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You look around and see all eyes are on you. Your heart is beating quickly. You’re having trouble catching your breath. The sense of fear and dread is overwhelming.

Although it feels like you’re facing judge and jury, it’s really just your turn to present at a meeting. For many people, though, that’s just as bad – if not worse.

Public speaking is one of the least liked and most feared leadership responsibilities. Few of us come by it naturally; most have to work hard at becoming competent and confident in front of a room.

But how you speak publicly matters. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the book “Executive Presence: This Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” exuding confidence and demonstrating gravitas when you speak are critical components of your executive presence. Presence alone won’t get you promoted, but its absence will impede your career momentum and trajectory.

What’s at stake

How would you rate yourself as a speaker? Are you at your best front-and-center, or do you feel like you’re going to be sick by the time you step to the microphone?

Near the top of most leaders’ wish lists is a desire to own the room when they speak. We want to be our best because the stakes are often high when we are front and center:

  • Others form perceptions of us – Is she smart? Can I trust him? Is this someone I admire and respect? Business decisions are made — Performing well in that moment can determine important things, such as whether or not you get your team’s much-anticipated plans for a new project approved.
  • Business decisions are made – Performing well in that moment can determine important things, such as whether or not you get your team’s much-anticipated plans for a new project approved.
  • We want to avoid embarrassment – A very common fear in the business world is public failure. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of others. This is particularly true when we are presenting to those whose opinion matters most, which is often our peers and supervisors.
  • Career-making moments happen – Your boss may simply decide you’re just not “executive enough” for that next promotion.

Owning the room

Whether you are making a formal presentation, participating in a group discussion, or having a one-on-one with your supervisor, there are definitely things you can do to present yourself in a self-assured manner.

Here are six ways you can improve your presentation effectiveness and own the room.

1. Serve the audience with an “adviser’s mindset” – Start by reminding yourself: It’s not about you; it’s about them. Set aside your constant worry about “what’s at stake” and focus your attention on meeting the needs of your audience. That’s why you’re speaking after all – to share something useful with them. If you can effectively give your audience what they need to hear, the “what’s at stake” list will take care of itself.

2. Know your material – When you prepare for a presentation, you must give yourself plenty of time to develop and learn your material. I start days – usually even weeks — in advance to flesh out my content. I think through what objections my audience might have that I need to overcome, what points I believe they need to hear in order for them to think, behave, decide, reflect in the way I want them to.

Once I have my content organized, I refine my notes or script, read it through numerous times, and practice out loud at least 4 or 5 times. The point is, I prepare well enough that I know my material inside and out. It’s ingrained in my head, and in fact, much of it is memorized by the time I speak.

When you know your material this well, your confidence soars – because you know exactly what you have to say, where it comes in the presentation, and what’s next. You never worry about losing your place or forgetting a key point, because you know it that well. Plus, most of the time you can have your (well organized) notes or script to prompt you if needed.

3. Believe in your message – Too many speakers shy away from putting any real energy into their presentation. Their voice is flat, their face is creased with worry, and they’re more focused on their PowerPoint than the audience. You’ll never own the room if you present like this.

Instead, bring some passion and confidence to your presentation, which is easier to do if you believe in your message. Even if it’s just quarterly performance numbers, challenge yourself to ask and answer:

  • Do I firmly believe in what I have to say?
  • Does my audience need to hear this?
  • What else would help them understand a deeper truth?
  • Is there a bigger goal that could be accomplished through this presentation that I am passionate about?

Then don’t just state the obvious. Say something that matters. Provide some context or perspective that sheds new light. Ladder up to a bigger message or important takeaway that your audience should get from you. Have a clear point of view.

Finally, bring this powerful content to life with a poised delivery. Stand tall. Smile. Use eye contact with the audience in every part of the room. Gesture to underscore a point. Walk around. Pause for emphasis to let something sink in. Your body language and demeanor telegraph your confidence (or your fears) just as much as your words. When you truly believe in your message, your energy will be there and your delivery will reflect that.

4. Speak only when you have a meaningful contribution to make – This is a critical tip for projecting confidence in small-group meetings. Think about that one person who talks so frequently that everyone just tunes them out. To avoid that kind of reaction when you speak, learn to be a thoughtful and intentional communicator in group settings.

What does that look like?

  • When you want to speak up, don’t simply restate what others have said; offer something unique. Ask a question that will help enhance the discussion and help the group consider new information.
  • Share an example or case study you know of that will bring forward a valuable learning.
  • Acknowledge someone in the room who you know has expertise that should be included.
  • Pick your battles. Don’t be the constant whiner or nay-sayer that brings everyone down. Go along with group decisions and be supportive whenever possible. Then when you have an important objection or alternative to offer, you’ll have more credibility to sway the group your way.


5. Grab their attention with a story – Our brains are wired for narrative. We love nothing more than for someone to say “I’ve got a story to share with you…” It makes us want to lean back, close our eyes and go on a journey.

Storytelling is a powerful presentation technique that anyone can use to their advantage. Compelling stories grab our attention, reveal an insight, and help us remember a speaker’s message. I often use my love of motorcycling to bring my messages to life and make them more memorable. You know how to tell stories, too. The trick is finding the right story to tell AND tying it to your overall message.

Start by brainstorming a creative way to underscore your message. For example, reaching a big goal could be illustrated by a story of a remarkable achievement such as the Iron Man competition or a famous scientific discovery. If your overarching message is the importance of teamwork, share a story from the world of sports or your own company’s history.

Once you have a relevant story, introduce it early on in your presentation. Then tie it to your overall message by saying “The same is true for us” or “What we can learn from this is…” Then weave the theme throughout your presentation, using creative imagery or references just enough to tie it all together.

6.Get to the point – Unless you’re telling a well-crafted story, don’t be verbose. People lose patience with speakers who can’t get to the point in a timely manner, especially in meetings.

Naturally, you need to strike a balance with including useful supporting information, exchanging niceties and building rapport with others. But in general, stick to the issue at hand. Make your point or ask a question, and that’s it.

When you learn to be concise, others will be more willing to give you time to speak and consider what you’ve shared.

I hope at least a few of these tips are helpful. I encourage you to give them a try on your next presentation. Then let me know – I’d love to hear how you increased your confidence and got one step closer to owning the room.




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