How to give a great presentation: 10 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Attention is now probably the scantest resource on the planet. We’re all overwhelmed and distracted, so how can you get a room filled with (mostly) strangers to sit still and really listen to your speech or talk?

It’s do-able, but it’s also work.

I’ve given  many public presentations over the years: to retail students at the University of Minnesota, to retail executives at the annual Retail Customer Experience conference, and many times at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Do I get nervous beforehand?

Of course!

Unlike most speakers, I never use slides or any other visuals like PowerPoint. If I’m not compelling, slides aren’t going to help. (I get that, with lots of specific scientific or numeric data, these can be essential. They also make taking a cellphone image of them easy and quick for the audience.)

 

 

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Some people in my audience had done conflict zone work, humanitarian work, newspaper work…

 

Know your audience and what they need most from your remarks

The single most important element. Until you know who’s going to be listening (or potentially, because at any conference — unless you’re the keynote — your session is competing head-to-head with others in the same time slot) you can’t begin to prepare your remarks.

At my recent presentation at the Northern Short Course, an annual meeting of photojournalists, I was told the audience would be mostly mid-career — yet a high school student and a college senior came up afterward. The ages ranged from 17 to 60s.

 

Prepare and practice

Never ever ever try to “wing it.” The best presentations may feel spontaneous and casual to the audience — but they are absolutely not. Write out your speech or your talking points, in order, and make sure there’s a logical flow to them. The more you practice, the more you’ll edit and refine. The voice can be casual and conversational but there’s a lot of structure behind it.

 

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Time your remarks

 

To the minute! Nothing is worse than a speaker who rushes and talks waytoofast or loses track of their allotted time. Listening is tiring!

 

How do you want your audience to feel when you’re done?

I always want people to leave the room inspired, not tired. I’m not perky or saccharine, but our work is difficult and, even when I acknowledge that, I want to offer practical help.

 

Breathe deeply, slooooow down and bring a glass of water (no ice)

 

Take a few deep breaths before you begin, to calm down. Always have a glass of water handy for dry mouth — and no ice! Nothing’s more embarrassing than a pile of ice suddenly shooting down your face and neck in front of everyone. I also think swigging from a plastic bottle is inelegant. It is a performance.

 

Share some personal stuff

 

Not confessional, of course, but choose carefully a few anecdotes fully relevant to the theme of your speech that the audience will be able to relate to. Being stiff and pompous is a huge turn-off.

 

 

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Make sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments

 

My most recent presentation was (whew!) 75 minutes…so I timed my remarks for 45 (which is long!) and allowed a full 30 for questions. I still had a dozen people lined up afterward to ask more. If you’ve been engaging, people will want to contribute their thoughts as well.

 

Don’t rush off afterward

 

If people want to chat with you one-on-one (a compliment, I think) listen to each one carefully (although keep it moving if the line is long!) and be sure to get their business card; offer yours to them as well if you want to follow up. I think being asked to address an audience is a real honor, so I always looks forward to the new connections we can forge as a result.

 

Watch other speakers to see how they hold and capture attention

 

There’s no shortage of inspiring material out there! Celebrities giving commencement speeches, people on YouTube and sooooo many TED talks. Watch how others do it well and get some good ideas for yourself. At the last conference, I watched other solo presenters to see how they engaged their audiences.

 

How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

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Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Here’s a great post recently featured on Freshly Pressed, from Nancy Duarte:

The number one thing, I think, is to be audience-centric…Develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You’re asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true — and that’s hard. So, know your audience — take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message?

Understand your role in the presentation…that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with — if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, “The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker.”

And then the third thing — wrap your content in story.

I recently gave a speech to 200 people, the largest I’ve had so far, students of retail at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and about 20 retailers. It went very well, and I stayed an additional 90 minutes to talk to students, sign books and answer more questions. They were folding up the tables and chairs by the time we were done.

If you’re curious, here’s the link; I’m not suggesting I was great! It’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, the final 22 minutes are Q and A.

In the past two years since Malled was published, I’ve done a lot of public speaking: at public libraries, to college students, to retailers at conferences.

Do I get nervous? Speaking to a group of regular folks at a local library? No. To a room filled with fairly senior executives from major retailers, (some of whom I hope will hire me to address their own companies or conferences), who have paid me well to be there, yes.

Especially if it’s being videotaped!

Writers write.

But if you really want to sell books, you also have to be consistently public, visible, audible and articulate, even if we don’t know how to structure a speech or presentation. We may not own the right clothes or haircut or haircolor or glasses or manicure. We may have a horrible voice or stutter or pure stage fright. We often earn a small fraction of the incomes of those listening to us, who assume (wrongly) we must be making good money because (hah!) we have been interviewed on NPR or CBS and our books are in stores.

In 2011, I hired a speaking coach, DC-based Christine Clapp, who taught me how to structure a speech and get calm before delivering it; I did this the day before I did an hour, live, with call-ins, on The Diane Rehm Show, which has two million listeners and is NPR’s largest show. This is a link to the audio.

“Be emotionally naked,” Clapp advised.

I’ve watched many experienced speakers at conferences and some are awful, no matter how much they got paid. They use PowerPoint (zzzzzzz), they use slides and video (unless their content is visual, why?), they drone onandonandon, they say really boring shit  and some wear all black in some tired attempt to look edgy and cool.

One, who is very famous and should know better, strode onto a Manhattan stage in 2010 carrying a rubber chicken and wearing an overcoat.

I stand still. I use some notes and no visual aids.

(Obviously, some of these tips are not useful if your presentation is purely academic, scientific or technical.)

Tips:

— Are the references you’re making going to be familiar with your audience? I learned this the hard way when I referred to an airline, (an example of amazing customer service, Open Skies) to an audience of American business executives, forgetting that an airline with only one route (NY-Paris) wasn’t something many of them would know.

— Remember how differently others feel about some issues. I learned this the hard way with the same audience, telling them, proudly, how a former customer had asked me for referral to a therapist (everyone goes to therapists in NY!), which provoked guffaws from brawny macho Midwesterners. In Minnesota, knowing this is a NY thing, I prefaced that same story with a local reference, and it worked fine.

— Read the news, up until minutes or hours before you speak, to allow for including something timely and relevant to your subject.

— Humor is tough. If it’s safe enough to not offend anyone, it’s probably really dull.

— Dress stylishly. If you’re sitting behind a table or standing at a podium, people only see you from the waist or chest up. If you’re female, get a blow-out so your hair looks fab and you feel fully confident. No jewelry that clanks or might flash distractingly under bright lights.

— Make sure you have a watch or cellphone with you on the podium. Some podiums have a built-in timer, others do not. Do not lose track of time!

— Chill out, alone, for at least an hour before your presentation. Don’t waste your time and energy on anything but your sole reason for being there. Presenting well requires a lot of emotional, physical and intellectual energy.

— Always make sure you have 20-30 minutes for audience comments and questions.

— Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

— Write out your remarks. Practice! Time it carefully so you don’t run out of time, or run out of things to say.

— Smile!

— If someone asks you a really tough or challenging question, stay cool. Take a breath, smile, say: “I’m glad you asked that question.” It shows you’re confident, not rattled, ready to answer thoughtfully. The audience is watching you handle yourself and your questioners.

— Always have water at hand, in a glass or cup, with no ice. Slugging from a water bottle looks tacky, and ice will slide into your face and make you look like a wet fool. I once completely lost the ability to speak, in front of a room full of people paying to be there. I had to wait for someone to run and bring me a cup of tea. Not good!

— No dairy products (milk, cheese) or hot/cold drinks beforehand. They’ll screw up your speaking voice.

— No matter how nervous you are, eat a small high-protein meal beforehand to fuel you through.

Do you do public speaking?

How’s it working for you?

Who’s the best — or worst — public speaker you’ve ever heard?