Come Alive! A Public Speaking and Presentation Skills blog
with themes, tips, strategy, reflections and other beneficial resources
for the communications community
with themes, tips, strategy, reflections and other beneficial resources
for the communications community
A client suffering from a mild case of public speaking anxiety recently told me, “When I’m giving a presentation, I’m too concerned about what people think of me to act like ‘the leader.’ I don’t want to stand out or project the notion that I’m better than or more knowledgeable than other people in the room. I guess I just don’t want people to think it’s all about me.”
I told her that I understood her discomfort, but as the head of her department, she was expected not only to assume the role of leader, but also to provide clear direction and information so others could benefit from what she had to say. I explained that this ability to influence others was one of the most powerful ripple effects of public speaking. Then I told her the hard news, that when you are in the role of public speaker, you are solely responsible for the experience of everyone in the room. To which she blurted out: “Yikes, that’s a terrifying thought!”
When you give a presentation it really is all about you, but perhaps not the way you might think. It’s about:
What it’s not about, on the other hand, is being arrogant, egotistical, overconfident, or condescending to your audience, or acting in any way superior or disrespectful. These negative and unappealing behaviors have no place in a professional presentation, as they will only serve to confuse and alienate your audience and cause them to be resistant and defensive. Fortunately, I don’t see these extreme behaviors very often, but they are the very characteristics that some people, including my client, fear they will project if they assume the leadership role and act with legitimate power and authority.
My client’s egalitarian instinct is a noble one to be sure. But there are times, such as when giving a speech, when your role gives you the right to assume leadership and confidently impart your knowledge, experience and wisdom. As I told my client, “If you keep yourself in check and demonstrate effective presentation behaviors that show your conviction and personal power, you can rest assured that it really will be all about you—in only the best sense of the word.”
Last week I received a call from a sales manager whose team we worked with last year. He wanted a presentation skills “refresher” for his salespeople because their presentations were getting “sloppy” again. These were the same salespeople who did extremely well during our training class one year ago, but over the months they had gradually slid back into old habits. Granted, they were still “pretty good” in terms of their skills. But the manager wanted them to be great again.
While this is certainly frustrating for the sales manager, it is understandable. After all, salespeople have a lot to balance between prospecting, selling, client follow-up, and all the other things they must do in a day. With so much on their plate, they often let things like speech preparation slide to the back burner. Unfortunately, the result is that their presentations don’t always hit the mark, and they may look ill-prepared in front of prospects and clients.
From the manager’s standpoint, though, he’s not happy. He wants his team to shine. He’s invested time and money to train them, and he knows they have aptitude and skills to deliver successful presentations to their customers. And while he knows that doing things like prospecting and client support are important, he also wants them to find the time to keep their presentation skills up-to-date so they communicate effectively and consistently deliver high quality presentations.
We talk a lot about Continuous Learning in our programs, but it requires more than simply filling out a worksheet. Salespeople have the best intentions, especially in a training class, but they need help to realize their goals and it’s often the sales manager who can provide that level of support. So what can a sales manager do to stir things up, enlist everyone’s commitment, and keep the team motivated so they can perform at a high level?
Here are five tips for keeping your sales team focused on improving their presentation skills:
No matter how busy people are, continuous learning is possible. When everyone works together for the betterment of the team, staying focused on improving your presentation skills is possible … and relatively simple. Even better, when this philosophy becomes part of your company’s culture, new hires will be up-to-speed much quicker. So implement these 5 strategies today and watch your sales team’s presentation skills (and closing ratios) soar.
Have you ever found yourself sitting in the center seat of a packed auditorium—hemmed in on both sides by people and laptops—listening to a keynote speaker who is supposed to be imparting knowledge and wisdom, but instead is droning on and on? You want to run, but you can’t. So you endure what seems like torture.
You probably think this only happens in large university lecture halls, right? Not so. I’ve seen it at trade shows, association meetings, speaker forums, customer meetings, and yes, even at TED talks. One can only wonder what these speakers were thinking. How could they come to an event of such high caliber and not be prepared?
The funny thing is, if you ask them, they might tell you they spent a lot of time preparing, perhaps even over-preparing. Because the truth is that you can prepare and still not do well if you prepare incorrectly. In other words, not all preparation is the same.
Here is a list of the seven “sins” of poor presentations—all of which focus on the mistakes made when speakers prepare for their presentation incorrectly. Avoid committing these errors and you can give a stellar speech every time.
When you prepare your presentation, be the saint and not the sinner! Use your knowledge of good presentation skills and prepare the correct way so that even those audience members stuck in the center of the crowd will stand up and cheer for you.
Please let me know what other preparation “sins” you would add to this list!
Imagine knowing your audience members’ questions while you’re speaking and being able to address them on the spot, before the Q&A. Imagine getting a better “read” on what your listeners are thinking or understanding about your topic and not having to solely rely on their non-verbal cues, which may not always be accurate. Imagine having an audience truly engaged from your first word to your last, because you know without a doubt that you’re delivering the information they find most useful.
The good news is that today’s technology tools can help you do that—while you’re speaking in real time. While some people may think that having technology front and center during a presentation (aside from PowerPoint™) would be too distracting and hard to manage, there are technology tools that make engagement much easier. Here are the three to consider using for your next presentation.
Of course, no technology can replace the essentials for audience engagement, such as using gestures, making eye contact, speaking with passion, and practicing your presentation so it sounds natural. Those are the timeless techniques that will never go out of style and are vital to your foundational skills. But still, it’s nice to know that technology can help with the engagement factor and actually encourage input and participation. When used wisely, today’s technology can positively impact your audience’s experience.
We all know that when it comes to public speaking, “practice makes perfect.” So if you want to bring the house down, you have to prepare your script or outline in advance and practice your delivery by rehearsing out loud. Only then can you rest assured that you’ll give a great speech.
But what about those times when you have to speak on the fly, as in an interview situation where you are speaking “off the cuff,” on a panel when any question can come your way, when the camera is running and you’re put on the spot, or when you are in front of a hostile crowd? How do you organize your thoughts so you sound like an expert and come across as natural, flowing, credible and confident? As one of my clients told me this week, “I want to be able to riff off the script and speak eloquently off the cuff.”
Here’s a secret: The best impromptu speakers follow many of the same principles you use when planning a more formal presentation. Since you’re being call upon to speak, it’s assumed that you’re a subject matter expert and passionate about what you have to say. So in those few seconds you have to plan your reply, use the simple rules of content organization: Keep your audience in mind, remember your purpose, and quickly organize your response into three discreet sections: beginning, middle, and end.
As you speak, keep your message concise (and yourself on point) by using short sentences. When appropriate, include an interesting story and relevant example to highlight your key point. Stick to your structure throughout – “first of all…” “second…” And finally…”
To appear confident, keep your posture upright, use gestures and facial expressions, and make eye contact with your listeners. Concentrate on your voice by controlling your rate of speech, using inflection to highlight key points, and pausing to give yourself and the audience or interviewer a chance to reflect on what you are saying. These few vocal skills will prevent you from getting tongue tied and help you come across as cool and collected.
And even though you have only minutes or sometimes seconds to prepare, make sure you hit your talking points. For example, if you’re on a panel and get a question you didn’t expect, bring the focus back around to the key points you want known about your topic. Most subject matter experts have key sound bites memorized about their topic. This is the time to draw upon those.
You never know when you might be called on to speak on the fly, but if you use the same public speaking concepts and techniques you use for general presentations, you can make any presentation look like a well-planned event … even if you have just a few seconds to do so.
This is the time of year when I check-in with my past Executive Immersion clients to see how things are going with their presentation skills—what’s working and what still needs attention. I had several interesting calls this week which revealed tips to fit nicely into a “Best Practice” list.
When I call people, I usually get the same response, “Thanks for reaching out. It’s nice to hear from you,” meaning, “[Gulp!] I better give a few great presentations before I speak to Angela next week!” It reminds me of my annual dental check-up. Like many people, I always brush and floss twice as much during the weeks before my appointment.
All of the people I spoke with give presentations to a range of audiences and venues, including all hands meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, executive briefings, board presentations, customer presentations and large national and international conferences.
I begin the calls by asking my clients how things are going with their presentation skills. Here are some of the typical responses I hear:
And so the love fest goes on for the first part of the conversation. Then, without my saying anything, they switch gears and become their own worst critic with insights like:
Finally, I ask what they learned from our work that has had lasting impact. Here are the top replies they shared—and that everyone can benefit from:
Everyone I speak with always has a long list of what skills and behaviors that have changed for the better and a short list of skills they still need to refine. They’re proof that the growth process in any area takes time. So if you feel that you still haven’t mastered all there is to know about public speaking, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there is always more to learn. The key is to focus on a commitment to continuous improvement. If you do that, your skills will improve, and you’ll do just fine.
And please let me know what you would add to this list. I’d love to hear from you.
“Improve my presentation skills” is a common New Year’s resolution. Finding the perfect example to follow on how to do that is a bit rare … that is, until you meet Jack Kornfield.
Jack Kornfield is one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. I saw him speak a few days ago during the Monday Night Class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre, California, just a short drive from where I live.
The Monday Night Class, now in its 27th year, serves as an introduction to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist practices of awareness and compassion, which are the heart of the Spirit Rock community. This weekly gathering also offers support and ongoing teachings to committed students many who have studied at the Center since its founding.
The room was packed Monday night with hundreds in the audience. When Jack asked how many first-timers were in the crowd, dozens of hands went up. Then someone called out, “Thanks, Oprah!” I learned that Oprah had interviewed Jack last fall and the interview aired December 15. The interview brought out people who had never been to Spirit Rock and were curious about Buddhist teachings.
The Monday Night Class attracts serious students of Buddhism and appreciative newcomers alike and they have never have trouble filling the room. But if you want to exceed capacity with a standing room only crowd, you just need a little fairy dust from Oprah. It was a spirited group.
For Jack Kornfield, it didn’t matter if he was speaking to 2 or 200. He was his usual entertaining and enlightening self, delivering his teachings with Buddhist-style charisma and practicing what he preaches by sharing his stories with patience, compassion and kindness. He is a good speaker, a gifted storyteller and a teacher who knows how to stand on the shoulders of the giants before him, reading their poetry and quoting their wisdom. Watching him, you get the feeling that he takes it all very seriously yet has an infinite capacity for lightheartedness. That combination is his greatest appeal.
And that’s the lesson I want to pass on this New Year as you make your resolutions about public speaking. If you are going to speak with greater poise, power and passion, do so with intense seriousness and commitment, but remember to keep a light heart. Happy 2014!
When asked to describe John F. Kennedy, many people mention the phrase “great speaker.” It’s true. Watch any of his speeches and you’ll see someone who looks natural and elegant in front of a crowd. He had a cunning wit and easy charm. He was articulate, intelligent, direct, and inspiring. Most of all, he looked comfortable.
But comfortable he was not. Over the last two weeks I have watched numerous documentaries about JFK’s life and realized once again that in addition to being a great speaker, he was also a very ill man, plagued with serious diseases from Crohn’s to Addison’s. As James Blight of The Daily Beast explained, “JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth—the latter while he was president, in June 1961.” JFK’s various conditions were treated with steroids and other strong drugs that caused severe side effects and weakened his spine, resulting in chronic pain.
Now think about this: If JFK was in pain most of his life that would mean he was giving some of the best speeches of the 20th century while enduring extreme discomfort, debilitating illnesses, and numerous medication side effects. It’s challenging enough for most people to give a speech to a large crowd when they’re in perfect health and under ideal circumstances. Imagine having to give a critical speech when you are in extreme pain. Yes, it could be that he was carried along on pain killers, other drugs, and pure adrenaline, and that he may not have felt distressed while giving a speech. However, he certainly felt it after the adrenaline wore off and the “performance high” abated. Either way, it’s unimaginable.
Many of us have had the experience of having to give a presentation when we’ve not been at our best—either with a cold, a headache, or with some other physical or emotional challenge. And most of us can “rise to the occasion” in these stressful times and perform effectively. But these situations are infrequent. For JFK, on the other hand, coping with discomfort was a fact of everyday life. He not only rose to the occasion with every speech he gave, but he also set a new standard of leadership through his powerful and eloquent communication.
In a way, it’s a bit ironic. Here was a man who couldn’t even lift his own children due to his illnesses, yet he had the backbone to lead the American people through tumultuous times. Here was a man wracked with pain, yet when he stood in front of an audience of thousands he spoke with passion and certainty—as though he actually had the “vigah” he spoke of.
So, the next time you hear one of JFK’s speeches, listen with a new ear. Think not about just the content of his message; think about the content of his inner strength—of his ability to rise above his own pain so that he could uphold his duty as president and inspire others through his oratorical greatness.
Fortunately, most public speakers will never have to overcome such a challenge. However, if you’re ever in the situation when you have to present with a cold, a headache, or even a heartache, take a lesson from JFK. As he so eloquently said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”
Click here to view some historic speeches from the JFK library.
Many of DeFinis Communications’ sales and technical clients spend a lot of time on the road, delivering presentations to prospects, customers, and users near and far. As such, they often share their road warrior tales of woe during our classes. So many things can go wrong before and during a presentation, from technical glitches to misplaced papers. While you can do your best to prepare and plan for almost any presentation crisis, there are some things that are completely out of your control, such as the weather and airline cancellations.
Rita Williams, one of our top trainers, has a travel story to trump all others. If you’ve ever had Rita as a DeFinis Communications instructor, you know her to be incredibly organized, punctual, and prepared. She’s not the type to wing a presentation or any part of the planning stage either. That’s why I was so surprised to hear her latest travel story.
Rita arrived at the airport early for a routine cross country flight from San Francisco to Washington DC. At check-in, the booking agent told her that she could take an earlier flight. In order to board the earlier flight, though, she had to gate-check her personal travel bag. Normally she never checks her bags for a short 2-3 day business trip, but this seemed safe enough so she was unconcerned.
After settling in to her seat and waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the captain announced that the plane was having mechanical problems. Everyone would have to deplane and wait back in the terminal until the plane could be repaired. Rita wasn’t about to wait so she raced back to her original flight and luckily was able to board … but her travel bag wasn’t with her. Before the flight took off she called her husband and explained her dilemma—that she would arrive in DC after hours with no business clothes to wear the next day and no place to shop. Even though she was clearly distraught, her husband seemed indifferent. He simply told her that it would be okay and not to worry. But Rita was worried. Maybe he was tired, she reasoned. Rita was upset, but how could he help from so far away?
Fortunately, Rita is a natural born problem solver and came up with a truly creative solution. She decided to go to the hotel and offer to “purchase” a hotel uniform worn by one of the women at the front desk—if she was lucky enough to find a 6 ft. tall woman working that evening.
She arrived at the hotel, walked up to the front desk manager and explained the bind she was in. Before she could finish her plea and ask the woman for the shirt off her back, the hotel manager said, “Oh, this must be for you,” and handed her two shopping bags: one from Nordstrom and one from The GAP.
When Rita got to her room and opened the shopping bags, she saw two complete outfits in her size, style, and colors. She was absolutely stunned to see these beautiful clothes ready to wear to her presentation the following morning. She called her husband and found out that after speaking to her, he immediately called a friend in DC and described the situation. The friend, a man by the way, left work, went shopping for Rita, and delivered the clothes to her hotel!
Talk about a husband coming to the rescue!
I often think about the community of people we need to make our presentations successful and to make our lives work well on a daily basis. In our programs, we ask our participants to identify the people in their lives who act as role models, task masters, and supporters. Time and time again, when push comes to shove, spouses always seem to come through. So hats off to Rita’s husband, Dennis Williams, and all the other husbands, wives, family, and friends who support presenters every day. It’s always nice to know that someone out there is covering your back.
When you deliver a presentation on Halloween or any other day of the year, your audience expects to be treated to a stimulating, thoughtfully designed, and well developed speech. But too many speakers inadvertently play a trick instead by using poor language skills that distract the audience, weaken the message, and leave listeners wanting to shout “Boo!” That’s why it’s important to beware of your language. Voice and language skills should communicate excitement, passion, and confidence, not leave your audience feeling like zombies.
Here are some tips to rid your language of the most common goblins that haunt presentations.
Avoid non-words: Non-words, sounds or phrase fillers, like “um,” “ah,” and “anduh” pollute your language and can be distracting to you listener. They can make you sound less polished, less prepared, and less credible, which will work against you when you are trying to communicate effectively and persuade others to your point of view.
Reduce distracting words and phrases: Polished public speakers use few if any of the following repetitive filler words: “like,” “really,” “I mean,” “you know,” “in terms of,” “so” “actually,” and many others. At DeFinis Communications our motto is, “Friends never let friends say, ’basically.’”
Limit slang: Avoid modern slang when giving a speech. Phrases such as “you guys,” “folks,” and “awesome” are fine to use in most everyday conversations, but they could weaken your credibility in front of certain audiences. Carefully consider your audience before using these words during your presentation and substitute power words for everyday slang.
What can you do?
If you have a tendency to use non-words, distracting words, or slang in everyday speech, your first step in changing these behaviors is to raise your awareness. Leave yourself voicemail messages, ask friends and colleagues if they notice these fillers, and listen carefully to yourself when you speak. Once you analyze the problem and know what you’re up against, then you can fix it.
Because vocal behaviors such as these are imbedded in our language from a very young age these habits will not change overnight. But there are techniques you can begin using today that will start the ball rolling in the right direction. When it comes to improving your vocal control, a “pause” is your best friend. Anytime you are on the verge of using a non-word, distracting word, or slang, stop and pause for two full seconds. You can also use shorter sentences, speak at a slower rate, raise your volume, breathe deeply, and smile to help you control these distracting words and sounds.
Don’t let your language skills kill your chances of giving a great speech. Whether on Halloween or any day of the year, strive to give your listeners a memorable experience that leaves them howling for more!
Read my past Halloween blog posts:
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