Most of us have encountered special public speaking moments in our lives. Hopefully, they were not completely filled with dread nor resulted in severe public embarrassment! Even so, whether that first public speaking moment was in kindergarten, high school, college, or in business, there are a few key points that you’ve either learned along the way or that are actually quite instinctive. After all, we’ve all observed plenty of public speakers — from classroom to conference room to political convention, let alone television newscasts — we know what works and what doesn’t work. All we need to do, then, is to put that learning to work.
1. Fear Not
I’ve playfully added the subtitle “Fear Not” to this post. There is often a natural aversion to standing in front of an audience, large or small, and taking on the task of addressing them with your thoughts and seeing the outcome directly through their expressions of interest during the presentation and the feedback of many after the presentation. Since this is a natural concern, the best that can be done is to embrace it. Use that anxiety to motivate your preparation to a higher level and to activate your best efforts during the presentation.
Above all, do not share your concerns with the audience. They’ve either been there themselves or they do not notice anything unusual with your presentation. There is no need to call it to their attention. Your objective is to persuade them to your point of view, not to engage their sympathies.
So what are your objectives, the purpose and goals of your presentation? No, “survival” does not make it to this list! There has to be solid thought paid to what you’re trying to accomplish with your presentation. Spend some concentrated time on this phase of your effort. If not, you’ll find yourself wandering around with your presentation — actually looking for a purpose. It’s best to find that first and then spend your valuable time building the presentation to precisely meet those goals.
3. Know Your Audience
So, from the above efforts, you have a firm set of goals for your presentation. Now you can spend some time evaluating your audience. Who are they? Why should they be interested in what you have to say? Most importantly, what do they currently believe about the topic of your presentation? This last question is vital to understanding where your presentation needs to start and how far you need to move the audience to arrive at your point of view — the goals for the presentation.
If you’re preparing for a business presentation, you may actually be a member of your intended audience. Even so, I recommend that you spend some time at this point to really look anew at the audience. Find out some more background information. What is their age range? What is at the top of their list of concerns? How does your presentation address some of those concerns? This review can often offer a breakthrough for your presentation. You could well find something that really sets your presentation apart. Dig deep.
Let’s see. We’re already on tip number four and we haven’t yet started the speech! None-the-less, if you’ve spent some quality time on goal definition and audience definition, you’ll now have a very sound basis for your presentation. It should nearly come tumbling out of your head, through your hands, and onto your computer! Well, OK, maybe it is not that simple.
This is where the real work starts — drafting your presentation. Ideally, you’re now focused on two to four key points that you want to get across during the relatively brief time you’re in front of the audience.
It’s best to start with an outline of your presentation and then fill in the details. This allows you to make sure you’ve thought through the introduction, the heart of the presentation, and then your conclusion or call to action. No cart before the horse is possible when you’ve first developed a solid outline.
If you’re part of a conference that is driven by teleprompters, and perhaps pre-approved presentations, you’ll need to develop a word-by-word script. Ideally, you’d only develop a list of key points that you could talk to during your presentation, rather than reading a script. It’s very difficult to sound natural when you’re reading a script. It’s far better to have a good idea of your messages with reminders along the way to keep you on track. This way you are far more spontaneous in your delivery.
It’s almost expected that you’ll have a slide deck to support your presentation. Hopefully, you’ve already been warned or experienced “death by PowerPoint syndrome” — where every slide is read to you. Ideally, you’re using illustrations and/or photographs to convey your messages and as few words as possible. It might also be worthwhile to look into developing a Prezi presentation that can be highly visual.
Use stories in your presentation. Stories can bring your presentation to life and engage the audience. Adding one, two, or even three short stories to your presentation can really add sparkle and put your audience on the edge of their seat. It also serves to personalize your presentation.
5. Practice vs. Perfection vs. Polish
It is said that practice makes perfect. I’m not sure that perfection should be the goal here as you’ll usually encounter a few glitches during your presentation and you should be light enough on your feet to respond and carry on.
Even so, practice makes for polish — read your presentation out loud. Read it in front of a mirror.
practice makes for polish — read your presentation out loud. Read it in front of a mirror.
Not only will you build polish and improve your delivery but you’ll also readily identify those segments that don’t really work and need to be rewritten.
One further item on preparation, make sure you know the room and are comfortable with the arrangements for audio, teleprompter, lighting, stage direction, etc. At a minimum, spend some time on the stage before the audience arrives to develop a confident feeling about your surroundings.
On the topic of practice, I’m reminded of an executive that I worked with for many years. Before his first big speech in his new role as CEO, he practiced in his conference hotel room for hours over a couple of days prior to his big speech. On leaving his room for the auditorium he encountered a colleague in the adjacent room. His colleague commented that he knew the speech word-for-word and that it was going to be a blockbuster! The chief executive used that story to open his speech.
That’s a good story to tell as we move into the topic of engagement. He clearly engaged his audience with the story of his diligent preparation and the long-suffering next-door neighbor. It was a perfect way to lighten the mood as he opened his first big presentation as a chief executive.
The overall message is to be yourself. Activate your engagement tools. This includes the use of hand gestures along with an enthusiastic delivery that comes from knowing your topic and being honestly delighted to bring that information to your audience.
Use personal stories to break up the delivery, to emphasize important points, and to entertain the audience. That’s right. They need to be entertained — including laughing at a few of your stories. This opens their mind to truly engage you and your thoughts.
Never talk down to your audience. You’re not providing a lecture but instead an active, engaging presentation. When the audience leaves they should actually feel that a discussion has taken place, because they were so engaged with your presentation.
After your presentation, actively seek out feedback on how it went. Ask people you know in the audience what they felt and how they received your message. If it is a conference and they survey the attendees, seek out those results. Gee, maybe there was even a Twitter comment hash-tag stream underway during your presentation. Look it up.
Use this feedback to better inform your next presentation. Where could you have done better? Were there some bobbles that could have been avoided? What do you need to do differently next time?
It’s a journey, not a destination. In fact, it’s a PathForeWord! You can always get better, even that CEO practicing late nights in his hotel room.