Like it or not, presenting and public speaking are vital skills for a product manager. You may have to beat down your imposter syndrome when you stand up and speak, but mastering these skills will ensure you can communicate confidently, present complex ideas to stakeholders, and share your vision, strategy and plans effectively with your team.
In this guide, we’ve gathered the advice of public-speaking experts to help you hone your presentation skills for the workplace and the big stage, both on and offline.
Presenting is an important part of a product manager’s communications skills set. It’s part of communicating the product strategy to the business, and to the team that’s building the product. It’s also part of communication with customers – particularly in a B2B business, when product managers are – as the product experts – often needed to assist sales teams to talk to customers.
As Mind the Product’s Chief of Staff Emily Tate points out: “There’s lots of opportunity to present in your day-to-day work, but you’re also typically having to present what may not be the most exciting or the happiest conversations. So honing the skills that help you tell a story can help with those conversations and help you to overcome the initial objections you get.”
Day-to-day then, presentation is not just about finding some sparkle and speaking well. It has much more to do with structuring a story and knowing how to communicate supporting evidence and data. “The more we move towards cross-functional empowered autonomous teams the more the product manager’s job is that of alignment and therefore communication,” says Mind the Product co-founder Martin Eriksson. “It means knowing your audience, what they care about, what they might think about, and what concerns and questions they have. We talk a lot about understanding stakeholders’ motivations, and I think you need to have a slightly different message for each stakeholder. But even if you’re presenting to the whole company you still need to think about who’s in the audience.”
The more contentious the story you’re about to tell the more preparation you should put into it. Says Emily: “If you’re delivering good news, you can just walk down the hall. If you’re having to tell someone you’re completely shifting direction you need to have thought through what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, who you’re saying it to.”
Develop your on-stage skills
Presenting at work is one thing, but many in the product world are also keen to share their ideas on stage and there are plenty of good reasons to put yourself in the spotlight.
A presentation forces you to think about what you did. For Martin, this is the biggest value to giving a presentation. He says: “It’s almost a personal retrospective. We often hear it from our Mind the Product global keynote speakers – they tell us it made them take time to step back and think about what they do, why they do it that way, what works, what doesn’t, what did they learn, what can they share.”
You might also feel that you’re giving back to the product community, and by sharing your experience you may help others solve their problems. And of course, there’s an element of valuable personal branding from showcasing yourself as an expert and as a product leader.
Preparing your talk
How do you prepare a presentation? There’s really no right answer about when to start or how long to spend on preparation, but as in day-to-day presentations, the importance of the talk should be reflected in the time you invest in preparing it.
Once you’ve picked your topic a good way to develop your ideas is to consider the thesis of the presentation, says Emily. What are you trying to do? Are you giving information, trying to convince people of something, trying to inspire people, or get them to make a decision? “I think about what I’m trying to achieve and the presentation builds out of that,” she says. Her method is to start with an outline and then look for evidence and talking points to support it. “The most important thing as you’re crafting messages is to bounce them off people, and talk through them. That really helps,” she adds.
Martin finds it’s easier to write out a talk before he starts adding slides. It’s easier to edit, to see how to move the story on, to introduce evidence and move it around if he does this. “It’s very easy to be a slave to the slides as opposed to the story you’re trying to tell,” he says. Other people start with slides and do their thinking through composing their slides. Ultimately it’s down to finding a process that works for you.
But don’t expect that your first draft will be your final one, and you should try it out before you step out in front of a big crowd, virtual or in-person. Emily says that she felt happy with a presentation she gave at MTP Engage Manchester in February (watch her talk, Stuck in the Middle: Mastering Stakeholder Management) but she’d given it a few times before. “I hated the Manchester talk the first time I gave it, but I refined it, rearranged and adjusted stories so that I got it to a point where I could deliver it confidently and feel good about it.” Two weeks later she presented a brand new talk at a ProductTank meetup and again, wasn’t happy with how it went. “It takes time to figure out what makes sense where and how to arrange your talking points and story.”
Practice makes perfect
Once you’ve got your presentation ready, it shouldn’t just be a case of reading it aloud. As the team at Speak2Me explains, practice really does make perfect if you want to keep your audience engaged.
The Speak2Me team is made up of coaches and communication experts Olha Muzychenko, Strategic Partner Manager at Facebook, Oksana Krykun, Head of Product at SoftServe and Olena Skirta, Founder of INSCIENCE. They help innovators, product managers and startups to prepare for their next big pitch, talk, or any type of presentation. “We’ve all seen cases of smart and experienced people presenting poorly,” Olha says. “Under enormous pressure, people forget their own name, on the top of forgetting everything important they were meant to say. There’s a permanent risk of panicking when you present and the only thing you can control is how well prepared you are for it.”
Rehearsing is really important, especially if you’re getting ready to speak at an event, but it’s a process that people will often avoid. In fact, the Speak2Me team often has to persuade their clients to rehearse – not entirely surprising when you consider that 75% of the global population have speech anxiety, according to the Social Anxiety Index. “When working with TEDx, startups, product managers and founders, actual rehearsals are often something speakers postpone until the last moment. It seems to be the most uncomfortable part and the biggest reason for procrastination,” Olha says.
From experience, they know the level of preparation you put in dictates whether your presentation will be a success. What’s their advice for getting the presentation right?
“Before you even create your presentation, pause and think strategically,” says Olha. “Ask yourself, and the event organisers, the right questions so that you can build a strong foundation for your rehearsal strategy.”
Here are some of the most important things to consider.
Know your audience
Knowing how many people you’ll be presenting to and what type of people they are (profile, age, level of experience, understanding of the subject) will help you to shape your content appropriately. This will also enable you to set the right tone of voice. For example, if you’re presenting a talk to a group of experienced product managers, your content and tone might be different to that you’d present to stakeholders.
Prep for the space
Whether it’s in person or online, you need to understand the space in which you’ll be presenting and there are certainly lots of technical setup considerations to giving an online talk. It can be helpful to use an external webcam rather than your built-in one so that it’s easier to move and get the right angle – we’ve all experienced disconcerting video calls where people appear to be looking down at us. Good quality audio is also a must, so it may be worth investing in a decent microphone.
The right lighting is important too – side lighting and uplighting work better than overhead lighting, so you should experiment to work out what looks best. “It’s not that you have to spend loads of money to buy all the gear either,” says Martin. “It might just be a case of thinking about how to use any lamps you already have to light the ceiling and spread more light. Try a few things out on a Zoom call before your talk and see what works.”
Prior to presenting in-person, you should also get to know the space in which you’ll be speaking, as far as possible. Is it spacious, small, echoey, dark? This might affect how you project your voice and even how you design your slides. Check small details with organisers too such as if you’ll be holding a mic or wearing one. Even little things like this can affect the way you hold yourself and move.
Understand the tech
Ahead of an online presentation, find out, well in advance, what software you’ll be using. This gives you the opportunity to prepare in a number of ways. “You can check how to share your screen, adjust the sound and view so that you don’t waste time on this during the presentation,” says Olena. It also means you can check other details such as whether you will be able to see when and who joins.
If you discover that you’ve used the software before, great! But do a test run anyway. Martin adds: “Even if you’re using Zoom or whatever test it with someone else beforehand. You might find there’s weird background noise, so it’s important to test before you get to your talk.” You can also use this test run to determine what opportunities you have for audience participation and interaction. For example, can they post comments? Raise hands or participate in interactive polls? Be aware that your audience may or may not be familiar with the software. Include a short tutorial at the start of your presentation quickly explaining how and when they can comment, ask questions and get involved.
Define your channels of influence
In almost all cases, the things you’ll be able to control – and what therefore become your main channels of influence – include:
- Your slides
- Your gestures
- Your voice
- Your facial expressions
- Your posture
“Keep these in mind as you rehearse to ensure that you focus on things within your control,” says Olha. For example, if you’re planning to display slides and talk over them, work on your vocals, keeping track of your pace to ensure your story is easy to follow and works well in conjunction with your slides and the information they contain.
If you’re presenting online and will be visible, avoid looking at your own image on the screen. “You’ll achieve the most present and natural look by looking directly at the camera on your device,” she adds. If you need a cheat sheet, and have the luxury to keep them unnoticed as you present, try to position these in a place that won’t draw your eye too far from your screen. Some people have been known to use tricks like painting little faces around their webcam to call their attention to stop them looking at their screen.
Close tabs and real-time questions from the audience to avoid becoming distracted (for this reason, it’s better to have focused time for questions so that you can maintain a clear focus through your talk).
Be aware of the challenges
At Mind the Product we’ve already run an online conference and have been running virtual ProductTanks and AMAs throughout lockdown so we’ve learned a lot – through trial and error – about what works and what doesn’t when you present to a virtual audience rather than in front of a crowd.
The lower energy online is one of the hardest things to adapt to, Martin and Emily have found. You get no feedback from the audience: “When you’re speaking in person you get a feel of the audience and if they’re laughing at your jokes,” says Martin, “you get some sense of what’s working, and what’s not working fast enough.” He adds that you should think about standing up when you talk, as this immediately brings more energy to what you say. He also suggests that organisers open a chat window open next to videos so that presenters can see how people are engaging with a talk and get some sense of the energy in their audience.
Emily adds that Mind the Product co-founder Janna Bastow recently rigged up her living room so that she could stand and present an online talk, with her slides shown on her television. A simple thing, but it changed the energy level: “It made it feel like she was giving a talk, not having a conversation,” Emily says.
Always prep a Plan B
However you present, there’s always the chance something could go wrong. “Imagine the internet doesn’t work on the day of your online presentation,” says Oksana, “it’s any speaker’s worst nightmare”. So you should ensure you can get on the internet when yours is down. “This might mean using a Hotspot or identifying a second location you could easily move to on the day of your talk,” she adds. Set up a call with a friend or colleague long enough before your presentation to check connection and sound, and to switch to your plan B if you need to.
The same preparation applies to your devices and materials too – have backups ready. If possible, it’s good to be logged in to the software on more than one device to ensure fast re-login should your main device crash. Have copies of your talk deck handy too.
Think about timing
It hopefully goes without saying that timing is key. Check:
- How long you’ll have to present for
- What time of day you’re presenting (it’s useful to know if you’ll be kick-starting a long day of talks, following a big name, picking people up after a break, or speaking to people across different time zones)
- If you’ll be expected to include a Q&A segment within your talk time
- If there will be moderators on hand to help with any Q&A segments
“If you’re unsure of the answers to any of these questions, request extra information from the organizers because all of these things will help you to shape your rehearsal,” says Olha.
Confront your concerns
Consider if there’s anything in particular that makes you emotionally uncomfortable e.g. the scale of the event, the medium – perhaps you’re presenting online/via live stream for the first time, or maybe you’re presenting in a second language. Analyse your own mindset and consider anything that causes concern.
Here are some common concerns and solutions:
Hitting the right tone: If you’re not comfortable with how exciting, easy or hard your content will be for your audience. Test it out on a group. The team at Speak2Me has found that picking a few people with expertise like that of your audience, and avoiding family and close friends is best. In their experience, people who have no emotional attachment to you are more likely to give honest feedback. Talk them through your rough content ideas to sense-check the relevance. Then ask them for feedback. The more criticism you get during your rehearsals, the safer you will be on the day. Do this while you still have time to adjust your content and prepare, not the night before the presentation.
Emily Tate also finds that this approach is better for rehearsals in the run-up to a big presentation too. “Ahead of a keynote, for example, I’ll typically find a meetup to do a test run because that’s where I’m most comfortable trying out a new talk,” she says. “Put me on a stage in front of 3,000 people and I’m a happy camper. Put me in front of five of my closest friends and I’m going to have a panic attack.”
Fear of forgetting: Lots of people worry about forgetting but remember that you can always pause to gather your thoughts – you don’t have to talk non-stop. In fact, pausing is actually a great tool to capture attention. It can even be worthwhile to plan pauses into your presentation. This will help you to maintain a relaxed cadence and map out where you want to apply emphasis or build suspense.
“If, at any time you feel like you start confusing words or rushing, force yourself to take a few big breaths and to slow your pace,” adds Olena. “Remember the vast majority of people speak too fast on stage, there is a little chance you will be speaking too slow.”
Nerves taking over: Nerves are natural and you can plan to be one step ahead of them. For example, the biggest stress shot comes within the first few minutes of your presentation. To avoid being paralysed by this adrenalin rush, learn the first few lines of your talk by heart. The Speak2Me team also recommends starting a bit louder, simulating a confident voice, and taking the edge off the physical symptoms of stress, such as ‘shaking hands’ by doing a few light exercises beforehand (a few sit-ups are enough).
(In her Mind the Product talk, Hacking Confidence product leader Janice Fraser, also shares some great advice for how to control your physical and emotional response to stressful situations.)
When to start preparing
There’s really no golden rule to how far in advance of your presentation you should start preparing. As Martin explains, “it’s a personal thing.” However,
is it important to allow enough time to realistically rehearse and make changes should you need to. “Some improvements (e.g. accent reduction) take months of work, so counting on doing it in two weeks is not a good strategy,” says Oksana. “Think about your timeline and consider how many rehearsals you want to do before the day itself then plan these in, plus a buffer of time to rest. Making final iterations can be exhausting so avoid rehearsing or making changes the night before.”
Pitching A Talk
Got a talk you’d love to present? If people aren’t coming to you, you need to pitch to get on their stage.
As conference organisers on the receiving end, we can tell you from experience that pitching properly is important. However, it’s something many people fail to get right. “For #mtpcon and big keynotes we look for someone who can draw a bigger picture,” says Martin. “It’s not just ‘here’s what we did’. We want to see people who can connect the dots and link them to themes and what other people in the industry are doing.”
If it’s an open call for proposals, then take the time to think about what you want to say. Emily used to review talks for a conference business, and would get hundreds of submissions, but half of them would be just one line. That may work if you’re well known and the conversation is at the keynote level, but “when you don’t have a strong personal brand – or even if you do – it’s just respectful to the people reviewing presentations to take the time to write an abstract,” she says.
Emily also says not to be afraid to suggest something that’s already been well aired. You just need to be able to present your own view on it or how you approach it differently, or how your example will make the concept clear to the audience.
In addition, don’t be shy of submitting more than one talk to a conference. “If your talk isn’t chosen it’s often not because it was a poor idea,” she says. It might be that you submitted an abstract on lean testing and there were five submissions on lean testing: submit another talk on user interviews then the organisers can use one of the other talks on lean testing. And don’t be discouraged if you’re not accepted. “I have been turned down by plenty of conferences, I have been accepted by plenty of conferences,” Emily adds, “it’s not a commentary on you. It’s not saying don’t ever apply to this conference again.”
The best way to gain the experience needed to make it to the big stage is to start smaller. Check out your local ProductTank meetup. Every year so far one of our speakers has been plucked from relative obscurity and put on the Mind the Product stage thanks to a stellar performance at a ProductTank. This is something we’re very proud of. It’s a commitment to the community that we’ll feature not just the usual professional speakers, but fresh voices from the community itself too.
Interested in speaking at a Mind the Product event? You can find everything you need to know about our process here.
For more advice on speaking, presenting and writing great talks, from some great speakers we know, check out:
- Developing Presence and Confidence: Advice on Vocals, Gesture and Movement by Olena Skyrta
- The Importance of Being Clear by Lindsey Jayne
- Crafting Products That Engage by Donna Lichaw
- Effective Storytelling to Motivate and Align Your Team by Anna Marie Clifton
- Tell Better Stories – Donna Lichaw on The Product Experience