Whether you’re speaking to a large group at a conference, pitching investors in a boardroom, or conducting an online webinar with customers, you need to be sure your presentation skills are sharp and on point.
Too many people make the mistake of thinking it’s better to fly by the seat of their Power Point presentation when instead, like most everything else in life, practice makes perfect.
I’m likely not alone when I say I have seen A LOT of speakers. I often think about the missed opportunity of these speakers to really make a mark on the audience - to establish themselves as an expert, as a thought leader, to get people excited, or to influence them to do something.
The most disappointing speaker of my life was at my university graduation. Pretty big day, right? Pretty big let down.
Given by an accomplished architect, I expected the speech to be inspirational. I thought it would be filled with advice to ramp us up for our brave new lives. “Get out there! You can do it! Change the world!”
Something like this:
Instead, she droned on in a monotone voice about the importance of architecture. My school didn’t even offer that program. She never once related the content of her speech to us, to our situation, to our challenges, or to our aspirations.
The speech was a total buzzkill to what is supposed to be one of those exciting milestones in your life.
To save yourself from being lumped in the same speaker hall of shame, here are some tips on how to be a speaker worth talking about.
1. Know your audience
Not only have I seen a lot of speakers, I’ve also hired them and I’m often surprised how many don’t really do any prior research on the group they’ll be addressing. They just pull out their canned slides and let’er rip.
To be a good speaker, you need to know the audience's knowledge level of your topic so you can be sure you’re not talking over their heads and they miss your point, or they feel insulted because you’re talking down to them.
Is it a local audience or international? Will they get your references and jokes?
Just like preparing a proposal, find out what the audience needs and wants to know from you, not just what you want to tell them. You don’t have to necessarily change your whole topic but customizing it a bit to connect with your audience will make them more interested in you, and more engaged with your topic.
They’ll walk away feeling like they got value from your talk, making you more memorable, quotable, and referrable.
2. Structure your topic
Regardless of what you’re speaking about, your presentation should follow a very basic structure:
- Intro: Explain what you’re going to talk about, why it matters, and why you’re qualified to talk about it (but keep this latter part brief)
- Middle: This is the meat of your topic - what you said you were going to talk about.
- End: Summarize what you talked about it so it’s easy for the audience to remember and the takeaways are fresh in their minds.
Pretty simple, right?
3. Keep things brief and to the point.
Use the same principles for good writing as you do for public speaking:
- Don’t use jargon (unless you’re positive everyone in the audience knows what you’re talking about)
- Keep sentences short.
- Keep sentences simple.
- Use the active voice, not passive.
4. Decide on your goals
Start by thinking about three-ish things you want the audience to take away from your presentation and work backwards from there to fill in the information to achieve that.
What is it you want the audience to get out of it?
- Do you want them think about something differently?
- Do you want them to feel like a problem is solved?
- Do you want them to act?
- Do you want them to spread the word?
Thinking this way will help you structure your topic and ensures your audience is going to feel like they got value from listening to you speak. Which is the the reward everyone wants for paying money, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, and drinking lukewarm coffee.
5. Write a blog post first
When I’m preparing for a presentation, I find it helpful to first get everything down I think I want to say, without editing. I basically write a blog post on the topic. Then I go back and trim, trim, trim to get it into a presentation-friendly format. It’s much easier to make things consise that way while being sure you’ve covered all your bases.
Our CEO, Kyle, used this process recently when he wrote and published a blog post about not giving up on your business and then presented the same topic at an event for our local startup community.>
I asked Kyle about his process and he shared his steps:
- Write the blog post.
- Expand the blog post into a 20 min speech, word for word. I used http://www.speechinminutes.com/ to decide how many words to write the speech.
- Once I had my 3,000 word speech written, I read it out loud twice.
- Then I chopped the speech, turning each main paragraph or heading into a short bullet point.
- I practiced out loud again using just the bullet points to reference.'
- Then I practiced again without the bullet points in front of me.
That's how I gave the talk without referencing any notes other than the slide deck being my visual queue.
I always write out my intro and memorize it word for word, then the rest is ad-libbed with a basic structure. This way you feel more confident and precise when you go up and it loosens you up to deliver the rest.
6. Use images, not words
I beg of you, do not fill your slides with text or you will burn in bad speaker hell.
You know the slides I’m talking about, with text so small no one can read, text no one will remember, and text that will distract the audience instead of listening to you talk.
Images are a much better way to illustrate your points. They can be humorous, they can be graphs, they can be infographics, but whatever they are make sure they are interesting, appropriate, high quality, and properly laid out.
You can use text on your slides but use them sparingly, like one impactful line or word per slide that drives your point home.
7. Don’t memorize or read your presentation
If you read your presentation straight from your notes, you’re going to sound boring, robotic, and like you don’t know your topic well enough to speak to it directly. It is almost impossible to read notes out loud with any sort of natural tone that doesn’t sound like you’re reading. You’ll lose your audience’s attention and respect quickly.
Memorize your concepts, not your content. That way you’ll sound more natural and it’s easier to recover if you go blank or stumble over a word.
The fancy term for this is "extemporaneous delivery". Watch Jeff Goldblum's acting as an example. He knows the lines, but delivers them like he's making it up as he goes along. Even with a few ums and ah's it sounds more natural.
Memorizing the concept as opposed to the content will also allow you to be more flexible for last minute changes, whether they happen before the presentation, or while you’re on stage.
Create bullet points to remind you of the general things you want to say and you can have those handy to refer to as you go along as a reminder.
8. Tell a story
We all know how powerful storytelling is as a communication tool so using stories to illustrate your presentation topic is an excellent way to connect with your audience. But don’t make them up; be sure to tell true stories, stories about yourself, about your own experience.
Personally, I love hearing stories about how someone screwed up, or times were tough, or they failed, and then how they turned things around or learned the right way to do it. It lends credibility that this person has been in the trenches and it makes them more relatable.
9. Be careful with humour
On one hand I want to say definitively to use humour in your presentation. It loosens up the audience, it loosens you up, it fosters a feeling of unity, and it can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of your presentation go down.
BUT, BUT, BUT. Be careful with humour. You might not be that funny. Seriously. So run your jokes/funny comments by someone objective who will tell you the truth. And if they don’t like what you're saying, don’t get mad, thank them. They could be saving your dignity and your reputation.
It’s also more natural if you joke off the cuff and in the moment. It’ll seem less rehearsed and you might find opportunities to connect more personally with the audience.
I hope it goes without saying to not tell racist, religious, or sexist jokes, and it’s probably safe to stay away from politics as well. You might wonder what’s left to joke about. The best person to make fun of? You.
10. Watch Your Body Language
Although it doesn’t really bother me to speak to groups of people and I’ve done it many times, I still get a little nervous at the very last minute. And sometimes my body betrays my nervousness with shaking hands or legs when I first get on stage.
Often I don’t realize I’m nervous and then I’ll notice my fingers are shaking a bit. The problem is once I see that my body is nervous, it makes me MORE nervous.
What I find helps is to move around the stage and to keep my hands moving with small gestures. Since this phase usually only lasts for the first few minutes, I try to work it out right away so it doesn’t distract me any further.
If I’m using notes or my laptop to control slides, I’ll sometimes use the podium as a prop to steady myself. But don't grip the podium like you're Ishmael holding on for dear life at the end of Moby Dick.
People do it because it makes them feel safer, but to the audience it looks weird and unnatural.
Use the podium sparingly and get out on the stage to connect with the audience.
- Stand up straight.
- Make eye contact.
- Move around.
P.S. Make sure your fly is zipped up.
11. Slow Down
Like a lot of people, I tend to talk quickly when I’m nervous. When you’re giving a presentation, slooooooow doooooown. This will help you be understood, to remember what you want to say, and to sound more natural. Plus if you talk too fast, you’re going to get short on breath and you don’t want to pass out.
It’s ok to take pauses between sentences, it can create a more dramatic effect and it allows people to process what you’ve just said.
I read some interesting advice for aspiring speakers to watch stand-up comedians. They’re the masters of timing and working the stage space.
12. Wear the mic
It doesn’t matter how loud you think your voice is (and trust me, I’m loud), don’t refuse the microphone, and make sure you’re speaking into it properly. I can guarantee you more than one person won’t be able to hear, they’re going to get annoyed, and they’re going to miss hearing all the brilliant things you have to say if you’re not miked.
Plus a mic lets you speak more naturally so you won’t get distracted trying to project your voice when you should be focused on projecting your ideas.
13. Show up early
Make sure you arrive to your venue early so that you can check that all the tech stuff is working, your slides flow, test the mic, and eyeball the stage layout.
It’ll give you a chance to meet a few people beforehand or sit in on other sessions so you get a better sense of the tone and personality of the event.
Showing up a bit early will also allow you to collect your thoughts, take some deep breaths and really prepare yourself mentally instead of rushing on stage in a fluster that will carry through your whole presentation.
And practice, and practice some more. Get someone to film your presentations then watch them to see how you can improve, and then practice again.
The more often you do this, the more natural you’re going to feel which in turn will bring more opportunities to be authentic, connecting more significantly with your audience.
15. One last piece of advice: DO NOT SELL
A few years ago I paid big money out of my own pocket to go to a one-day marketing seminar that promised lots of interesting speakers.
I was especially looking forward to hearing what digital marketing rock star, Mitch Joel had to say. Turns out Mitch’s wife went into labour that day so they subbed in a guy from Microsoft. I was disappointed but you can’t really fault a guy who wants to be at the birth of his child.
My disappointment turned to anger when this Microsoft guy used his entire speech to promo the yet-to-be-released Microsoft tablet. So basically I paid big money to listen to a lame infomercial.
Instead of selling a ‘thing’, use your speech to sell your expertise, your ideas, and your vision. Structure your speech so that people benefit from what you’re saying.
If they feel they got value from what you said, then that’s all the selling you need to do.
Speaking opportunities are a valuable way to development new business. You get exposed to new audiences (read: potential customers), you get to demonstrate your expertise, and you get to talk about something you’re passionate about.
With practice and attention anyone can be a good speaker. The trick is to think of it like you would a proposal or pitch: focus on the audience, solve their problem, do it concisely, and be memorable.