Expanding Speaking Skills with Every Presentation

February 11, 2012

Many people dread having to make a presentation. However, there are many opportunities to speak or be on a panel discussion at trade shows and other conferences. Being on the stage is a great way to promote your products and services or to position yourself as an industry expert.  However, when you accept the responsibility to present, you are making a commitment to the audience that you will not suck. 

We have all sat through those long monotone sessions at events where everyone is hoping for a fire drill. As much as you can benefit from being a speaker, you can also do damage to your professional and personal brand if you bomb.

The ability to communicate with the spoken word is important in many industries.  Hiding in your cubicle or delivering awful talks can be career limiting. I have seen capable people passed over for promotions and founders of companies pushed aside for more eloquent leaders. Even if someone is not naturally comfortable on stage, everyone can learn to improve their oratory skills.

Beyond the opening keynote, the audience may not be expecting Tony Robbins, but everyone desires and deserves the proper combination of content and style in a presentation. Too often, speakers at events are selected to fill a slot on the schedule. But a speaker is not a commodity.  Just because someone is smart or has done something cool, it does not mean they belong on the program.

Speaking is a learned skilland should not be scary. With each presentation, a speaker can gain more confidence and fine tune their technique to better connect and communicate with an audience. The use of PowerPoint, or other presentation software, should go beyond a laundry list of bulleted features and benefits. A combination of visual images and spoken stories can accompany even the most technical of presentations.

Five Tips Toward Delivering a Better Presentation:

1. Do not create a PowerPoint that also serves as the handout. Too often, the slides in the deck are designed as the take away. The problem with this is that a slide and a handout serve different purposes. It is okay to provide the audience with a detailed handout and use a less complicated visual.

2. Never read your speech. Not from a piece of paper or from the screen. Having notes is a great idea, but you were asked to speak because you are the subject expert, and since you know the information, you do not need to read a verbatim speech.(If you are not versed on the topic, do not agree to make the presentation).

3. Learn from each speech. No speaker should ever consider they are “good enough”. Instead, you should look at every talk as a chance to improve. Bring a video camera when appropriate and capture your presentation for later review (then go back and watch the recording). Seeing yourself present can be painful, but it is the best tool for improvement.

4. Practice and ask co-workers for input. Rehearse your presentation in advance with several members of your team in the room. Encourage them to give constructive feed-back, and do not get defensive. You need not agree with each comment or suggestion, but welcome all ideas as good ones. Ask for similar evaluations after actual speeches. Over time this input will have a lead to recognizing patterns and areas for improvement, as well as identifying your strengths.

5. Pay attention to other presentations. When you are in an audience, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from those who are speaking to you. Look for how the speaker tells stories as well as how they use their voice, hands and body. Identify how they structured their speech and created their visuals. Take the things you like and that will work with your own style and personality. Also notice the things you did not like to ensure you do not repeat the same mistakes.

The onset of social media has taken the focus off the importance of personal communications, but the more we move online the more critical off-line activities are to individuals and companies.

Think creatively to learn and grow with every speech. I recently worked with a meeting organizer who hosted an optional pre-event webinar for their non-professional presenters to learn additional skills to organize their talks and incorporate meaningful stories.  Leaving it all up to chance was not in the best interest of their conference, as they were shortening presentation times and utilizing alternative stage set-up. Most of their speakers participated and were thrilled to receive the education. 

Not everyone will become a professional level speaker, but each speaker can improve. There are no legitimate excuses for awful presentations.

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