Presentation Skills

Will Your Q&A Session Make or Break Your Next Presentation?

Will Your Q&A Session Make or Break Your Next Presentation?

Most presentations benefit from a question-and-answer session (Q&A). Audience members appreciate this time to get clarification, share comments or ideas, and get deeper information on key concepts. However, because the Q&A feels less formal than the main presentation, many speakers neglect to prepare for this time. In reality, the Q&A requires just as much preparation as any other section of your talk.

Top Tech Tools to Build Audience Engagement

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.

  • Twitter. For years, we’ve all heard the request made before important or main stage presentations: “Please turn off your phones.” These days, however, more and more speakers are instead saying, “Please take out your smart phone and turn it ON. Go to your Twitter app and tweet me your questions during the presentation. I’ll monitor it from up here and answers any questions I can in real time.” You can even make a special hashtag phrase that relates to your presentation to make monitoring easy. This low-tech technology approach is simple for audience members (most probably already have Twitter on their smart phone), and those who don’t can follow along and still ask questions by logging into a Twitter conversation tool like Twubs. Don’t like or use Twitter? Just have people text you their questions in real time.
  • Audience Response Systems. At the other end of the technology spectrum are Audience Response Systems (ARS). These are hardware and/or software technologies that audience members use to give feedback in real time. If you’ve ever taken part in polling during a presentation, where you received a gadget and then pushed a button to enter your response, you’ve used an ARS. Of course, ARS tools have evolved over the years and come in all shapes and sizes and do much more than simple polling. To get an idea of what ARS offers these days, check out Turning Technologies.
  • Apps. Need more audience engagement? Yes, there’s an app for that! One I recently learned of is called Join Speaker. What’s nice about apps is that they don’t require a special device like an ARS does. Rather, the attendees use the browser on their smart phone or tablet, enter your unique URL, and then interact with you, sharing input (questions, comments, or ideas) and even voting on other audience members’ input.

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.

4 Traits that Distinguish Confident Speakers from Nervous Nellies

Back in 1990, Ron Hoff wrote a popular book about public speaking entitled I Can See You Naked. The idea was that if a speaker looked out at the audience and imagined everyone sitting in their birthday suits, he would take a scary crowd and turn it into a docile nudist colony, thus defusing their power to intimidate. For many people, that kind of visualization worked wonders in building confidence. But for the Nervous Nellies among us, it actually backfired. For them, the image is reversed. Instead of the speaker looking out at a group of meek naked people, they imagine an entire audience who can (gasp!) see the speaker naked! That’s what can happen when you let your nerves get the best of you and put your anxiety on parade. When you act like a Nervous Nellie, your audience really can see you naked. But when you act like a confident speaker and do the things they do (even though you may still be nervous), the audience feels more comfortable and responds accordingly.

Here are 4 traits that distinguish confident speakers from Nervous Nellies:

  • Confident speakers are proud. They stand erect, hold in their stomachs, pull back their shoulders and lift their torso. They stand tall and strong, showing the audience by their posture that they are poised and credible. The confident speaker is aware of the positive impact of strong posture on others and expresses their personal pride through posture.
  • Confident speakers are compassionate. They pay attention to the audience as a person, not a crowd. They don’t categorize or stereotype. They care about others. This means the speaker looks at people’s faces, uses penetrating eye contact, shows a blend of serious and lighthearted facial expressions, and tries to connect at every level—verbal and non-verbal.
  • Confident speakers are spontaneous. They plan and prepare their presentation and put in many hours of rehearsal, but they also know that is just the beginning. Once on-stage they follow their intuition, understanding the importance of “reading and relating” to the audience in the moment. They comfortably adjust the planned speech whenever necessary to make it more relevant and meaningful.
  • Confident speakers are generous. There really is something to the phrase “giving a speech.” The world has been turned in a more positive direction because of brave people who spoke out—think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Meade, Eleanor Roosevelt, just to name a few. But it has also been turned by the everyday speaker who decides to be more persuasive and passionate. All of us have a point of view and set of beliefs that can also change the world.

So the next time you give a presentation, if picturing the audience naked helps, by all means do it. But if you’re a true Nervous Nellie, keep your audience fully clothed and make a commitment to use the traits and strategies that confident speakers employ. Be proud, compassionate, spontaneous, and generous, and then dare any audience to see you naked. That’s the surest way to conquer your fears in the midst of any crowd.

Let Your Public Speaking Skills Age Like Fine Wine

Imagine having the opportunity to write a speech about a topic you know and love and deliver it nine times in the course of a day to a rapt audience, gaining new supporters and perfecting your delivery each time. That’s precisely the opportunity afforded to my client David Amadia, VP of Sales for Ridge Vineyards, when he attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival last month and participated in their “Meet Your Match” event. “Meet Your Match” is the wine education version of speed dating. Small groups of wine enthusiasts spent six minutes with each wine producer to taste their wine, hear their story, and ask questions. In those six minutes, David tutored the wine tasters on the various qualities of “fine” wine—it comes from a great vineyard, reflects the patch of ground where it is grown, is age-able and will improve over time, stimulates the mind and the palette, and has many complex levels and flavors. He introduced newcomers to Ridge’s exceptional single vineyard wines and updated fans on the latest spring releases.

He also told snippets of the fascinating history of Ridge Vineyards—a story that can’t be fully told in a few minutes but that included the following highlights:

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in 1885 when Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor, bought 180 acres of land near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains because it reminded him of the terraced slopes and cool climate of his homeland in Italy. Perrone built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility today.

The winery closed during Prohibition, reopened with repeal, but closed definitively in the early 1940s. New Ridge partners formed in 1950 when three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought the property as a weekend retreat and made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Working only on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

In 1968 Paul Draper joined the partnership after he realized that if three engineers working on weekends could make world class wine, it had to be the rich land that was responsible for their success and not the winemakers themselves. Under Draper’s guidance, the old Perrone winery was restored and the consistent quality and international reputation of Ridge Wines established.

That history is lot of ground to cover in a few short minutes. Add in information about the various wines being tasted and random questions from the audience and you can see how tight, focused, and polished David’s presentations had to be.

David was proud to introduce Ridge and its highly regarded estate wines, and he was delighted to meet new customers. But he also savored the unique opportunity to consciously practice his public speaking skills over and over in a relaxed venue as he gained experience, skill, and control with each new group.

So take a lesson from David Amadia. While you may never have a chance to do this sort of speed dating version of public speaking, you can find ways to practice—whether formally or informally—in front of small groups every day. Whether at the water cooler or at the dinner table, the more you tell your stories, interact with others, answer questions, and practice your delivery, the more you’ll find that your speaking skills are a lot like fine wine—they get better with time.

Rate Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

When it comes to nervousness in front of a group, I have noticed people generally fall into one of four categories, which I describe as the following four levels. These levels are an indicator of what I call a speaker’s “capacity for comfort” in front of a group. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and can barely get their words out. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak. They have little desire to speak in public, but are now required to do so. Their capacity for comfort is generally quite low. As such, they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth!
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of discomfort.  The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly improve and become more comfortable and competent.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still carries the burden of anxiety. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of learning how to apply their skills to a new venue to be comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. They may be executives, product evangelists, salespeople, senior leaders, marketing directors, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to one thing: experience. Level 4 speakers know that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They are disciplined. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and gain insight from every speaking engagement.

The good news is that while public speaking is an art and a science, it’s not rocket science. In other words, you can become a level 4 speaker too. Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high-profile conference for thousands, you too can build your capacity for comfort and learn to adapt to the demands of any speaking situation. Every speaker in every category has the potential to become a relaxed and confident speaker—even you!

Add Alltop.com to Your Speaker’s Toolbox

Alltop
Alltop

Whether you’re looking for an intriguing story, an interesting example, or a new data point to build out the content of your presentation, Alltop.com is an excellent resource to use and one I recommend to my clients. Rather than a search engine, Alltop is a content aggregator. That means they collect the headlines of the latest stories from the best sites and blogs that cover a particular topic. In our case that topic is public speaking. They group these collections—or “aggregations”—into individual web pages, where they display the five most recent headlines of the information sources as well as their first paragraph. Think of Alltop as an information filter to help you quickly find great material for your speech. Recently I was on the site reading Nancy Duarte’s featured blog, PowerPoint 2013: New and (Mostly) Improved. In it she talks about the anticipated release of Office 2013 (scheduled for January) and the latest and greatest version of PowerPoint that will be included. She and her team have picked apart the software from end to end. They’ve looked at how PowerPoint 2013 has improved, and how it hasn’t. Consider it required reading for anyone who gives business presentations.

Speaking of PowerPoint, another Alltop blog that caught my attention was from Ethos 3 entitled Before & After: Five Presentation Tips You Need to Know. In this post they show “before” and “after” PowerPoint slides and point out key lessons to learn from each one. Hopefully more of your slides look like the “after” rather than the “before” versions. If not, this blog and site offers a host of good tips to ensure your slides are memorable…for the right reasons.

And since the holidays are just around the corner, I particularly enjoyed the blog by Six Minutes, Stocking Stuffers and Gifts for Every Speaker. People always ask me what to get for the speakers in their life, and now I have a great post to refer them to. Of course, this blog begs the questions, “What great speaker-oriented gift have you received in the past?” and “What speaker-oriented gift do you wish you’d receive this year?” Leave your answers in the comments section.

These three blogs are just a small sample of what’s available every day on Alltop. You can keep up with your favorite bloggers, stay abreast of the latest trends in public speaking, and use the site as a resource for building and delivering your presentations.

Have you tried Alltop yet? What’s your favorite aspect of it? Please share the creative ways you use it to increase your public speaking knowledge and skill.

How to Thrive in a Challenging Public Speaking Situation

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with Carolyne Stayton, the Executive Director of Transition US. Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate, or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. Carolyne was scheduled to give a speech at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, CA, and she needed help with her preparation. Bioneers is a non-profit educational organization that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet. Since 1990, Bioneers has acted as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with nature-inspired approaches for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. 

Carolyn’s topic was “Resilient Communities: Mobilizing and Equipping Local Citizen Action.”

Here’s how she began her speech:

I’d like to begin by using the analogy of “the story.”

In our climate story, we are entering the chapter where the dragon has arrived. He’s breathing fire and scorching our crops. He’s melting the ice and causing tornadoes where they’ve never been seen before. He’s flooding our rivers, our cities, and our towns. And he’s madly extracting oil from our fragile landscapes. So where did this dragon come from?

He came from our decades of wonton consumerism. He came from our explosive carbon lifestyle. And he came from our blatant disregard for the laws of nature.

This sounds like a pretty bleak chapter in the story, doesn’t it? It sounds like a story you want to put down and not finish. But I’ve got good news for you. We are also at the point in the story where the hero arrives to save the day. And the best news of all is this: the hero is YOU!

My purpose here today is to give you the information, tools, and resources you need to confront the dragon head on, to slay him. To sauté him. And to serve him up at a pot luck supper!

The night before Carolyn was scheduled to give her speech, she sent me an email. She said she had the jitters and needed a last minute pep talk. I sent her a list of some things to do to further prepare her body and mind. Among them was to limit caffeine, drink plenty of water, sit quietly and breathe deeply, and visualize success before her talk.

Two days later I received another email from Carolyn. Here’s what she wrote:

Thank you so much for the last minute tips and for all of the wisdom you imparted. They really helped me. Among other things, I was very conscious of my breath all through Saturday. I stayed away from caffeine and I did drink lots of water.

But I do have a story for you. Fifteen minutes before my presentation, I was sitting on a bench in the sun, feeling my heart and connecting right through my legs and feet to the earth. Unbeknownst to me, my water bottle had tipped and had poured all over my notes AND the back of my skirt. Basically I was sitting in a puddle! I had to wring my skirt out, walk onto the stage, and stand before the audience with a skirt clinging to the back of my legs and wet underwear! My practice and work on the presentation saved me. But instead of being nicely grounded in my heart, I was definitely more in my head.

Apparently no one else noticed!

So to add to your book of what not to do (fig leaf, etc.) feel free to add “don't pour water on your butt”!

Geez.

Without your help, having the water incident happen would have absolutely immobilized me. Fortunately, I delivered adequately and from some comments, very well.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart.

There is a lesson here. Even when you are prepared, confident, centered, and in control, things happen out of the blue. Good speakers take these unwelcome incidents in stride and roll with them, keeping perspective, going back to the long hours of preparation and planning, and moving on as if nothing had happened. So the next time you’re ready to present and suddenly realize that you’ve just sat in a puddle of water, or that you forgot your slides at your office across town, or that your room set up is not what you expected, or anything else that could possibly happen, relax and rely on your practice, wisdom, and expertise to pull you through. When you’re prepared and confident, you can thrive in even the most challenging speaking situations.

Obama vs Romney: Too Late for PowerPoint?

I was giving a presentation yesterday to a group of 30 major account sales professionals from a global company. For many in the room, English was their second language, so there was somewhat of a gap in our communication. Greater than the adjustments I made to my content and delivery—speaking slower, repeating key ideas, checking in with them often—were the powerful slides I created filled with photos, models, graphics, and quotes that added to the storyline and significantly narrowed the gap between us. After fifty slides I asked them which slides they remembered, and everyone in the room had a few favorites. It got me to thinking…I wonder why Obama and Romney don’t get on-board with PowerPoint? I wonder if these kinds of richly designed visuals would support their appeal to their listeners and reach the broader culture.

Then this morning I came across this article: 71 Compelling & Surprising PowerPoint Tips from the Pros, which, as the title suggests, lists 71 tips all presenters and PowerPoint users should know.

Since it’s already too late for either candidate to re-think their speaking strategy for this election, perhaps we can all just muse on the possibility of the candidates applying some of the 71 compelling tips in the future. It may make future elections more interesting.

Prepare Your Speaker’s Toolbox

By now, we all know that practicing your presentation and working on key public speaking skills will make you a better presenter. But practice and skill aside, there are other, more tangible, things that will help you excel at business presentations. I call these things your “toolbox essentials.” Just as you prepare for your job by making sure you have key supplies on hand, when you’re taking on the role of “presenter,” you must prepare by making sure your speaker’s toolbox is stocked. Following are my top recommendations for any speaker’s toolbox.

Tools and Resources for Your Toolbox

  • Print out your PowerPoint™ presentation. Print your slides (either 3 or 6 to a page) just in case of an emergency. If for any reason you don’t have access to your laptop you will still be able to give the presentation.
  • Charge all batteries. Make sure you have an extra battery for your remote. If you are running your laptop on battery power, make sure you have an extra one.
  • Have the right remote for the right room. When you purchase your remote make sure to get one that works for the size room you will be speaking in. When you’re presenting up front you may not have the need for distance, but if you are a facilitator and like to work the room, you may be standing too far away for your remote to work. Each remote has different distances—standard is 20-40 feet, and you may need 100 feet.
  • Know your venue. Have a sheet with all pertinent contact info for the venue where you are speaking. Include your contact’s name and cell phone number, the venue address, and room name.
  • Take a clock. Bring a small watch or travel clock you can place on the podium or other nearby table or surface. While you don’t want to look at the time continually, you do want to casually check the time every so often to ensure you’re staying on track.

Wellness Tips for Your Toolbox

  • Get eight hours of sleep. Getting plenty of sleep the night before a major presentation will keep you mentally sharp and physically strong. Studies from the National Sleep Foundation show that people who are sleep deprived have more trouble performing math calculations, have impaired physical performance, and have more difficulty retaining information. Getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep prior to presenting will positively impact your performance.
  • Drink plenty of water. Drinking lots of water (at least half of your body weight in ounces) will keep you feeling refreshed and relaxed. Since stress contributes to dehydration, any time you feel stressed (such as when giving a presentation) you need to drink more water than usual.
  • Stay fortified. Eat a well balanced diet rich in good protein sources and consume plenty of vegetables and fruits. Avoid high carbohydrate foods like pasta, breads, and sweets before you give a presentation. These foods will make you sleepy and reduce your concentration.
  • Take ‘Rescue Remedy.’ If you are highly susceptible to nervous tension, pack Rescue Remedy in your toolkit. Rescue Remedy is a Bach flower tincture that can be found in any health food store. Place two or three drops in an ounce of warm water and sip it slowly. Most people find that it has a relaxing effect on your nerves.
  • Avoid caffeine. While caffeine can be stimulating and help you feel temporarily energized for the presentation, it can also backfire and cause unwanted anxiety. Too much caffeine can take its toll on the nervous system over time, and speakers need calm nerves and sharp mental acuity to deliver a winning presentation.

The better prepared you are for any presentation, the more effective your speech will be. So take the time to pack your toolbox items; you’ll stand out and impress your audience.

What’s a Presentation without Visuals?

When it comes to visual aids for a presentation, what’s the first thing you think of? If you said “PowerPoint™” or “slide ware,” you’re in the majority. That’s the default most presenters rely on. But the answers about visual aids that I’ve been getting from my clients recently (and what I’ve seen at their locations) have surprised even me. For example, I was working with a client in June and walked into the training room to find a chalkboard and box of chalk greeting me.

A few weeks later I walked into a client’s conference room to find an overhead projector.

Last week I was walking down the halls of a large tech company and peered into a conference room. I saw two walls of whiteboard covered with neatly drawn flow charts, bullet charts, and various other schematics—in bright colors.

A few days ago I was working with a client who used colorful 3x5 index cards to organize his key points and deliver his presentation. He rarely uses slide ware but relies instead on his conversational style and deep subject knowledge.

And just yesterday I watched a presentation where the presenter used a flipchart.

So, when was the last time you used a chalkboard, an overhead projector, a whiteboard, a flipchart, or even no visuals at all?

These clients I visited from various industries and organizations—a dental school, a utility company, a software company, a transportation company, and a non-profit organization—all taught me a lesson.

It’s easy to become complacent and narrow-minded about the types of visual aids we use—or don’t’ use. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that to be effective, a visual needs to be cutting edge and show off the latest visual gymnastics that PowerPoint can produce. And while I was at each location to share “best practices” and reveal the top design tips and staging usage, I learned that every one of these places and people were effective and had an impact because they knew their audience and used visual tools that they could relate to.

So when it comes to visual aid selection, here’s my best advice: Analyze your audience so you know what they expect and what will work for them. Then, understand the options available to you. Know what you are comfortable with and what will help you do your best to meet your audience’s expectations. When you follow that guidance, you’ll be able to produce visual aids that help both you and your message come alive and connect to the heart and mind of every audience member.

Use Your Voice to Make a Great First Impression

I recently had a phone conversation with a new client who had signed up for our Executive Immersion program. While our discussion was informative, it was also a little challenging. He spoke with a thick accent, had poor enunciation, rambled on and on, and spoke in monotone. I had to work hard to listen intently, process what he was saying, and then think of my own response. And this was on the phone! I could only imagine what it was like to listen to him present in front of a group. When we ended the call, he gave me a link to a video clip of him presenting. I immediately went to the site. Based on our phone conversation, my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise to see him presenting in front of a group and doing much better than he had on the phone. Not only were his voice and speaking pattern were much better, but he also smiled, carried himself well, came across as genuine and sincere, and projected energy. While he didn’t “combust” in front of the group, he wasn’t asleep at the wheel either.

When it comes to first impressions, we often think it’s only about your physical presence—how you look. But I’ve found that for presenters your voice and speaking pattern carry just as much weight. Your voice is your primary instrument when delivering information, so your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your topic must come across to the audience through your voice.

To develop your vocal potential and make the best use of your natural speaking abilities, I suggest you focus on three categories: vocal clarity, vocal variety, and vocal emphasis.

  • Vocal clarity is the ease with which a listener can understand what you are saying. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to a speaker and barely understanding every third or fourth word because of mumbling, poor pronunciation, or a foreign accent. That means you not only need to speak loudly enough for people to hear you, but you also need to form your words with precision (ex: “going” rather than “goin”) and then say them according to rules of acceptable pronunciation (ex: not pronouncing the “t” in “often”).
  • Vocal variety is the interest you generate in your listeners when you produce changes in your rate of speech and pitch. Therefore, speak quickly enough to keep the presentation moving along but slowly enough so everyone can easily grasp your message. Slow down at major points, especially when delivering more complex information, and allow your audience time to absorb the material. Additionally, adjust your pitch to match the emotional content of your message. If something is critically important, change your pitch to reflect that. Generally, a low pitch indicates seriousness and a sense of authority, while a high pitch shows enthusiasm and excitement. You will let the audience know your attitude toward your topic when you use variety to express the range and depth of your feelings.
  • Vocal emphasis is the way in which you accent syllables, words, and silence to stress importance and to give meaning to our sentences. Varying your inflection is one of the most important tools you have to project enthusiasm and conviction in your presentation. Without accenting particular words and syllables, speakers sound monotone and come across disinterested, bored, or lacking authority or expertise. Along with inflection, silence (or pausing) is a powerful tool for emphasizing a key point or creating a bit of drama. And remember, what may seem like a long moment of silence to you is actually a much needed information break to your listeners.

Obviously, your physical first impression still counts. But no matter how professional you look, if your voice and words don’t match your physical image, you’ll lose your audience. So be sure to work on all areas of your first impression—including your voice. When you look the part and sound the part, you’ll make a positive first impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.

Add Context, Not Just Content, to Your Next Speech

While vacationing in Maine, my husband and I ventured to Lubec, Maine, the gateway to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada—the once popular summer colony for wealthy Americans and Canadians, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On our way we stopped at Quoddy Headlight, the easternmost point in the U.S. And once on Campobello, we went to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.

Perched on an island and only accessible in low tide, the East Quoddy Lighthouse called to our adventurous spirit. We were eager to make the trip across the sandbar and climb the steps to the lighthouse. Although it’s dangerous and rugged, for two hours when the tide is out visitors can climb the steep metal ladders, walk on the ocean floor, cross two intermediate islands connected by a short wooden bridge, take a second steep ladder and then walk across a rocky, slippery seaweed covered intertidal zone to get to the lighthouse. We were ready for the adventure when we were warned that the tide had turned. Then we saw the sign:

DANGER!--TAKE NO RISKS & DO NOT LINGER! If you become stranded on the islands by the tide, WAIT FOR RESCUE. Even former keepers of this lighthouse have lost their lives by misjudging the STRONG, FRIGID, FAST-RISING tidal currents and TIDE-PRESSURIZED UNSTABLE PEBBLE OCEAN FLOOR while attempting to make this crossing.

At that moment, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous saying, “Time and tide wait for no man,” took on a whole new meaning for me.

The tides in this part of the Bay of Fundy are 25 feet or more. We learned that further up the bay in Nova Scotia, the tidal changes can be more than 50 feet and most extreme when the moon is full. These are the largest tidal changes in the world. That’s a lot of water moving in and out twice a day, and it was clear that the tides were the backdrop for the entire way of life in this part of Maine.

We saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the tides. In Lubec, there are poles on the wharf that go up nearly 20 feet, taking the dock with it as the water rises and falls. Like clockwork, an hour before high tide a dozen or more seals, cormorants, gulls, and bald eagles arrive to feed on the fish brought in by the tide. Travelling to these places and witnessing the significance of the tidal changes first hand brought Chaucer’s quote to life. The facts were important, but seeing the facts in action was exhilarating!

This experience made me realize the importance of “context” in describing any situation. Until I saw the physical power of these dramatic tides, the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man” had little meaning to me. But now I get it. You can’t beat the tides. The sea will never bow to your will. And no matter how strong a swimmer you are, at 50 degrees the water is too cold, the rips too unpredictable, and the force of the water flow too overpowering.

I often counsel my clients to use stories, metaphors, anecdotes, and quotes—the rhetorical devices that create compelling imagery and add power to your presentations. However, it is absolutely essential to also provide the context in which the images reside.

To create effective presentations we often use phrases from our own experience, thinking that our audience fully understands the meaning. But they may not understand where we’re coming from. So our challenge as communicators is not only to come up with and deliver the clever anecdote, quote, or quip, but also to be successful in communicating the broader world from which it evolves. Yes, the facts of tidal changes were compelling, but then there was the DANGER sign, the rising and falling poles on the dock in Lubec, and the sea life feeding at the exact same time every day. These images bore witness.

Therefore, I encourage you to find those fascinating rhetorical gems and take the time to fully render them in context. Tell us more; make it come alive.

And now, I’ve gotta run. The lighthouse beckons, and the tide is coming in!

Whether on the 2012 Campaign Trail or in the Boardroom, Use Stories to Build Trust

Recently, President Obama admitted that his job as President is about more than just getting the policy right. As he put it, “The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." Well said, Mr. President! For years I’ve been telling business presenters that stories are essential to getting your message across. Whether speaking to a large group, as the President often does, or speaking to a small gathering of staff, telling a good story stimulates a strong emotional connection between you and the audience. Tell a story and you entertain. Tell a story and you connect. Tell a story and you build trust.

Stories play an important role in our everyday communication. They can bridge the gap that’s inherent in many types of presentations, from the lively motivational speech to the serious executive all-hands meeting to the dense technical demo presentation. In fact, we’ve all seen what can happen with the introduction of a story—a boring presentation will come alive!

If you want to persuade your listeners to your point of view, connect on a deeper level, and most of all build trust, telling stories is key. Here are a few simple tips to help enhance your storytelling.

  • Be yourself: You likely tell stories every day, and these are the stories that have the power to create a bond with your listeners. When you share a personal story, the distance between you and the audience dissolves. Stories show your vulnerability, which creates an opportunity for trust. As you tell a personal story, both you and the listener share a heightened emotional experience.
  • Build believable characters: Who are the heroes in your story? Take the time to develop characters who are appealing to you and your listener. Create characters by using the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), and explore emotional, practical or other aspects of the characters as well. Let your characters grow every time you tell the story so that they take on a life of their own.
  • Create a plot that sticks: What are the stories that you remember? You no doubt have your favorites; we all do. No matter how charming and well developed your characters, the plot is often the most memorable. Create a plot that has action and movement. Let your character face and overcome obstacles, teach lessons and inspire. When you develop a detailed plot line, your audience will never forget it.
  • Listen to the stories of others: You hear plenty of stories regularly—in your everyday business presentations; in community meetings; in political, cultural, and religious speeches; in entertainment and comedy; at social events; in the media. Write down every great story you hear so you have fresh material to draw from and learn more about content style and delivery.
  • The Power of Practice: Most people are not natural “stage” storytellers but are comfortable telling a story at the dinner table. That’s why it’s important to practice your platform stories before you go live. Write out and organize the flow of your story, and then practice your language, sentence structure, pacing and rhythm. Remember that timing is still everything when it comes to storytelling, so use silence to create dramatic, strategic and forceful pauses. Practice is the key to delivering a story that builds trust.

No matter what kind of presentations you give, take some advice from me and the President: use stories! Let them help you grab the attention and tug at the heartstrings of your audience. Let your stories ring out and you’ll connect with your listeners in a whole new way—a way that builds trust and respect that goes way beyond the podium.

Adopt a “Pay it Forward” Mindset for Your Next Company or Industry Presentation

This week is the National Speakers Association annual convention. While I did not attend this year’s event, it got me thinking about what it takes to present at a large scale annual meeting—whether for a company or an association/industry. The key, I believe, lies in good planning—the kind that results in delivering a unified message and creating an atmosphere of “can do” collegiality. The best annual meetings provide an immersion in the uniqueness of the company or industry culture, important teaching moments, and opportunities to connect with colleagues. But the pitfall of any annual meeting occurs when the meeting gets out of control at the planning stage and caves in to excess, namely too much on the agenda and too many boring presentations.

If you happen to be giving one of these presentations, you have a unique opportunity to do your company, industry, and colleagues a huge favor—to pay it forward, so to speak, by taking the road less travelled and being a “kinder, gentler” presenter. How? By resisting the urge you may feel to deliver too much information in a typical PowerPoint presentation, just like every other presentation that will be given during the meeting.

If you are one of the chosen few who will deliver a presentation at the annual meeting, give your audience something that is easy to digest and that will lighten their load. Deliver a presentation so well rehearsed that your authenticity shines though. Give them a hard-core message delivered with just the right amount of charm and confidence. And do it so well that they feel the power to do the same for others in their presentations. When you pay it forward, they pay it forward. Here a few tips to help you do so.

  1. Plan with the planners in mind: Before you start planning your presentation, find out the meeting’s overall theme and goal. Understand why you were chosen to present. Is there a specific message they want you to give? Ask questions to clarify your role and any goals the planners have for you. If possible, check in with more than one person so you are certain of everything. Once you complete your due diligence, then you can tailor your presentation to focus on just one important area.
  2. Cut, Cut, Cut: You are one person and one presenter. So there’s no need for you to tell the audience everything. Remember that people are there to learn from many different experts. No matter how much you believe your audience needs to hear everything from you, you’re just one vital piece of the puzzle. Therefore, keep your message short, simple, and focused, and always tie your remarks to the meeting’s overall goal.
  3. Speak to the highest denominator: This is an important event. People from all levels will be there listening to you. Even with the broad spectrum of people in attendance, always perform for the people whose standards are the highest rather than for your most complacent audience members. This is your moment to shine for your boss, your boss’s boss, and even his or her boss. These people expect a lot from you, so be sure to deliver.
  4. Step out of the PowerPoint Box: Yes, PowerPoint is helpful…it’s even cool. But how about not using PowerPoint…at all. Think about the endless possibilities of doing something different and unexpected, like a treasure hunt or a group game. If you must use PowerPoint, design it with color, images, and sound. Use lively video clips or interactive pieces to entertain, educate, motivate, and inspire.
  5. Build in audience participation and involvement: Deliver your message with a light and creative touch. No matter how big the group, you can still get them talking to each other by pairing them up and asking them to share stories or to brainstorm ideas. Use your sense of humor, even if it’s modest. Tell inspiring stories and use examples to drive the message home.

Annual company and industry meeting status quo can have a powerful impact on your performance. You could fall in line, do the same old boring PowerPoint, and ignore the greater needs of your audience; however, if you do, you miss a great opportunity to truly excite and inspire others to act in a positive way. It takes confidence to pay it forward, but when you do you set off a chain reaction. Suddenly everyone’s presentations are more passionate, more creative, and more engaging—and everyone wins.

The Top 3 Things that Stand Between Busy Professionals and Speech Preparation

No one wants to give a less than stellar business presentation, but that’s what sometimes happens to even the most well intentioned people. While they know they need to prepare for the presentation (and they even want to), other things get their time and attention, leaving speech preparation on the back burner. Here are the three top things that get in the way of speech preparation…and how to overcome them.

  1. Work: Studies tell us that Americans work the longest hours among all industrialized countries. This is what the American Dream is about—having the drive to work hard and succeed. But many professional don’t think of giving a presentation as real work; rather, they view themselves as subject matter experts who have to give a presentation as a means to an end. To alleviate this, turn the tables and think of your next presentation as part of your real job. You wouldn’t short-change the professional tasks you are trained for and paid to do, so don’t short-change your presentation skills either. They are real work.
  2. Time management: It is not unusual for professionals to work 50-60 hours per week. Additionally, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), a global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets, Americans spend 32.7 hours a week online—for both work and personal matters. No wonder making time for speech preparation can be so difficult. To successfully fit it in, practice in chunks. Make a list of all the meetings you have in a given week. Assign a presentation skill to practice for each meeting. For example, in your Monday morning staff meeting you could practice eye contact, while at your employee briefing you could practice gestures—and there’s always the dinner table! Remember that practice and preparation can be spread out and incorporated into other daily tasks and activities.
  3. Business Travel: More than 405 million business trips are taken in the U.S. annually. The packing, travelling to and from the airport, time in the air, and then doing business preclude having adequate time for speech preparation. Ironically, the reason for the business travel often involves one or more members of your team giving a presentation. Many people use their time in the air to create their PowerPoint™ slides, but this is also a great time to practice the various sections of your presentation and to memorize your opening, transitions, and final thought. When you arrive at your hotel room practice your entire presentation out loud at least three times.

Giving great presentations is essential for business success. When you can overcome the top three distractions that impede your presentation preparation, you can hone your public speaking skills for continued professional growth.

What typically gets in your way for speech preparation? Leave your comments here and I’ll address them in a future blog post.