I'm sure you've read advice on how to become a better public speaker. Classic counsel is to know your subject and practice your speech. While this instruction is considered timeless for a reason, I add this thought: Whatever. I'm taking these two as an automatic given. Here's what you really need to appreciate, those subtle nuances most speakers never think to contemplate and use. Here we go.
1. Oral briefings by their name and nature are just that: brief segments of information transfer. Here, time limitations are paramount and you're correct to offer data in a direct bottom-line format. If people seek clarification, they can press for details afterwards.
In a professional presentation, however, avoid commencing with "I'm going to talk about ______", or "My focus today is _________." I recognize many speakers begin this way. Why? They haven't realized the value of gaining the audience's attention in a creative, inspired way. Capture attention and command my interest. Other than your appearance, your attention getter is your first attempt at making an audience impression. Offer a quick, descriptive narrative. Cite a startling statistic. Highlight an intriguing quote. Show a brief video clip. For example, my public speaking training begins by asking audience members to name speakers they consider exceptional. I'll then show PowerPoint slides of famous presenters I consider noteworthy and most often, the very names proposed by my audience are the very slides I display. Common ground. Ah, it's a beautiful thing.
2. Your visuals-all of them-are a nonverbal reflection of your professionalism and competence. The pictures of celebrated speakers discussed above are the best I could find. Crisp. Clear. Close-Up. I spent hours searching for the right images and I consider it time well-spent. What's the point of having visuals that contradict an otherwise polished message? I'm sure you've heard speeches where you thought (1) this speech needs visuals for clarification or aesthetic appeal or (2) these visuals are poorly-done. Why'd they even bother? Exactly.
3. Interact with your audience! I understand that time constraints can curb possible interaction, but even brief contact adds spark and human interest to your topic. Indulge in a dialogue, not a monologue. Ask a question, perhaps "Will someone offer an example of great customer service they recently received?" Then-here's the important part---wait. People need time to think. Some speakers (I'm guilty of this) feel uncomfortable with silence and launch immediately into the rest of their presentation. Allow time for contemplation. You may worry if you ask questions, audience members will use too much time in reflection, thereby cutting into your speech time. Here's your solution: Approach an audience member or two before your speech begins. Disclose the question and ask if they'd mind brainstorming a response in the meantime. By the time you officially ask, their comment is quickly voiced and you confidently move onward.
4. Guide your volunteers appropriately. Perhaps someone helped you illustrate a concept at the front of the room. Maybe they engaged in a role play to illustrate a concept (making correct business introductions, for example). When you no longer need your volunteer, here's your correct protocol. Say these simple words: "Thank you, Eve." Result? (1) Eve doesn't stand around awkwardly wondering if she should remain standing or return to her seat (an uncomfortable feeling), (2) Eve appreciates that you call her by name (always good etiquette) and (3) you sound classy and in control of the situation. It's what I call a triple-win.
5. Understand that you're responsible for the room set-up and seating arrangement. How do you want the tables and chairs arranged? Are there any "bad seats" in the house? Explore the room layout to ensure easiest visibility for all attending. Make necessary physical modifications. I will close window curtains if there's a competing view outside or if streaming sunlight casts a glare on my PowerPoint. I'll ask an assistant to close all doors when I begin talking. Result is two-fold: (1) people in other rooms are not distracted by my sound-traveling voice and (2) my audience's focus isn't diverted to anyone who passes by the door, a surprisingly common occurrence.
Last week I presented to a Fortune 500 company for 2 hours and made an unfortunate mistake: I neglected to learn the lighting system by the screen. The light was then too bright for some of my slides to be easily viewed. I made it harder for my audience to decode my message and in so doing, I felt less competent. There is a silver lining, however. I won't be making this mistake again anytime soon. Trial and error can be one of our best friends.
6. Avoid remaining behind the lectern/podium. Be courageous! Engage in movement, but controlled movement. Obvious places to move during a speech are from the introduction to your first main point, from your first main point to your second main point and so on. Don't remain on only one side of the room; the other side gets lonely, trust me. Moreover, they feel distanced and disconnected from you, a common spatial issue. Perhaps the room set-up demands you remain steadfast (a tiny room, for instance). If this is the case, I'd cheerfully explain to the audience that your movement that day will be somewhat restricted and here's why. Audiences appreciate explanations and keeping them in "the loop". They forgive you much if you only explain why you do what you do.
7. Embrace diversity in pronouns, examples, visuals, and audience interaction. Good speakers employ gender-neutral language. You wouldn't say, "When a doctor goes to the office, he takes a briefcase." Either use "he or she" or make it easy on yourself and say "When doctors go, they". Some reading this suggestion may accuse me of being overly politically-correct. Not true. Your audiences are diverse; reflect that diversity. People who use only "he" or only "she" are excluding a segment of their audience. Is that what you want?
Moreover, stop defaulting to stereotypical norms. I'm more likely to hear that an engineer or an athlete is a "he" whereas a nurse, teacher, or dancer is a "she". I'm sure no offense is meant, but there are female engineers and male nurses and you wish to acknowledge this fact.
8. Use personalized language, also known as "we-ness". What's the variation in the following three statements? They share commonalities, but contain a powerful difference:
When PEOPLE watch a movie, they ___________
When YOU watch a movie, you __________
When WE watch a movie, we ____________
From "people" to "you" to "we", each becomes more personalized and inclusive. The speaker is not separated from the audience; indeed, they are now a part of it. Think about it. When American presidents (of both parties) address the nation, they'll say "We Americans"". They don't say "You Americans" because doing so creates an unwanted linguistic barrier to the very audience they hope to impact.
Personalization dictates that "we", "us", and "our" are the words of choice. Their use will initially feel awkward because you don't speak this way in casual conversation. Keep trying. Try some more. Consistently used throughout your speech, the effect is subtle but strikingly effective. You weave an enchanting spell of linguistic inclusion. Use it well. Then write me that you were initially skeptical, but have experienced its overwhelming value. Trust me, this suggestion is magical.
9. Maintain composure, no matter what. Generally speaking, most people are happy to hear me present, but over the years I've encountered a few individuals who don't like my message and by extension, don't like the messenger. Toss alcohol into the mix and anything can happen.
I vividly recall one incident when I first began speaking at the professional level. I was a young woman, in my early twenties. The topic, ironically enough, was how to give an effective presentation. One man, apparently drunk, loudly interrupted my speech. I still remember his slurred words: "You're wrong. The most important part of any speech ..." and his voice trailed off. Abruptly, he stood up and walked over to the bar while everyone else looked around, embarrassed by his outburst. I continued onward as if nothing had happened although my heart was beating furiously. I was approached afterwards by many who not only apologized for the man's behavior but commended me for my poise. I accepted the compliment, clutched my speaker payment check, walked to my car, and slumped in the driver's seat. But you know what? Years later, I'd still handle the situation the same way. Of course, had the situation escalated, I'd have had to reassert control. Whether that meant engaging him in a controlled and direct manner or actually asking him to leave the event, I recognize that once we're onstage, people are looking to me (and you) to continue onward, no matter what.
10. Ensure you have enough take-home-whatevers for everyone. I mean everyone. How many people are attending your talk? Know the number, inflate it automatically, and have enough handouts, buttons, pens, pencils, message pads, nametags, food, coffee cups, brochures, and freebies for every person there. Mark my words: If you don't have enough of your give-away product, whatever it may be, you exclude someone who deserves better. While I've been fortunate thus far in my corporate speaking (I bring mega-extra of everything, just in case), I can share this story.
Every fall quarter, I teach etiquette and image to UC's College of Business students. I purchase a smiley-faced cookie (reinforces one of my speaking points) for each scholar. One year, I underestimated the amount needed. One student didn't receive a cookie. He was gracious about it, but his facial expression revealed his desire to have one too and I can't say I blamed him. I made amends the next week. Not only did I buy him two cookies, I tossed in a box of chocolates. I was forgiven and felt better but if anything, I now over-order and I'm okay with that. Our speaking mantra is "have-too-many" rather than "not-have-enough".
Mark Twain suggested that "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." I'd agree that preparation is an integral part of the speech-making process. Perhaps in using the suggestions above, we can transcend Mr. Twain's description of "good" and morph into "great". In fact, on the day you present, surround yourself with positive-thinkers. Some years ago, I traveled from Cincinnati to San Francisco to present an all-day training. When I arrived at the hotel, my colleague and friend Kristen had left a message at the hotel front desk. It merely read, "You ARE the speech warrior!". Instantly, I felt verbally empowered. This optimistic energy makes speeches great, too. Surround yourself with it. Audiences notice and yes, they appreciate. A happy speaker is a speaker remembered.
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