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How To Give A Successful Presentation

Posted by Barry Strauss under on May 24, 2023

In my previous article, I shared ten valuable teachings for students drawn from the wisdom of Sun Tzu and his seminal work, The Art of War. Now, let’s equip speakers with the knowledge of this ancient tactician.

For this week’s installment, we’re delving into tactics guaranteed to enhance your presentation skills and make your public speaking engagements a triumph.

Are you nervous before giving a presentation? Do you finish a presentation that you worked hard on, only to see it fall flat? The legendary wisdom of Sun Tzu can transform your speaking ability.


“Preparing what you have to say is only half the job. The other half, and just as important, is knowing how best to reach your audience.”

“The art of war is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: the Moral Law (the tao); Heaven; Earth; the Commander; and Method and discipline. The Moral Law (tao) causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.”

The first and most important quality of a successful speaker is to possess moral authority or what Sun Tzu calls the tao (way). The tao is what brings the thinking of the listeners in line with the speaker. The tao is the quality of authority and integrity that makes people believe in you. The tao is character.

You are presenting your subject, of course, but more important, you are presenting yourself. You need to establish a bond with your audience. You need to persuade them not only that you are an expert on your subject, but that you are trustworthy. Demonstrate that you have the tao.

“It is by scoring many points that one wins the war beforehand in the temple rehearsal of the battle; it is by scoring few points that one loses the war beforehand in the temple rehearsal of the battle.”

Practice, practice, practice. Memorize your key points. Don’t talk from notes. It’s better to make a few points well by speaking freely than to make many points poorly by reading your notes. Even worse than notes is a prepared text. Never, ever, ever read from a prepared text.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

A good presentation is based on two things: knowing who you are and what you have to offer, and knowing who your audience is and what they are looking for. A successful presentation is never just about the presenter; it’s also about the people hearing the presentation. Preparing what you have to say is only half the job. The other half, and just as important, is knowing how best to reach your audience.

“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

Always know in advance what you want to achieve with your presentation. Always try to anticipate how your audience may respond. Always try to think through the questions that they may ask, and always be prepared with answers.

“All warfare is based on deception.”

You may be nervous before your talk. If so, don’t worry, because a little nervousness is good; it keeps you on your toes. The audience will not see how nervous you are. You may also be painfully aware of the gaps in your knowledge. Again, don’t worry. You know more than the audience. They are eager to learn from you and to believe in you. Give them every reason to do so.

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

You will know exactly how much blood, sweat, and tears it takes to give a good presentation. Your audience doesn’t know, and they shouldn’t know. Make it look effortless. Make it look natural.

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Engage your listeners but never attack them. If you are trying to persuade them to change their minds, proceed via indirection rather than by a head-on approach. Your points should be clear, but they should not hit the audience over the head.

“It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.”

For Sun Tzu, hsing, or “strategic positioning,” is crucial. Just as you wouldn’t want to fight uphill, so you won’t want to give a presentation from a position of weakness. Your position, in fact, your posture, is key. Follow the rules of good posture! You may have learned them as a child from your parents or teachers, or you may need to learn them as an adult. In any case, good posture will project your authority and improve your voice.

One other element of strategic positioning: Make eye contact with your audience.

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but who excels in winning with ease.”

Another key concept for Sun Tzu is shih. Harder to translate, shih has been rendered by different scholars as “strategic advantage,” “potential energy,” or “propensity” (that is, the tendency or inclination to do something). The point is to minimize your effort while maximizing your result (shih). There are many examples, for instance:  Never read a long quotation out loud. Although you don’t want to overuse power points, put any substantial text on the screen rather reading it aloud.

“The experienced soldier, once in motion, is never bewildered; once he has broken camp, he is never at a loss.”

Stuff happens. Microphones fail, lighting doesn’t work quite right, projectors break down. Be prepared for it; be ready to improvise. Never let little mishaps – or even big mishaps – get to you. Keep smiling.

“Make it look effortless. Make it look natural.”

Here are the key points:

  1. Earn trust. Project authority and good character.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. Come prepared. It’s better to make a few points that sound natural and informal than to make many points by reading from notes or (ugh!) from a prepared text.
  3. Know your audience and know yourself. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and always play to your strengths. Know what your listeners expect and how best to reach them.
  4. Always know in advance what you want to achieve with your presentation. Anticipate.
  5. Don’t Worry if you’re nervous. The audience won’t see it. Besides, a little nervousness will keep you on your toes.
  6. Be natural. Make it look effortless.
  7. Engage your listeners, don’t attack them. Indirection is the best strategy.
  8. Position yourself strategically. Maintain good posture and make eye contact with your audience.
  9. Minimize your effort while maximizing your results. Never read a long quotation out loud.
  10. Keep smiling. Stuff happens during a presentation. Be prepared to roll with the punches.

This is the last in a series of four posts about the lessons of Sun Tzu. I hope that you’ve enjoyed them. Next time, we’ll turn to a different subject: Cleopatra!

Barry Strauss © 2024