do you think of the new guy? Story.
~ How was your meeting? Interview? Date?


Stories get people engaged like no other tool.

So if you want to get people involved in your presentation without you having to resort to silly gimmicks, you’re going to need to go mining your life for stories.

Don’t think you have stories to tell? You are mistaken.

Here’s a way to make this hard: Try and come up with ‘interesting’ stories. Or ‘funny’ stories.


First off, people don’t need your stories to be either interesting or funny. They need to them to be useful and appropriate (more about that in a minute).

Secondly, once you listen to ordinary people telling thousands of ordinary stories (as I have over the past ten years), you realise that what the speaker identifies as a ‘boring’ story is often what listeners identify as interesting. (Also, many people, at a dinner or a party, for example, who think they have an interesting story… Hmmm… “It’s quite an interesting story, actually…” SNORE.)

Stories (well-told, and I’ll help you with that aspect in a few weeks) hold people’s attention like little else.

There are two ways you’re going to use story: evidence and analogy.

Stories are very convincing evidence.

I used to teach managers job interviewing skills (as in, how to run an interview, not how to attend one). If you want to choose the right person, what you’re looking for again and again is real examples for when the person has used the skill in earnest.

Anyone can spout keywords (“I’m a team player.” “I’m a proactive problem-solver.”) But that kind of thing is easy to fake, especially if the halo effect kicks in because the person is nice-looking or charismatic.

It’s much harder to fake experience. When you ask about a particular example of when they actually were a team player, or proactively solved a problem, you can see that they really mean it.

All the time as an interviewer, you should be asking ‘Can you think of a time when you did that? What’s an example of that?’

It’s similar when you are doing a presentation. You’ll want to show the benefits of what you’re recommending. The most persuasive evidence for that is when you talk about how you benefited from it, or, maybe, when you helped someone else benefit from it..

At times, you’ll also want to warn people away from certain courses of action, so you’ll need stories of when you screwed up because you didn’t follow this advice.

If you want to show that you really know what you’re talking about, talking about a time when you did that is the most persuasive evidence.

If you share your experiences, people remember you as an experienced person.

Stories make very effective analogies.

There are times when you have to make your complex topic simple. One way is an analogy – an image from your listener’s life that brings out important points in a way that helps them understand.

If you can discuss something that happened to you that shares the qualities you want people to identify in your topic, they can’t help but find things clearer.

(Don’t worry – I’ll give you some clues when we return to stories in a couple of weeks about how to use stories as analogies in a powerful way.)


You’re going to have to go back through your life, thinking of stories.

A really good way is to think of problems you’ve solved.

1. Get a piece of paper and draw a line from your birth until now. Mark on significant events – moving house and jobs seem to be significant milestones which perhaps remind you of other changes in your life.

For example, I might have

~ moving to the States when I was a kid
~ moving back to UK
~ first house after school
~ college
~ London
~ IT trainer
~ moving in with Stuart
~ training manager job
~ moving to Singapore
~ work in Hong Kong and China
~ moving back to live with Mum-in-law
~ moving to Birmingham.

2. Then go through each of those areas and do a bit of light brainstorming about problems you encountered and solved. This is not the time to be going over traumatic times, but just thinking: What issues did I face and how did I get through to the other side?

Off the top of my head, when I lived in Houston as a kid, they thought I had a speech defect – I didn’t pronounce my ‘r’s correctly. Fatherrrr. Motherrr. So they sent me speech therapy, effectively to correct my British accent. If I turned up and worked hard, I got a free book every couple of weeks, so my parents let me keep going. Free books, right?

When I was a training manager, for instance, I had to train all the staff in all communication topics. I very quickly learned how to research a topic and put together an involving learning session using adult learning principles.

Erm… When we first started working in Hong Kong and China, I had to adapt to speaking in global English, not my British version.

You’ll quickly see that at each juncture, you can come up with five, ten, twenty different challenges you faced and (evidently!) got through.

Caveat: This process doesn’t give us stories yet.

Stories that grab people’s attention contain a couple more ingredients than we’ve listed so far. In a couple of weeks, when we’re nearer to planning the details of your talk, I’m going to tell you how to select and tell stories that serve your purpose.

Do the exercise above (and maybe blutack it up and add to it over the next couple of weeks) and you’ll see that story-finding is a breeze.

You’ll never find it difficult to find interesting stories ever again.

For now, go through your life timeline, identify major milestones, and list the challenges you moved through and problems you solved (both big and small) and we’ll come back to it later.

I promise you, you’ll look back on this as a major step towards becoming the kind of speaker you want to be.


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

Writing your speaker bio, talk title, and description

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.


This is Meg Lightheart, the complex-topic presentation coach. TCUK have asked me write some articles that will help speakers through the presentation planning and delivery process.

TCUK need to get your speaker bio, and your talk title and description up on the website, so I thought this would be a good time to give you some guidance on how to put those things together. If you’re not used to writing what amounts to marketing copy, it can be feel a bit clunky and mysterious to approach.

Use what you find in this article to get something up on the site, then you’ve got a few weeks before the final version for the printed programme is due, so there is some flexibility to tweak.

As always it’s not about you

What is the purpose of the talk title and description? In a conference, there are a lot of people, and probably other talks going on at the same time as yours.

You want the right people to come to your session, and to dissuade the people who will find it less appropriate, so they don’t waste their time.
The same, weirdly, can be said about your speaker bio. Ostensibly about you, really about attracting the people who will get the most out of your talk. More about that later.

There are three ways your title and description attract people.

1. Create curiosity

The mechanism of curiosity is creating questions in people’s heads, and not answering them just yet. There are heavy-handed ways of doing this (those “shocking truths” Buzzfeed article links, anyone?) but a bit of curiosity is a good thing. If people know everything about your talk before they come (or feel like they do, which is effectively the same thing), they’re not going to turn up.

2. Set the tone

What are you like as a speaker? Okay: what are you like in conversation? How would your friends describe you, your significant other?

Laugh-a-minute or serious business?
Zoomed-in or 1:25000 scale?
Up-close-and-personal or that’s-quite-close-enough?
Richard Dawkins or Doreen Virtue?
By-the-book or iconoclast?

Everything pertaining to your talk has to match how you’re going to be in the session. And, yes, you can be a little aspirational, but mainly go with what you’re comfortable with. A frivolous bio will bring in the frivolous-prone, so if you turn out to be all headmistress in person, it’s going to be a bad surprise.

3. Show value

People will come to your talk because you offer them some value. That might be entertainment, it might be learning. Go back to the planning questions you did when you were planning your session way back in April. What’s important to your listeners? What do they need and want, in this domain? Your talk title and description have to clearly show what they’ll get by coming.

Marketing is about attraction.

Whereas when you’re planning your talk, you’re designing it for the people who will be there, we’re kind of doing the opposite here: designing communication that will attract those people to be there in the first place.

Clear, then clever.

An old saw in marketing circles is “Clear, then clever.”

~ First off write your title to clearly describe what it’s about.

“How to…”

~ Can you add in a benefit?

“How to… so that…”
“How to make … more…”

~ Want to add a number?

“Three ways to… so that…”
“Four questions that make… more…”

~ Specify who it’s good for?

“…for [job title]”
“…for people who…”

~ Get the right level in.

“The least you need to know about how to…”
“Beyond the basics of… ”
“Delving into the depths of…”
“… for advanced practitioners.”
(You’ll be glad you did this – avoids questions that you can’t answer!)

~ Add in an adverb?

Smoothly, easily, quickly. Reliably. Finally.

Clear first.

Want clever?

There’re boatloads of material out there on writing headlines. It’s a dark and sometimes sleazy art.

You can get a grounding in it quite quickly. Note what articles you actually click through on Twitter/Facebook, or from the mainpage of your online newspaper. What blog posts do you click through to? What generic emails do you open?

What about the headline made you click? You can take the format, and just replace with your info. Replace process with process, noun with noun, adjective with adjective, number with number.

(If you’re ever stuck in the WHSmiths at the train station, it can be very educational to spot patterns in the headlines that go on the covers of magazines. Which are so overblown you would never go near them? Which make you curious to open the magazine just for a peek?)

Caveat: Disappointment happens when we picture something, then the reality doesn’t match. Make sure you’re not promising something you can’t deliver. It better really be a hilarious rollercoaster through five life-changing paradigm shifts, otherwise, probably best not to say it is.

Writing your talk blurb

Here’s a down-and-dirty template for writing your talk blurb. You might remember it from when you wrote your proposal. I’m deliberately not giving you examples of actual sentences, as I want you to write this in your style.

Life without: One sentence describing the downsides of life before they’ve experienced your recommendation. Maybe a sentence describing a trend which makes this talk particularly timely.

Life with: One or two sentences describing the benefits people will enjoy after they implement your recommendation.

Specific benefits: What (three to five things) specifically will they be able to do better as a result of attending your talk. Remember curiosity… Don’t make them feel like they’ve already heard your talk before you give it!

Optional extras: Who is this particularly good for? Do they get a handout? Is it worshop-style session? You could ask a question too, if you like.

Writing the dreaded speaker bio.

Yup. Writing about yourself is awkward and weird. Also, you’ve not got much space. This is not the time to write out your CV. Again, the purpose of writing your bio is to get the right people to your talk, and put off the ones who won’t get benefit. Curiosity, tone and value still count here.

Particularly let them know why you’re the person who can help them with this specific topic. Numbers can help to do this efficiently: number of projects, number of years, number of systems.

What in your job history means you care about this topic? What lead you to want to pass on your knowledge?

Yes, you can talk a bit about something private too, if you like. Quirky things about what you’re like: fine. Loving coffee and chocolate is not quirky though.

Tone is particularly important here. Jokers can joke (a bit). Serious people? It’s okay to just be serious.

How to cheat writing your speaker bio.

1. Google “conference”, click on a few conference sites and check out the speaker bios.
2. Find one that sounds like you.
3. Replace their details with yours. (I don’t mean just change the name, I mean rewrite each sentence with your information.)
4. Never tell them.

And if this completely stumps you, pick and mix from the below:

[Name] has been a [job title] for [x years].
She particularly likes [job thing you particularly like].
A memorable project she was involved with was [project] where she [fact].
One thing she is proud of is [thing you’re proud of].
In her spare time you’ll find [name] [activity].
She can’t bear [thing that your listeners might not like either].
She particularly cares about [talk topic] because [reason].
Her dream is [publicly acceptable dream].

Go write.

Notice the word limits. And if you have a question, email me, with “TCUK Question” in the subject line, and I’ll answer them all in another article.


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

How to create your proposal for TCUK

Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Meg Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Putting together a talk is hard. We get it.

You don’t do this every day, certainly not at major conferences. No one properly teaches you in detail how to do a modern presentation. You have to just kind of piece it together from books and presentations you’ve seen and other people’s slides.

Thing is, there is actually no mystery to standing up and being interesting.

So over the next few months, I’m going to work with the TCUK speakers (if you want) to put together a talk you can be proud of.

So, if you propose a talk or workshop and get accepted, you get some development as a speaker thrown in too. Cool, eh?

You know the advantages of doing a talk at TCUK, right?

TCUK is your industry conference. Doing a talk at an industry conference raises your profile, so people recognise you. You might not need that now, but if you’re ever looking for work in the future, that can be a very good thing.

If you do your talk well, you can help your community.

If you have a boss, it’s an impressive thing to have done, and shows that the investment in your ticket was worth it.

Oh, and hold on, as a speaker your ticket would be free, wouldn’t it? So not only are you raising your profile, and helping out your professional network, but you’re getting a free ticket to a darn good three-day conference.


Ah yes, the but.

Okay, not but.


And… it’s difficult to choose. Maybe you have lots of half-ideas. Maybe you just have one, but you’re not sure if it’s good enough. Maybe you just know that this is your year, but the whole process seems a bit overwhelming.

Right now, I’m going to help you move through the thinking process rapidly, come up with a ‘good enough’ idea, and even give you a bit of guidance as to how to propose it, so you can make sure you’re going to be considered.


This is the first part of a series of articles you’ll get access to if you’re accepted as a speaker for TCUK. I’m going to advise you via articles like this with pretty much all aspects of planning and delivering your talk.

There’ll be support for:

  • planning the scope of your topic so you know how to filter what’s in and what’s out
  • sequencing the information in a way that’s logical and interesting
  • getting the response you want to your talk
  • giving evidence to make your topic engaging (including how to tell stories without being cheesy)
  • handling the Dreaded Q&A in a confident way
  • dealing with The Nerves
  • even how to write the title, blurb and your speaker bio.

I’m going to share with you some of the secrets of putting together verbal information so you get and keep people’s attention (it’s different to written info, you know)… And, yes, we’ll maybe talk a bit on PowerPoint.

All because TCUK11 was the most fun and friendly conference I’d ever attended.



Taking the terror out of the terrifying ‘Call For Papers’.

When Chris Atherton first suggested I put my hat in the ring for TCUK back in 2011, I went to the requisite page and found something I found, frankly, intimidating.

The ‘Call For Papers’. Dunh dunh dunh.

First of two confessions: I don’t have a degree. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. So Call For Papers was a totally alien phrase to me, which just made me think: But I don’t have a ‘paper’.

Second confession: my method of putting a talk together is – what’s a nice word? – fluid. My talk doesn’t really crystalise until the night before the date or the morning of. Those of you who remember my talk from TCUK11 might remember I showed you the literal envelope on the back of which I had my notes.

(Don’t worry – if you’re going to be following this series of articles to help you put together your talk, we’ll be finalising details well in advance of the night before your talk. Unless last-minute is your preference, in which case, knock yourself out.)

So the idea of having a ‘paper’ with which to answer the call was more than a little intimidating.

So, let’s dismantle that myth straight away.

Actually, I just checked the website and this year it says ‘Call For Proposals’, so a bit less scary, but still.

The purpose of that form on the website is for you to suggest a topic and the kind of ‘story’ your approach to that topic will follow. It doesn’t even have to be your final title, or even very detailed. And thank goodness, because as we start working in depth on your talk, it’s going to morph and probably morph again before you arrive at something definite.

I’ll give you a format for what to type into the Call For Proposals box in a minute.

So, for ‘Call For Proposals’ read: Call For Half-formed But Promising Suggestions.

(At first I typed ‘Call For Sketchy Suggestions’, but that is more for the gala dinner. Ditto: Suggestive Sketches.)

Also, the website says that your bio and your abstract will be used in the printed programme. I’m reliably informed we have until the end of May to finalise the title, blurb and bio, so don’t let that intimidate you. At this stage, it’s all flexible. The important thing is to get something in.

Avoiding the worst presentation planning mistake.

Here’s a scenario.

The phone rings. I answer it. I pass it to you and say, ‘Update them on your week.’

What’s your first question?

‘Er… who’s there?’


If it’s your boss or best customer, that’s one conversation. If it’s your grandmother, that’s another. If it’s your personal trainer, or that strict dietician you’ve been seeing, yet another.

We can’t begin to plan a conversation without thinking who’s going to be part of it.

But all the time people are planning a presentation and the first thing they think is ‘What will I say?”

Or even worse, they double-click PowerPoint and think ‘What will I put on my slides?’

No no no.

Your first question is:

Who will I be talking to, and what do I know about them?

I mean, of course you know this. It’s common sense.

But if you’re finding it difficult to decide on a topic, it’s because deciding on a topic in a theoretical vacuum is a total nightmare.

‘Cook some food for some people.’ Er… Okay, who’s coming? How many?

See what I mean?

So, please stop planning your talk (for a moment) and think about who’s going to be there.

What do you know (or suspect or guess) about the TCUK population? Think about ten technical communicators you know. (We’re going to do this in much more detail in a couple of months when we get around to properly planning your talk.)

  • What are those people like?
  • What is their working environment like? (Yes, I know it’s varied, so have more than one answer.)
  • Think about their working day – what’s involved in their job?
  • What’s hard about being a technical communicator? Technical aspects of the job itself, but also general issues (things like having to influence people without official ‘influence’).
  • What’s important to technical communicators? What do they like? Want? Need? Dream of?

Do this however you like – take a walk and ponder these questions, get a big old piece of paper and some postits, open a spreadsheet, talk into your voice recorder app… Whatever works.

Spread your net wide.

Sometimes it’s hard to choose a topic because we forget what we know.

Let’s start with the obvious things.

List the work topics (software, methods, processes) you’re familar with.

Now slightly harder.

What do you know about outside your job? The obvious things. Hobbies, parenting, sports… Add them to the list. (Trust me.)

Okay. Now we get down to it.

Go through your past week. Check your What’s App, your emails, your diary, your photos, whatever it takes to recreate your week.

  • What else do you deal with confidently?
  • Or what have you learned to manage, even if you don’t love it?
  • Notice not just ‘technical’ aspects, but also communication and management skills, writing, organisation, time management skills. Doesn’t matter if it seems ordinary to you at the moment, we’re making a long list, not a filtered list.
  • What do you love about your job? What do you seem to deal with well, maybe better than some other people?

Get at least 20 things on this list. If you’re finding that hard, you’re setting your bar too high. Stop being such a self-sabotaging perfectionist and list more things. Quantity not quality, for now.

Create a mental Venn diagram.

So on one side, you’ve got a list of technical communicators and their needs, wants, challenges.

On the other side, you’ve got a massive list of things you know something about.

Where do they cross over?

Are there topics where you have an unusual or non-standard take on a topic?

Is there a new development in the field that your tech comm colleagues are uncertain of? Could you give an overview/framework?

What have you learned the hard way?

Don’t think ‘lecture’ think ‘recommendation’.

A great way of getting your thoughts together is to think: What would I recommend on this topic? Recommendations tend to come from our own experience, are tailored to the people we’re talking to, and have the other person’s best interests at heart.

You don’t have to be an expert to recommend something. There’s a dumpling restaurant that I consistently recommend to people. Am I an expert in Taiwanese dumplings? No. Doesn’t stop me recommending it and giving reasons for my recommendations (the stuffed chillies, oy). So don’t let that ‘But who am I…’ thought stop you from putting a proposal forward. (We’ll talk in a couple of months about how you make your level of knowledge sufficient, even desirable, to your listeners.)

You don’t need to have a clear plan to propose a talk.

All you need to propose a topic for a talk or a workshop is a perspective on an idea. You don’t even need to know exactly what your title is going to be, nor even have come down on even the exact sequence. I’m going to give you systematic ways to work out all the details of your content, including the title, the blurb and your speaker bio, as we go through the next few months.

What to write on the proposal form

Here’s a simple format for making a proposal.

1. Life without your recommendation. Start off describing the need that your talk relates to. Describe your listeners’ lives without your recommendation. A couple of sentences saying why this topic and why now.

2. Life after your recommendation. Then describe how people’s lives will be different after listening to your talk and putting your recommendations into practice. What will be better? What will be smoother, faster, cheaper, less stressful?

3. Your recommendation. Outline what your recommendation is. At this stage, phrases like ‘Something around…’ or ‘Some ways to…’ are absolutely fine. Book proposals are written before the book is complete, not after.

4. Evidence. This fits into two categories.

Firstly, what kind of evidence are you able to supply about your recommendation? If it’s from your experience in a recent project, give us a sentence or two outlining the scope and relevance of that project. If you’ve got studies or surveys or ‘hard’ data, mention that here. If it’s just something you’ve been noodling around about for a while, that’s fine too, just let us know what led you to be thinking so deeply about this topic.

The second category of evidence is: Why you? You are not expected to be the world’s expert in this topic. What you need to show here is some indication of your experience as related to this topic. What have you gone through that means you have focused particularly on this topic? We don’t need your CV here, but a bit of background relevant to the theme of your recommendation is helpful when reviewing your proposal. (Maybe put this info in the Speaker Biography section of the form. I’ll help you edit it for public consumption later.)

And that’s it.

What happens next…

You’ve got until 3rd April to submit your proposal. If it were me, I would change that in my head to 27th March or something just so I didn’t have to do it in a mad rush when life throws a spanner in my mechanism as it were, but that’s just me.

If you’ve got questions about this article, feel free to drop me a line. I can’t really give detailed advice on each idea, and I’m not on the committee deciding who goes through, but, you know, fire away.

Then, sometime in May, I’ll start you off on your planning journey. We need to get the title, topic and bio sorted by end of May-ish, so that’s where we’ll begin.

Then we’ll gently get going on gathering and clarifying your ideas so that by, say, August things will be crystallised, and September you’ll be ready.

Sound good?


So go and propose something!


Meg Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Meg wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where they gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out Meg is also an unrepentant overtweeter at @megalightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series: