I hate to sound superficial, but let’s lay this out: The material might be great, incisive, brilliant – but packaging is essential in order to sell it. Maybe sometimes even more important.
It’s why, when I teach or coach Professional Presentations, I’ll spend more time on the delivery aspect of the three key ingredients (analysis, design, delivery), by far.
Not everyone can be a natural, dynamic speaker. Talent does play a part, and you can’t create talent. But you can become effective by learning some key delivery skills.
Here are what I consider the critical issues:
Eye Contact: In any presentation, you are having a conversation with your audience, whether it’s a small departmental meeting or a group of 500. Looking above them, or at the floor, cuts off the conversation. You create a more impactful impression by utilizing this connection. If it’s a large audience, pick spots that cover the whole audience, perhaps two people on the sides of the front, a couple in the middle, and a couple on the sides of the back. That way, the audience feels you’re making the connection. If it’s a small group, try to connect with each participant with an “eye lock” for at least five seconds.
Posture: Obvious, but a mention is necessary. Bad posture will create a perception you don’t want. Good posture connotes confidence, whether you have it or not. Remember, we’re trying to create perception here, and our true feelings about presenting don’t need to be demonstrated.
Gestures: This is sometimes a cultural issue, not just a matter of discomfort. Some ethnic/national groups are usually “hand” people (Mediterranean, Latin American) and some are usually not (Scandinavian, East Asian). Hands behind the back could give the impression you’re hiding something, and hands frozen on the sides show a stiffness or anxiety. Neither makes an audience comfortable. Gesturing can underline what you’re saying, or emphasize key points. If you’re not in one of those gesturing groups, you’re going to need to practice. It’s a key form of expression. You want to use as many of the possible delivery tools as you can handle.
Facial Expression: Later on in this piece, I’ll mention monotone and inflection as important aspects of what you should and shouldn’t do when speaking publicly. Facial expressions fall into the same general category, as in when a presenter’s facial expression stays the same throughout. If you’re saying something serious, show serious. If funny, smile. (As a matter of fact, smile a lot, anyway, unless your presentation is deadly serious material.) Show what you’re thinking and saying; it’s another method of underlining the points you’re trying to make.
Podium: Simply, I don’t like them. I think they cut off part of your expressiveness. As mentioned earlier, you want to try all of the tools at your disposal, and your body is one of them. People at the podium tend to grip it for security, stare at a script or computer screen, and lose direct contact with the audience. That could deaden a presentation. If you need to look at notes, and don’t want to depend on your visuals for cues – which I think is the best way to keep on script – walk away from the podium and walk back when you need the cue. Or have them on cards nearby, written in large letters. Don’t hide behind the podium. Keep your contact with the audience.
Distracting Mannerisms: There are so many. Playing with a laser pointer or a pen. Jiggling change in a pocket. Most common, and probably worst of all, dancing. Yes, dancing. That’s moving from side to side, a clear expression of discomfort. I think you have a choice here. Either you stand still and swivel your body in order to make good eye contact. Or, you take a few steps, and stop. Then a few more steps, and stop. But you don’t move back and forth, which is distracting to an audience. You also don’t want to do the professorial pacing, either, which can be seriously distracting – and tiring for the audience.
There are many verbal techniques which can enhance any presentation. These may include: positive, assertive, directive language; good articulation (avoiding poor grammar); comparisons/contrasts; quotations; stories; humor.
A note about humor. Please don’t be one of those people who think it important to start a presentation with a random joke. If you want to start with humor, start with a funny story that is immediate relevant to the group or topic you’re addressing. Otherwise, it’s too much of a risk, and you certainly don’t want the presentation to fall flat in the first minute.
A good technique for starting a presentation with an attention-grabber, is to start with a startling fact about the subject matter, something that might surprise the audience, or something that will draw them in quickly.
My personal favorite verbal technique is stories. If, say, I’m teaching a class about presentations, I like to tell a story about how, if you make a mistake, the show must go on. The point of the story is that you don’t freak out and make the audience uncomfortable; you use a little composure-gaining silence to gather thoughts and just move forward.
One of my stories on this topic is a bit dramatic, but it makes a good point and I hope the illustration will create a lasting point, rather than just a simple statement.
Here goes: Many years ago, when I was a pianist/music director with cabaret singers in New York City, I was working with a singer who liked to make her entrance from the back of the audience. The owner of the cabaret would darken the lights, announce her name, and I’d begin to play. She would start to sing, in the darkness, and by the time she’d get to the stage, she’d have the audience’s attention. Very effective technique, which I learned to use in some presentations, as well. (But that’s not the point of this particular story.)
One night, the announcement was made, the house lights were darkened, and I began to play. I also noticed at that moment that the wheels on the bottom of the piano were not locked, and the piano began to move across the stage.
Panic. In another minute or so, the piano would’ve rolled off the stage. An interesting possible moment in the performance, but…I had to think fast, and just moved the bench while I was playing, trying not to miss a note, and hoping that the cabaret owner would see what was happening and catch the piano before it crashed. He did. (My alternative plan would’ve been to jump up and stop the show, but that would’ve ruined this story.) The singer and I did not miss a note. Although the front of the audience could see what was happening, it didn’t disturb the performance, and…the show went on.
I’ve been able to utilize stories for all types of classes and presentations, and have found them invaluable in not only getting an audience’s attention, but also emphasizing a point strongly.
Vocal techniques can be aspects of public speaking that could make a significant difference in overall effectiveness. Here’s where the speaker can differentiate in even more significant ways than described above. Some vocal techniques worth working on:
Volume: Varying volume helps to maintain interest. If you’re a low talker, then vary it to make a point. If you’re a louder speaker, then you’ll get attention for a specific point by lowering your voice. Variation, again, is the key.
Expressiveness: This is much the same idea as facial expressiveness, mentioned earlier. A voice can get an emotional point across more effectively. If it’s serious, then a lower, graver tone will help underline. If it’s exciting, a variation in volume and excitement in the voice will get the point across. Once again, the variation is the key aspect.
Inflection: One of the main speech-killers is monotone. That problem can actually apply, as well, to volume, expressiveness, and most of the other vocal techniques. A lack of inflection is a guarantee way to lose an audience, no matter how compelling the topic. We’ve all seen experts and remarkably experienced professionals fail in the presentation because of this specific issue. This is another instance of where the framing might be as least as important as the substance.
I use a simple exercise in workshops to prove this point, using the sentence like “No, I did not forge the prescription.” (I used this particular sentence in a pharmaceutical company.) Each participant was asked to emphasize only one word in the sentence. Try it. You’ll see that not only is the sentence more interesting to listen to, but that the emphasis on some of the words actually changes the meaning of the sentence!
Rate/Speed: This is another example of how variation helps create interest in the subject matter. Slow it up. Speed it up. Don’t stay at the same pace throughout.
But a word on the subject of speed. Something strange happens when you’re in front of a group. Time speeds up. Sometimes, you just want to get it over with, and it shows. What you think is 15 seconds is really one. When in doubt, slow down. Your slowing down will probably end up being normal speech patterns. What you think is normal is probably speeding, when you’re “up there.”
Dramatic Pauses: A wonderful…technique. You want to make a significant point? Well, then, slow it…down. For emphasis.
And last, but certainly not least of the vocal techniques,
Non-Words: This is the one you don’t want to use. Um, uh, well, you know. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of public speaking to avoid. The “non-words” occur when the speaker is struggling for the next word or section of the presentation. An amazing thing – silence is far better than a non-word. Audiences notice the non-words, which show discomfort. A silence is not distracting, and never as long as the speaker thinks.
You know the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall? No, the answer is not “drive south on Seventh Avenue and hang a left onto 57th…” The answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” As I mentioned earlier, talent helps a lot, but nothing works as well as getting yourself up there and…(pause for dramatic effect)…practicing.
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