As fall approaches and the pace of business is about to accelerate, it may be time to consider your upcoming presentations. Will they have maximum impact? Will they be memorable? When you deliver them, will you consistently find ways to engage, interest, and activate your audiences?
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In the spirit of raising your speeches, updates, sales pitches, board presentations and keynotes from the mundane to the memorable, here are 7 “secrets” you need to know. Use them to create the influence you’re seeking. They may be just what you’re looking for to beat the internal and external competition!
1. Communicating Your Ideas Trumps Your Speaking Skills. If this sounds like heresy from a speech coach, rest assured that I’m still talking about performance. Like most areas of 21st-century American culture, the world of public speaking and presentations contains too high a ratio of glitter to true gold. You only have to consider the motivational speaker industry to understand how aiming for effect can obliterate truth. Your message is your raison d'être for speaking—and your audience is your North Star. Say things simply and honestly, and you will get through the noise.
2. Emotions and Visuals Make You Memorable. In his book, Talk like TED, Carmine Gallo advocates presentations that are visually interesting and that tap into emotions. He reminds us that speeches should be entertaining, and that “an emotionally charged event, a heightened state of emotion . . . makes it more likely your audience will remember your message and act on it.” The more you want to persuade, the more necessary it is to engage your audience emotionally. That means going beyond data, bullet points, and graphs to speak to the needs and aspirations of listeners. Your language, vocal skills, and visuals are essential tools to help you achieve this, along with the next item.
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3. The Heart of Your Presentation is a Story. Your best technique of all for establishing an emotional connection is storytelling. Remember, first, that your entire presentation is a story—“The story of . . .” whatever you’re there to discuss. But you also need actual stories. Stories help you go beyond raw data as content to reach motivations. Here's how to tell great stories as a speaker. Do you know Steve Jobs’s famous 2006 commencement speech at Stanford, known as “Live Before You Die”? He began by saying, “Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life.” That’s what he proceeded to do, with all the power his personal story embodied. And that’s the story I’m relating to make this point.
4. Spoken Words Exist for the Ear not the Eye (or the Left Brain). There’s a trap awaiting all of us who speak in public, and our schools point us straight toward it. That’s because we’re taught reading and writing—and more reading and writing—to the exclusion of oral communication. You may argue that that teaches us to think; but it certainly doesn’t teach us to speak. When we prepare presentations, we live in that literary world, forgetting that a presentation exists in an oral arena. There, the sound and delivery of words matters greatly. So I suggest this simple formula: Think – Speak – Write. Conceive your ideas, but then speak them aloud. If they sound right and true to your purpose, only then make them your finished product.
5. You Need to Play Language like an Instrument. Let’s stay with spoken language for a moment. The true beauty—and effectiveness—of our language only emerges when we mine its possibilities. The richness of speeches resides partly in the tools of rhetoric: the use of metaphors, similes and comparisons, and talks that are concise and therefore have impact. A speech like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” makes all of this obvious, as does the rhetoric that Lincoln and John F. Kennedy employed in their presidencies. To understand just how powerful English can be, read the books by two great teachers of Shakespeare’s language, Cicely Berry and John Barton. And find the many speakers (many prior to our era) who weren’t afraid to play the instrument of language.
6. Your Preparation Should Concern Your Audience More than Your Content. Here’s the story of a client who came to me for accent reduction and ended up learning a far more important lesson. An IT professional, he would squirrel himself away just before speaking to his team, laboring to memorize his content. He worried constantly that he wasn’t engaging them—and can you see why? I shared with him this suggestion: that just before his presentations, he should remind himself who his listeners were and what he was trying to achieve with them. (Need a better understanding of who those listeners are? Here’s how to perform an audience analysis.) Your content will take care of itself provided you’ve prepared sufficiently. Stuffing your mind with more of it just before you speak is a recipe for not connecting with listeners.
7. You’re There to Perform. If an actor-turned-speech-coach ends on this note, I know you’ll forgive me! A presentation is a performance. No matter how data-driven you believe your talks are, the fact that an audience is gathered to hear you should—must—take your presentation to another level. You should also be aware of what not to do. Watch out, for instance, for the 6 worst body language mistakes of public speaking. Think of three components of effective delivery: your energy level, body language, and the entertainment factor. When the curtain rises, your audience deserves more than you reading PowerPoint slides. In fact, at that moment there is no difference between your presentation and a theatrical performance. Of course there’s a huge gap between an ordinary presentation and a blockbuster performance. Keeping the final word of that last sentence in mind will bring you a giant step closer to that goal.
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 Carmine Gallo, Talk like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014), 136-137.