If you missed my last article, I wrote about creating amazing slides for your presentations. Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on what you as a speaker should consider before getting started.
As a teacher, speaker and consultant I do a lot of talking in front of audiences large and small. But as with most people, speaking and presenting can be challenging for me.
My last piece was inspired by a series of conferences and seminars I attended where I saw lots of flaws in electronic slides. But I also took stock of the speaker.
In a broader sense, I think that some of my thoughts are applicable not only to speakers presenting to a packed room, but speakers who are engaged in a conversation at the water cooler or in your boss’ office. An impromptu presentation to your boss at the water cooler with a plastic cup in your hand can be as important as a prepared presentation to an audience with slides.
When you’re done reading my thoughts, tell me yours in the comments below.
Your Body Is Your Temple
Most people don’t talk about it, but sleep is as important as food and water. In the past few hours you’ve probably heard someone talk about diet or exercise, but people rarely say, “Boy, I should be getting more sleep.” I’ve seen speakers start off by letting the audience know that they got no sleep the night before. They then proceeded to slur through their presentation.
Give yourself time to sleep. In your hotel room. On the red eye. In the airport. Wherever. A good night of sleep will do wonders for your focus.
Shower And Dress Yourself As If You Were Presenting To Your Mom
I’ve seen sloppy speakers. It’s remarkably unprofessional. Don’t be sloppy.
I’m not saying that you have to wear a suit and tie. Even jeans and a t-shirt can look professional as long as you didn’t roll out of bed and into the presentation room.
Years ago, I was at a conference where one of the speakers liked to party hard. He spent the night rocking out and went from the bar to the presentation room. You could barely stand within 2 feet of him without the smell of cigarettes and alcohol choking you. What he didn’t recognize is that…
Alcohol Has Its Place
This probably goes without saying, but you should not present while drunk. However, you should also consider moderating your drinking before your presentation. You know your body and your threshold; honor it.
This also applies to food. The night before your big speech should not be the night that you try that exotic foreign cuisine for the first time. You don’t know how your body will react. In fact, you should be very conservative with anything you put in your body for the 24 hour period before your presentation. The famous Dan Kennedy writes extensively about this. He further suggests popping extra vitamins and increasing your water intake.
Very good ideas.
Be A Rock Star
Make Sure The Audience Knows Who You Are. And That You Are Awesome.
If you only use one slide, make sure it’s one with your name and relevant information on it. If you’re presenting on thermo nuclear devices, make sure your one slide says:
Director of Thermo Nuclear Stuff
Nothing is worse than having someone in the audience lean into someone else and ask, “Who is this?” If your audience knows who you are and what you do then all you need to do is tell them what your talk is about and you’re off to the races.
Don’t Tell The Audience You’re Nervous
Your audience knows that you’re nervous. Most people – even the most seasoned speakers – are nervous to speak in front of an audience.
But audiences typically suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.
If you make it a point to tell them that you’re nervous, or worse, tell them repeatedly, then all you accomplish is encouraging them to focus on how nervous you are. In all likelihood, this will make you more nervous.
You know the myth that imagining your audience naked will reduce nervousness? That doesn’t work.
What will work is to incorporate some personal comments at the beginning of your presentation. Starting off by telling your audience your name and then telling them some bite sized info about your personal life such as a quick story about your kids will do wonders for your peace of mind. In other words, wrap yourself in your own happy thoughts and share them with the audience. If your personal story provides a good segue to the topic, all the better.
Don’t Draw Attention To Malfunctioning Equipment
When the Beatles played live to large audiences they had lots of equipment failures. Speakers blew. Guitar strings broke. Microphones failed. You know what they did? They kept going.
Decide to present inside your own personal Yellow Submarine. Even when things go wrong.
And they will.
If you have a bad microphone or the projector is too dim, you can address it; after all, your audience probably realizes the same thing. But if your presentation is filled with complaints about faulty tech, then you will lose your audience, you will become increasingly frustrated and your presentation will spiral out of control.
You also run the risk of the audience equating the equipment failure with you failing.
Just accept that something will go wrong at some point and make your peace with it.
If you brush off the glitches, your audience will love you, yeah, yeah , yeah.
Be Self-Deprecating, But Not Too Much
In this age of hipster culture, being self-deprecating isn’t taboo, but it can be overwhelming.
A speaker I once heard continuously repeated bad things that his wife said about him. The first one about leaving his socks on the floor was funny. It was engaging. By the fifth or sixth thing, he didn’t sound funny. He just sounded like a crappy husband.
For the rest of the presentation, I could only focus on what a terrible husband this person was.
Making fun of yourself can be a great tool. It puts you on the same level as the audience; especially if you are poking fun at one of those common faults that make us all human. But there can sometime be a fine line where the audience no longer sympathizes with you, but feels sorry for you or worse, doesn’t like you.
Not every story or example you give can be rooted in fact. Sometimes you may want to take two different experiences and mash them into one anecdotal story to illustrate a point. As long as the lie is part of the storytelling, it’s ok. People are able to follow a story much better than a bulleted list.
It reminds me of the time me and my team were stranded on the surface of the planet Zelnar-7. At one point, we were surrounded by angry and scared Zelnartians. They didn’t know if we were friend or foe. Instead of telling them about our technologically advanced ship and equipment, I explained how we prepare our rations. I embellished the story with ingredients that were native to their planet, but they got the point.
Embellishing a story of an experience you had or anecdotally mashing up multiple experiences into one is one thing. Making up ridiculous stories of being marooned on a remote planet is a different thing entirely.
The Speaking Part
Create Context Early
Tell your audience what you are talking about. Starting the story in the middle will confuse your audience even if it’s an audience of one. You are presenting, not shooting a Tarentino film.
Starting with, “Those budget number were way off”, isn’t as effective as “I got the budget this morning and I’m not happy with the way the numbers worked out.” Context is important in almost every, well, context. If you want directions to a location, they will be entirely unhelpful unless you first know where you are.
Be Economical With Words
Lots of people, I mean, in business are often, like, caught in not knowing how to, like, say what they, you know, want to say. They, like, um, try to, you know, talk first before they, like, think.
The biggest mistake you can make when presenting is not taking that brief pause to assemble your thoughts. Your mouth simply can’t work as fast as your brain. As a result, your mouth will constantly be playing catch up.
It’s not poor form to introduce a pause. Your presentation isn’t a radio show. There’s no penalty for dead air.
If you get caught needing to do some mental processing; cheat. Take a sip of water or clear your throat. Give yourself that brief span of time to let your brain send good instructions to your mouth. I always keep a bottle of water when I present. And I always keep the cap on. Why? Because it takes a moment for me to unscrew the cap, take a drink and then screw the cap back on. What am I doing during that time, letting my brain send instructions to my mouth; or as some people call it; thinking.
Use A Microphone
OK, this doesn’t apply to every presentation type. You’re not going to grab the mic at the water cooler like a late night comedian. (“Is this thing on?”). But when practical and certainly when speaking to a larger group of people, use some kind of amplification device. If you have a soft voice you are not going to be heard or worse, you can strain yourself and possibly do your throat harm. Speaking loudly is no better because sometimes people can’t distinguish between loud talking and yelling. You can turn your audience off if they can’t hear you or if they think you are yelling at them.
If you have a large audience and will have Q&A, make sure to have a floating mic for questions. It’s not a good thing to have your audience struggling to hear questions, but even worse if you can’t hear them.
If an audience mic isn’t available then take control by repeating questions so that everyone can hear.
Have A Timer
Tomato timer. Stopwatch. Mobile phone. It doesn’t matter.
Give yourself a time reference. And don’t use the clock on the wall, use something that is yours and that you trust. Often times, you will have a time limit to speak, but aside from that having a reference for how long you have been talking instead of how long you have left can be very soothing. It also allows you to pace yourself.
Over-Prepare And Edit On The Fly
As a continuation on the above, if you have a 10 minute presentation and are using slides, prepare 15 minutes’ worth of slides. This will allow you to speed up and slow down based on feeling out the room. This will also give you room to edit on the fly if a particular slide or series of slides aren’t grabbing the audience’s attention. Having more material when speaking is always better than having less.
You should also not draw attention to your editing. Telling the audience that you have skipped a single slide or series of slides may result in them feeling like they are getting less than they should.
Never end your presentation, by simply saying, “That’s it”. It’s jarring. The best way to end a presentation is to repeat the key points of what you have said, give the audience some things to think about and conclude by thanking them for their time. Figuring out the right segue is part of the challenge of presenting.
“That’s it” can often sound like you’ve hit a wall and don’t have any place else to go. Conclude your presentation gracefully. And unless you’re a high school student, you should consider not saying “in conclusion” to conclude your presentation.
In Conclusion ( Ha, Ha, Just Kidding…)
Presentations are complex things. All of the above without some thinking, planning or practice may amount to nothing at all. The most important rule about presenting is always present about what you know about.
I could present on topics related to web development with nothing more than a few minutes’ notice. But presenting on quarks and gluons would take me substantially longer to prepare for.
So plan, plan and plan.
If you have your own thoughts on presenting, please share them with me at @RalphMRivera
Join the discussion 4 Comments
Very good piece Ralph,
I like the tips that you give about not doing too much of something that works OK, but only in small dozes. I think that people who do too much of anything can turn something good to something very bad.
I agree with you. If I don’t sleep enough I’m a total useless being. I think that making sure you have a good night sleep before your speech it’s a sign of respect for your audience.
I’m pretty useless without sleep too… not to mention crabby!
Wow Ralph, great job on all these points because speaking in public is the one thing I’m still terrified about. I would make the mistake of getting up there and telling them I’m petrified. Then if something went wrong I would be a basket case. I guess practice makes perfect right!
If I ever get around to actually speaking in public then I’m definitely referring back to this post. Man, you’re a life saver.
Thanks for all these great tips. I bet you are a real pro.
Adrienne, you’re like me – NOT into the speaking thing. It’s one of the evils of doing business but it’s true, telling people you’re nervous once maybe is ok but to keep saying just makes everyone else nervous.