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Zombie Presentations: How Not to Speak like The Living Dead

Halloween is almost upon us, and audiences everywhere are about to be scared out of their wits by a crop of poor presentations.

Well, maybe not actually scared. And come to think of it, mediocre presentation skills don't have anything to do with the season of witches, goblins, and the rotting dead. It's too easy to stumble through an important pitch or talk by being oblivious to what constitutes dynamic and persuasive delivery skills, whatever time of year you're speaking in.

So in the spirit (oops) of rejuvenated public speaking, here's my take on how to stop being a zombie and present with style and influence!

If you're not as lively yet as you'd like to be and find yourself facing mobs of zombie-hunters, or resistant audience members, whichever comes first, download my free cheat sheet, "7 Tips for Overcoming Audience Resistance." Survive to speak another day!

How to Avoid Being a Zombie when You Speak

Zombies. You gotta love 'em.

Like me, you may be a huge fan of The Walking Dead. Or perhaps you laughed and screamed your way through Shaun of the Dead, or thrilled to the amusement park scene in Zombieland. From Abraham Lincoln vs. The Zombies to Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!, we can all appreciate good zombie fare (though probably not at dinnertime). And boy, are these lovable stiff-walkers popular: Wikipedia lists 660 zombie films![1]

Zombie business presentations, however, are another matter. If you find yourself thinking that one of the undead is delivering the speech or presentation you're listening to, it's because a few basic rules are being ignored. To keep from finding yourself in such a horror-inducing situation when you're the one behind the lectern, follow the 5 tips below.

1. Speak to other living things. Let's face it: zombies don't relate well to the still living. And they'll do anything to avoid talking to them. In a zombie's universe, inanimate objects are much safer sources of their attention while they're speaking (unless they haven't chewed on an arm or a leg for four hours or more). Manuscripts, note cards, PowerPoint screens, their shoes, the ceiling, and even the back wall are popular destinations for a zombie's gaze. So avoid the Undead Stare and look at your listeners with strong eye contact, making a connection as you discuss the things you share an interest in. Your talk will come to life! (If it wasn't there already.)

2. Reanimate your voice. If your voice sounds like it barely made it back from the grave, it's time to consider some speech improvement. A lively and engaging voice depends upon five key tools: 1) energy and emphasis, 2) pitch inflection, 3) varied pace or rate, 4) pauses and silence, and 5) vocal quality. Dynamic speakers use all five of these tools; zombies, vampires, and other varieties of the-no-longer-living simply don't. Try engaging a werewolf in lively Q & A following his or her presentation and you'll immediately see what I mean. For more, here are the 5 essential speaking techniques for leadership.

3. Shock your heart back to life. You may not realize this during a heart-stopping scene of zombies chasing your movie hero, but your heart doesn't actually stop. A zombie's heart, however, has. Which means they are absolutely lousy at using emotion to move an audience. Not only persuasive speaking, but informative speaking and every other type contains an emotional component. You have to reach your audience's hearts and minds. So it's helpful to ask yourself if there's an emotional element to the speaking situation. And consciously use emotional language to engender the response you're looking for. Believe me, if your audience doesn't see something beating in your chest, they may start chasing you through the streets.

4. Don't Move like a Corpse. Did you know that the theory of embodied cognition states that movement itself helps you think? No wonder zombies stink at conveying their messages—they move like blocks of wood with legs! Added to this is the fact that an audience needs visual variety during a speech. Body language (and here I mean movement from live bodies, not dead ones) can also help audiences engage with you and retain your key points if you move to different parts of the stage. Using appropriate movement and gestures is an exciting area of public speaking effectiveness. Learn to do so now, while you're still breathing. To help, here are the 5 key body language techniques of public speaking.

5. Talk. Don't. Grunt. You know what this sounds like: the speaker peppers his or her speech with "uh," "um," "you know," and "uuuuuuh . . . need blood!" These are called vocalized pauses or vocal fillers. Zombies make these sounds because their mouths are filled with dirt, worms, and sometimes chipped teeth if they've chewed their way through a tombstone. But you're probably not in that situation when you speak, right? If you find yourself using vocal fillers too frequently, practice with a tape recorder or smartphone. Don't videotape yourself because you'll be seduced by the visual. If all you have to pay attention to is your voice, you'll gradually improve in eliminating these utterances which are nothing but, well, dead air.


Key takeaways from this blog:

  • To speak with style and influence, stop acting like a zombie.
  • Zombies hate eye contact with living things, but you should relish it.
  • Learn vocal dynamics to be interesting and avoid sounding dead.
  • Shock your heart back to life if you don't already use emotional language.
  • Neither vocalized pauses or a mouth full of dirt are pleasant for your listeners.

This blog was originally published in 2013.  It is revived, refreshed, and reanimated regularly.

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Gary Genard posted on Oct 27th, 2015
Thanks so much for those kind words. I'm pleased to hear you found this piece interesting. Here's hoping you avoid the zombies and get to your next speaking gig safely!

Anonymous posted on Oct 27th, 2015
Gary, you are a master! I absolutely loved #3 about revealing your heart by including an emotional component in presentations. Your tip about using your cell phone to record the audible component of a presentation was brilliant. I still cringe when I hear traces of my New Orleans accent, and need to continuously work on how I pronounce certain words. Thanks again for tips and reminders on how to bring a presentation to life!