Presentation skills

In this article, we consider the basics of presentation skills. We look at how to prepare for a public speaking slot and some techniques for chairing panel discussions.

Your role as a senior in-house lawyer or a subject matter expert could put you in the spotlight. If you’re called upon to make a presentation or speak publicly, good preparation will help make your speech effective and memorable. 

Remember legal knowledge in your head is useless. Legal knowledge in the right peoples' heads that is properly understood and being acted on in the right way is useful! 

Preparation: the key to effective presentation

If you’ve reached a senior position in your organisation or have become a recognised expert in a specialist field, you’ll probably be called upon at some stage to speak publicly or give presentations. Typical examples of public speaking include:

  • Presenting your department’s strategic plan to the organisation’s board;
  • Addressing shareholders at your organisation’s AGM;
  • Explaining to the wider organisation what the legal function does and how it contributes to the wider goals;
  • Addressing the media, possibly in response to a crisis; and
  • Speaking at industry conferences either as a speaker or chair of a panel.

Different people have different feelings towards public speaking. For some, the prospect is too nerve-wracking to contemplate. For others, especially those who love the sound of their own voice, it’s an opportunity to enjoy the limelight - but perhaps they need to focus more on putting the subject, rather than themselves, into that light?

Whatever your stance on public speaking, there’s one thing that makes it easier and more effective for all of us.


Preparing for a presentation takes many forms and, done well, helps you feel more confident and reduces the chances of you delivering an irrelevant or, worse, boring speech.

Ways to prepare for a presentation

Key steps to follow as you prepare your presentation are to:

  • Research your audience. What aspect of your subject area are they most interested in? How well informed about it are they already? Are they concerned about it from a finance, legal, marketing or other viewpoint?
  • What are the "takeaways"? Most business presentations are about giving actionable insights. So what should they be taking away from the presentation to use and how should they be using that information.
  • Plan your presentation. What is your core theme? How long can (or must) you speak for? A good tip for making your message memorable when presenting is to follow the rule of three:
  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Introduce your big idea at the outset and explain that your presentation will enlarge on that theme.
  2. Tell them. This is the main body of your presentation.
  3. Tell them what you’ve told them. When you reach the end of the main body, summarise by repeating your core theme, this time with the supporting points in short, bullet point style.

When writing your speech, keep your sentences short and where, possible, avoid words of more than two syllables. You may be surprised at how difficult reading your copy out loud is compared to reading it in silence.

Use inclusive words, such as ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ to develop engagement with your audience. This will also help to control your nerves "Hello, we are here today to consider..." is a much better start in a lot of respects than "I am here today to tell you about...In the next 30 minutes I ..."

When planning for the duration of your speech, aim for 2.5 words per second. This allows for slow (but not too slow), clear delivery, pauses for effect and sips of water.

If you tend to speak too fast; try to feel the air pass through your throat as you speak - this tends to slow your speech down and makes your voice "project" better.

  • Use visual aids and supporting examples. Visual aids are great for bringing a presentation alive and making your points last long in the audience’s memory. However, avoid the temptation to rely on them as a crutch and ensure they’re accessible to everyone in the audience. Avoid too much text on slides – it’ll be too small for people at the back to read and it’ll distract the audience from what you’re saying. When using examples, make sure their connection to the point you want to reinforce is crystal clear - remember people read or listen so you are either showing pictures and adding a few or you are talking and the slides are a memory prompt/reinforcement for the comments that you are making; and
  • Do a dry run with a colleague. It’s only when you rehearse a presentation that you can test it for flow, ease of delivery, quality of content. timing and relevance. Don’t worry if you’ve not covered absolutely everything. Sometimes it’s good to hold information back, as that provides material for a Q&A session, if your slot allows for one. The dry run also provides an opportunity to build drama into your presentation by factoring in inflections in your voice, body language and pauses to emphasise key points.

Chairing a panel

If you’re chairing a panel at a conference, agree a running order with your panellists in advance. Structure this so a different person leads for two to three minutes on their topic, followed by a one-two minute top-up explanation.

Have a preparation call (sometimes two) to make sure that your panellists are going to be relevant on content, stick to the panel topic, have thought through what they are going to say, do not overlap on content and have enough (but not too much) to say in the time allotted to them. Summarise this back by email ahead of the call as a detailed running agenda.

If you can help to select the panel then avoid people who will not prepare and share - they tend to overrun other peoples' time and content and to veer off the topic - all of which lets you, the other panellists and, critically, the audience down.

On the day, meet with the panel ahead of the session to remind them of the running order (bring printouts of the notes as a reminder) and, if relevant, discuss any themes emerging from earlier sessions that could have a bearing on yours. Always try to attend all of the sessions ahead of yours - or at the very least the introductory and immediately preceding sessions. Referring back to these helps show a consistent and connected theme to the event. Ideally, the conference organiser will have shared much of the material with you in advance.

Position yourself so you can see the other panellists and they you. This allows you to use non-verbal cues unseen by the audience if panellists are overrunning or getting boring. Similarly, pre-agree a code word such as ‘interesting’ that will allow you to politely talk over the top of someone to move them on. For example:

‘Peter, that’s a really interesting point – and one I’ve struggled with. Jane what’s your view on this?"

Start the session by explaining briefly how your panel understands the topic. Most session titles are loosely framed to allow the panel to speak freely. However, they can also lead to a range of expectations among the audience. Setting out your stall at the beginning will avoid any ambiguity arising from the session title.

You could open with an icebreaker question asking for a show of hands. This will wake people up, test potential engagement and give you an early insight into the needs of the audience. It could also give you a hook for panellist contributions.

You may, as the chair, have to paraphrase a panellist’s contribution if they’ve answered in a vague or rambling way. Again, put a positive spin on it, while making it more concise for the audience’s benefit:

That sounds great, Tim. So, if I’ve understood correctly, in a nutshell…’

Pre-think some comments that show, subtly, you’re as expert as the panel on the subject matter. This will help you bridge contributions between panellists and move seamlessly onto the next topic.

If possible, watch any prior sessions to yours to get a feel for how well the audience engages with the Q&A session. If they’re quiet, aim to run to within five minutes of your allotted time and, if there are no questions from the floor, have one or two of your own ready which you have pre-agreed with the panellists so that they do not get caught out. If the audience is talkative, try to allow up to 10 minutes.

Finally, pre-prepare a three to four sentence summary to close the Q&A and conclude the session. 


The secret to effective public speaking is preparation. Understand your subject and your audience and prepare your presentation accordingly. Simple sentences will reduce the chances of tripping over your words and help make your delivery effective. If you chair a panel, have pre-prepared questions and comments at hand to fill any awkward silences and be ready to stop speakers overrunning. If possible, attend a prior session to get a feel for how your audience will engage in the Q&A session.