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.
Nervousness and public speaking go hand-in-hand. And in all my years as a presentations skills coach, I’ve found that people’s anxiety tends to fall into one of four categories. These four levels reflect a speaker’s comfort level and confidence. Which one best describes you?
- Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category tend to display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and deeply afraid, often to the point of paralysis. 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 (i.e., the technician who has been moved into the team lead position or the customer service representative who now has to manage others and represent the department). These people have little desire to speak in public, but now are required to do so. With limited confidence 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 prepare or 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 nervousness. The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly increase their capacity and become more comfortable and effective.
- 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 feels anxious. 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 increasing their capacity so that they can be as 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 advantage of every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. These people may be great product evangelists, expert salespeople, senior leaders, marketing and public relations professionals, motivational speakers, 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 just two things: knowledge and experience. Level 4 speakers know what they’re talking about and give presentations frequently. These confident speakers know from experience that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and get out there over and over. They have taken the time to build confidence.
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 can increase your capacity to adapt to the demands of the speaking situation and use your skills and experience to succeed. Every speaker—even you—has the potential to get there!
Multi-tasking, a word no one used a few decades ago, is now firmly ensconced in our everyday language and has become a way of life for many of us. Generations X and Y in particular are known for the ability to speedily produce a surplus of results while working on many different tasks at the same time. Sending a text, writing a document, surfing the net, making dinner, feeding the dog, and having a conversation can all happen simultaneously. Multi-tasking spans across every industry and segment of society. In the world of public speaking, knowing how to multi-task is critical. When you give a presentation you must be able to stand up and deliver content that you may or may not know well; use your physical, vocal and verbal skills effectively; relate to the audience; run the PowerPoint and keep the technology and your own performance organized and on track. In other words, to be an effective speaker, you must become adept at doing many things at once.
While multi-tasking is essential when you’re delivering your presentation, it’s not the most effective approach when it comes to improving your skills or developing new behaviors. In fact, the best way to develop your skills is to “single-task”—to work on just one skill at a time.
For example, let’s say you are working on improving your eye contact. Does it make sense to work on your eye contact and your facial expression and your gestures and your posture all at once? Of course not. That would be like going to the gym and trying to strengthen all your muscles at the same time. Any athletic trainer will tell you that the best way to build your muscle tone is to focus on one muscle group at a time.
Just as it’s advised to tackle one muscle group at a time, it’s also recommended to focus on developing one public speaking skill at a time. Therefore, decide which skill you’d like to work on today. If eye contact is the chosen skill, you set up the room by putting sticky notes on various chairs around the room or by putting a few stuffed animals in the chairs so you can make eye contact with actual “eyes.” Then give a few lines of your presentation and focus on your eye contact only, making sure to look at one sticky note or animal for a full three-to-five seconds as you speak before moving on the next. The next day you may decide to focus on gestures. In that case, you could give your presentation standing in front of a mirror and practice perfecting your gestures. The point is to focus on just one skill for a long enough period of time so you feel progress at the end of the session.
By focusing on one skill at a time your mind will be clear, your attention will be focused, and you will be calm and collected. No anxiety, no worries—just solid skill improvement. Then, when it comes time to give your presentation to a real audience, you can rest assured that your focus on single-task practice will result in your ability to handle the demands of a multi-task presentation.
When I was growing up, Easter Sunday was a celebrated occasion, much like it is today. A big part of the fun was dressing up in our new pastel dresses with matching shoes, jewelry and fancy Easter bonnets. To top off our splendid outfits, my father gave my sister and me one last accessory: freshly made corsages. And before we would head out to Easter Sunday mass he would announce, “You girls are certainly dressed to kill.” The irony was lost on us at the time but the point was well taken. We knew we were going to make a stunning first impression! First Impressions Matter
You may have a great speech, spot-on PowerPoint slides, and years of industry experience, but if the first impression you give your audience doesn’t match your expertise, your message may fall flat. Research tells us that listeners make up their minds about presenters within the first 30 seconds of seeing the presenter take the podium. That means how you look, what you wear, and how you carry yourself will set the tone for your entire presentation. Following are some first impression guidelines to keep in mind as you prepare for your next presentation.
- Dress appropriately. When you’re giving a presentation, always dress in accordance with the most senior person in the room. If the presentation is to a group of your peers with no higher rank, then dress at least one level up. Remember, no matter how knowledgeable you are on the topic, people will judge you based on what they see; therefore, you want to look professional at all times.
- Groom yourself well. Make sure your hair is combed and styled appropriately. While trendy, disheveled-looking haircuts may be in vogue these days, let the hairbrush do a little more work than usual for this occasion. Make sure your hair is out of your eyes and not covering too much of your face. If you’re a man with facial hair, trim it so it looks neat. Forgo the drama—neat is best.
- Make strong eye contact. As soon as you take the podium or the stage, make eye contact with your audience. For sustained and powerful eye contact, look at one person for a full three to five seconds. Look right into their eyes, connect with them, complete an entire thought, and then move on to the next person. Take your time when you are speaking to another person and enjoy the connection.
- Consider your facial expressions. No one will connect to a speaker who is deadpan or who seems disinterested in being there. Therefore, from the moment you stand to speak, smile, raise your eyebrows, and use a full range of facial expressions. As you talk, vary your facial expressions to reflect the content of your presentation, keeping your facial expressions congruent with your message.
Keep It Going Obviously, you should continue employing all these suggestions throughout your presentation, not just at the beginning when you’re making a first impression. The key is to start strong so you can grab people’s attention and respect, and then continue on that high note throughout the entire presentation. When you do, you’ll not only start with a great first impression; you also make a lasting impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.
(This article is from the DeFinis Communications monthly newsletter. Sign up here to get this and other great content delivered directly to your inbox.)
I’ve been working with two different clients lately, of two different genders, in two different companies, from two different states who have two entirely different approaches to listening. One client actually listens too intently, and the other doesn’t seem to be listening at all. Is it really possible to listen too much? Well, you decide: Whenever someone talks to my client, she leans in very close, nods her head vigorously up and down, constantly says “uh-huh, uh-huh” every second, and appears as though she is literally hanging on your every word. When you’re talking with her it’s hard to keep your thoughts straight because her listening behavior is so distracting. I’m sure she believes she’s using effective active listening skills and showing others that she is involved and interested in the conversation, but from the other side of the table it is a turn off. !
On the other end of the spectrum, another client tends not to show any listening skills at all. As such, you never know what he’s thinking, if he’s hearing you, or if he even cares. He has a poker face—no smile or facial expressions—and sometimes he even yawns!
As with many communication skills, using too much or too little skill can ruin your credibility and reputation. If you “over” listen, your behavior can be distracting, attract too much attention, cause a negative response, and make you appear less confident, less comfortable, and too eager. If you “under” listen, your behavior can be offensive, make you appear rude and disinterested, and put others in an uncomfortable situation. Yes, good listening skills are critical in business and in life, but overdoing or underdoing gets poor results.
So where’s the happy medium? What constitutes “good” listening skills? Here are few suggestions:
- Face the other person and look directly in their eyes.
- Lean slightly towards them and sit at a 45 degree angle.
- Maintain a neutral facial expression with subtle changes as the conversation changes—mirroring the facial expression of the talker. In other words, smile when they smile, show gravity when they are serious, etc.
- Occasionally use a vocal sound, such as a “uh-huh,” to show that you understand.
- Nod your head slightly and subtly.
- Reflect back what you have heard using such phrases as, “So what you’re saying is…” or “It sounds like you would like to…” Paraphrase what the other person just said.
Those are simple but powerful rules. The bottom line is this: If you are truly listening to what someone is saying and not off in your own head solving the next problem, thinking about your next vacation, feeling insecure in the face of power, or having other distractions keep you from paying attention, then all the skill in the world will not produce the results you want. So the biggest rule of all when it comes to listening is this: Listen to others the way you would want them to listen to you—no more, no less. Try it. The results will amaze you.
Psst…hey you…yeah, you…do you want to know a secret about someone many people consider one of our country’s greatest public speakers? Okay, here goes…even though he was very eloquent and his words changed history, he often felt pangs of nervousness and anxiety when he stood up to speak. In fact, when he first began speaking, his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.” But as he warmed up and calmed down his voice became, “harmonious, melodious-musical.” Wondering who this could be? Well, it’s none other than…Abe Lincoln.
As a speech coach, I’m not surprised by this. I’ve learned over the years that even great speakers can sometimes crumble under the pressure of public speaking. And when they do, they call on professionals like me to help them sooth their nerves and provide skills, tools, and tips to give them the strength they need to garner their personal resources and speak with power and passion.
What did Abe do? Well, watch this rare, never-before seen video to find out.
All I can say is...I’m glad that in a past life I was there to help.
Happy Birthday, Abe!
“Eyebrows up!” I say this to my clients every day. “Don’t be a poker face, raise your eyebrows, and smile!” When speaking to a group, displaying a flat face is like playing a zombie in one of those Halloween movies—you come across as lifeless and boring, just like the living dead. Keeping a poker face when you speak shows little interest in your topic or your audience. That’s why it’s important to raise those eyebrows!
Research tells us that there is power in your eyebrows. When used naturally and in synch with your message, raising your eyebrows shows your curiosity, enthusiasm, and awe. Raising your eyebrows creates excitement, even a sense of joy—it shows you are interested and interesting. It’s one skill that will capture attention and radiate confidence.
I take this whole eyebrow thing very seriously, so much so that the swoosh over the DeFinis logo is…you guessed it…a raised eyebrow!
So you can understand my dismay at what I’m seeing today—an entire generation of people who can’t raise their eyebrows because they’ve had Botox injections! Sure, they no longer have wicked witch style wrinkles, but now they’re left with a face that’s ghostlike, immobile, and for an audience, flat-out scary.
I know that the purpose of Botox is to make you look younger. The chemicals relax the facial muscles and reduce fine lines and wrinkles, especially the deep crevices in the forehead and above the bridge of the nose. But Botox also impedes your ability to raise your eyebrows, because the very muscles that create the wrinkles are the ones you need to move that part of your face.
And this is a huge limitation for the public speaker. Yes, you may look younger and your skin may be smooth and ageless, but you can no longer express a range of emotions, including your natural curiosity and awe. Without this ability, you lose one skill that can help you connect with others and come alive in front of a group.
Mind you, I’m making no judgment here on those who have had Botox treatments. But as a speech coach, it’s downright creepy to think that so many people can’t use a variety of facial expressions that engage audiences.
In any event, I guess I’ll have to get used to it and adapt, because I’m sure Botox is here to stay. Dr. Frankenstein would certainly approve!