Go ahead, take the stage

These presentation pointers can help even the most reluctant public speaker thrive in front of the room.
By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Go ahead, take the stage
Photo by razihusin/iStock

The ability to speak fluently in front of a group is indispensable, particularly for higher-ranking CPAs. Once all of the studies, reports, and statements have been prepared, it is frequently left up to the CPA to present the data. In addition, many CPAs are called upon to deliver public presentations—at CPA chapter meetings, CPE conferences, board meetings, and other events.

My first public speaking appearance occurred when a speaker failed to show for a national conference in 1988, and I was asked to fill in at the last minute. Several thousand speeches later, I’ve learned that when duty calls you to the front of the room, you want to make your best impression. With that in mind, this article presents a handful of tips to help you hone your next presentation.

1. Start strong. Because audiences tend to formulate their opinion of you during the first few minutes, it is important to start strong. If those initial minutes are wasted, the audience may tune you out early and write off your talk as just another lackluster lecture. Don’t let it happen. A short introduction followed by your best material will help make a good initial impression. Teach the audience something solid and interesting right away to show you are worthy of attention. An engaging story is often a good way to kick things off for inspirational or informational talks, but when education is the goal, you should offer up a useful or clever learning point as your opening appetizer.

To keep your presentation from sinking before you dive in, avoid the need to make administrative announcements by displaying them on screen before the presentation begins. In addition, make sure your introduction is limited to just a few sentences. (I was once introduced for 12 minutes, which transformed the attendees into zombies before I was able to begin.)

2. Embrace dead air. An important key to coming across as a polished presenter is to avoid using fillers such as “um,” “like,” “you know,” and “go ahead.” The reason we tend to use fillers is we perceive that pauses in speech come across as if we are ill-prepared, ignorant, or don’t know what to say, so our brain impulsively inserts fillers to plug the silent gaps. But the opposite is true: The use of fillers will result in a less-professional performance.

You’ve likely heard the speaking advice “Don’t say ‘um’ ” many times before, but it is more helpful to instead tell you to “embrace dead air.” This means you should intentionally allow a few seconds of well-timed silence to engulf the room periodically as you speak. These intentional pauses will help you come across as if you are carefully gathering your thoughts before speaking, and because the silent moments are intended, your brain is better able to resist the urge to add unwanted fillers.

3. Use a variety of teaching methods. Just as some of us are right-handed rather than left-handed, we tend to favor a specific quadrant of our brain. William Edward “Ned” Herrmann is credited with pioneering research into “brain dominance,” and by completing his survey, available at tinyurl.com/prk9k7m (fee involved), you can determine which quadrant of the brain you favor. Herrmann characterized people as either type A (analyzers), type B (organizers), type C (personalizers), or type D (strategizers). Any audience you encounter will most likely consist of a mix of these types of thinking styles. Working off Herrmann’s findings, researchers determined that these groups prefer different teaching techniques, as summarized in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1 -- Types of teaching methods preferred by different learning types

Having a type A thinking style (like most CPAs), I began my public speaking career primarily using the teaching techniques type A thinkers prefer. However, once I adapted my lectures to include teaching techniques preferred by all types, my overall ratings improved from an average of approximately 4.5, to 4.8 (on a 5.0-point scale). Even though your presentations may not involve participant evaluations and tabulated ratings, you still want the audience to think highly of you and your performance. Therefore, to improve your performance, incorporate a few teaching techniques from each box, systematically rotating them throughout a presentation. This will help you to engage your audience (see “15 Tips for Engaging an Audience”).

4. Number your points. Make sure your presentation has a point, preferably many points. This advice should be obvious, but evidently it’s not. I’ve sat through many lectures with pencil in hand eager to jot down useful tips or ideas, only to come up blank. To ensure your audience doesn’t come up blank, list your key points and organize them logically. Committing the points to writing will help you later verbalize them for the audience. As a finishing touch, number your points, because most people tend to find numbered lists more satisfying than bulleted lists; also the numbers make it easier for the audience to follow. Tell the audience upfront how many points you intend to share, and then count them as you go.

5. Use visuals. Rather than walking your audience through a series of text-based slides, employ images, charts, video clips, and physical props relevant to the points you are making. For instance, when discussing steps for making a financial report more readable, you might pass around sample “before and after” reports demonstrating your suggested improvements.

6. Deliver a solid finish. Wrap up with a quick recap and appropriate conclusion, and then thank the audience for their time and attention. You will never improve the audience’s perception of your presentation by running over the allotted time, so end promptly even if you have more to say. (I like to end my presentations a few minutes early, and then reconvene a few minutes later for questions and answers. This approach accommodates both those participants who want to ask further questions as well as those who prefer to leave on time.)

7. Be prepared when following a speaker. When asked to speak at a conference or event with multiple speakers, you can’t always trust the preceding presenter to end on time. In this case, your performance is on the line. If the prior presentation runs significantly over, you won’t have time to properly set up and prepare your presentation, the audience won’t have time to take a break, and you won’t be able to start on time. I’ve learned the hard way that to prevent the preceding speaker from inadvertently affecting the success of your presentation, it is a good idea to arrange for an event organizer to stand near the light switch and flash the lights on and off a few times if the preceding speaker exceeds his or her allotted time by more than a few minutes.

8. The show must go on. For larger, more formal presentations, the costs of securing the facilities, providing food, and communicating the event, coupled with the significant efforts involved by planners and participants, are significant; hence, these types of events are rarely canceled. As a result, one of the pitfalls of accepting a high-profile public speaking engagement is that at times, you may have to cope with illness, travel trauma, harsh weather, lost baggage, or other hurdles to ensure that the event is as successful as possible. As an example, while lecturing on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., my presentation was disrupted by a joint aerial demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds. For hours I competed with thunderous sonic booms about every two minutes that were so forceful the room’s chandeliers rattled violently with each overhead pass.

I’ve faced dozens of similar difficulties, such as having to charter a private jet at midnight due to a canceled airline flight, fire alarms that emptied the building, and a broken heater that had me lecturing in a Philadelphia venue so cold that I could see my breath. Even the best planned events are subject to unknown variables, and often it is up to the presenter to take matters into his or her own hands to mitigate these unforeseen problems. Be forewarned that when you accept the role of presentation leader, you may be called upon to overcome similar hurdles. (See “40 Tips for Taking Control of the Meeting Room” for a checklist of things a speaker should be aware of.)


For many CPAs, the occasional public presentation is a fact of life. While some dread the prospect of speaking in front of a group, the ability to deliver a polished presentation is a powerful asset that can help your company or firm shine, and even advance your career. It is my hope that these insights will help you escalate your next presentation from “mildly eventful” to “wildly successful.”

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.

15 tips for engaging an audience

Many novice presenters seem to deliver presentations with little regard for whether the audience is actually paying attention; this dry approach typically leads to boredom. In contrast, seasoned presenters strive to engage the audience members, garner their attention, and hold their interest from start to finish. The ability to captivate and enthrall an audience comes naturally for some, but not all. If owning the stage is not your forte, these 15 tips could help, assuming you are comfortable implementing them.

  1. Talk with your audience, not at them. You’ll likely relate to the audience better by having a conversation with them. Look for nods of approval, ask them if they understand, and solicit feedback as you go.
  2. Sweep the room with your eyes, making solid eye contact with those paying attention. Eye contact is crucial to connecting with your audience.
  3. Remove physical barriers between you and the audience, such as a lectern or table. Periodically walk to the audience, or walk among the audience.
  4. Talk one-on-one briefly with a specific audience member, but do so loudly enough so others can hear.
  5. When someone asks a question, ask his or her name, and then use his or her name again later during the presentation.
  6. When asked a question, ask a follow-up question to collect additional information before answering. Repeat the question for the audience, and consider rewording the question slightly to better fit your answer.
  7. Be sure to tell at least one relevant story or joke.
  8. Change your voice inflection to avoid monotony. Shout if warranted; lean in and whisper occasionally; add expression to your message.
  9. Get the audience involved by asking for a show of hands, and report the percentage of respondents. Ask for a volunteer to assist you briefly.
  10. Use a laser pointer, props, whiteboards, or flip charts, or pass out one-page handouts periodically.
  11. Use a projector to show short video clips, charts, or images.
  12. Quote an expert to bolster your presentation and to borrow some of his or her credibility.
  13. Set up what you are about to say as important, e.g., “The next tip is my most important tip …,” “The following figures are the highlight …,” or “Next is my favorite tip for …”
  14. Incorporate solid numbers, percentages, and facts into the presentation; cite sources.
  15. Play music or entertaining videos during breaks.


JofA article

Checklist: Bringing in More Clients,” May 2014, page 18


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