Clark’s Corner: Speaking Tips

Clark’s Corner: Tips on Becoming a Great Public Speaker

Just like any other skill, from waving the spray gun to closing the customer, live-fire practice is the only way to get better at standing at the front of a room and delivering a speech.

Recently, my companions both confessed they had upcoming speaking engagements and were apprehensive about standing at the front of the room and delivering a speech. Knowing that I’d been peddling hot air to audiences since 1986, they asked for a couple of suggestions to make their verbal outings smoother and more successful. Never one to keep an opinion to myself, I offered them the following advice.

Content

I believe you should write down what you’ll say in a general manner. Composing an entire speech and memorizing each word is time-consuming and difficult and makes for a rigid presentation. Instead, write your main points in big, easy-to-read print and keep them in front of you on a lectern or on notecards in your hand. Just like they tell future teachers in college, “Tell them what you’ll tell them, tell it to them and then tell them what you told them.”

For example, begin by telling the audience what’s coming; they don’t know what you’ll say, they don’t know how their lives will be impacted because of it. Everyone’s question is, “Why are we here?” Say clearly at the beginning what you’ll talk about and why it’s important to your audience. Skip the long list of your past credentials; the only thing that matters to your audience is what you’ll say today, not your many award-winning successes.

Present less rather than more information. It’s a constant battle to choose what will be included in your program. If I tell them “this” then I should explain “that” often turns a 30-minute talk into a two-hour verbal blitz. I still build my programs around three points; sometimes they’re minor (treat customers like this, this and this), and sometimes they’re much broader (do these things in the office, these things in the metal shop and these in the paint shop). But in each case, I have three, not 10 or 15, main points in every program.

After you introduce your three key issues, simply tell them your message in a conversational manner. My standard advice to presenters is to just speak like you were talking to two or three friends, but in a full voice. Uncomfortable speakers often speak quietly and tend to rush to the next sentence. If you want to practice anything at home, practice speaking slowly and projecting your voice to the whole room. And yes, I know, all this is much easier said than done, and speaking in front of a group is the stuff of nightmares for many people. It’s not that hard, really. The worst outcome is they disagree or think you should zip your fly (you should) or they’re smarter than you are. Maybe they are, but your job is just to make your points clear.

Don’t forget the most important part of your presentation: the summary and call to action. Summarize what you told them concisely and then be very clear about what they should do with the information you’ve delivered. “So, we’ve talked about this, this and this. Please examine your own firm/job/position for opportunities to implement these ideas.” Or, if they work for you, say “Do these tomorrow, this way, or else!”

Attire

People will form an impression of the speaker within seconds, not minutes. Make sure you look like the presentation matters to you. Indeed, people in the audience will stare at you and analyze what they see. They’ll pick up that you’re 20 pounds heavy, that your hair (or lack of it) looks odd and that you don’t seem happy to be there. Manage their expectations!

First, look like this is important to you and that you’re pleased to be presenting some valuable information they can use (or must use if they are your employees) in their work. I feel very strongly that how you dress and your body language are key elements of a good program.

In my case, people pay to hear what I have to say. I take care to show respect for their commitment in time and money by dressing up. I only wear a suit in front of a big crowd but always wear a starched shirt and tie no matter the audience size. You can present the same program while wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, but you send the audience a message that this is not important to you.

Audio Visual

You can have the absolute best information, be dressed in the most professional manner and speak clearly and slowly and still have the program crash and burn in the first minute. Tapping your finger on the microphone or blowing into it while the audience is in the seats is bad. Be there early; check the projector for focus, check the microphone for level and feedback, make sure flip charts are loaded and stable, and check that markers are full of ink and the lighting is set appropriately.

In 31 years as a speaker, my biggest facility problems always revolve around heating or cooling the room. Most venues do not provide in-room control of the temperature. I’ve been accused of turning down the A/C to keep everyone awake; in fact, people sitting freezing in the seats aren’t paying any attention to the speaker; they’re turning blue. Too hot and everyone is dozing off while you talk, especially after lunch. If you’re the afternoon entertainment, you better hope they didn’t all have a nice, big lunch of hot, cheesy lasagna; you’ll be talking to yourself.

Many nervous speakers hide by facing their data and not their audience. If I turn my back to write out a formula or point to a bullet point on the slide, I lose touch with the audience quickly. Remember that you have already read all your information, but the audience has not. Face them and let them read it for themselves!

PowerPoint is the default presentation program these days, and new speakers like to show off their mastery by using every animation trick in the menu. Some slides turn like a book page, some zip in from the bottom, the next one pixels in from behind the horizon. Pick one format and stay with it. My best electronic slide tip is to use bigger fonts. My minimum font size is 28 point, and I regularly sit through others’ presentations that have so much data on one slide that the font is readable only with a telescope. Go big and use another slide.

Follow Up

When your presentation ends, hopefully you had some clear call to action. The best results accrue when what you want accomplished is printed and hard copies are distributed as the program concludes. Your three points were: 1) blah, 2) blah-blah and 3) blah-blah-blah. You told them what to expect, told them the plan with clear explanations and summed up with their pledge to get on board. Triple your chance for success by printing your key points and the new plan details on a take-away handout.

Summary

So much for some free presentation advice. Just like any other skill, from waving the spray gun to closing the customer, live-fire practice is the only way to get better. I’m confident your second program will be better than your first; mine certainly was. I’ll share my best speaking tip with you right now: excitement.

If you aren’t excited about your subject, I guarantee no one else will be, no matter how dapper you look or how slick your slides are. It has to look like it’s important to the speaker first and foremost. You could act engaged, but my solution has been to actually be engaged. Good salespeople believe in their product, and effective speaking presenters are no different.

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