I’ve been a professional speaker for 25 years and a speaking mentor and coach to colleagues for nearly 20 years. There is a magic in truly connecting with an audience that makes it more addictive than even the most powerful drug.
But there’s also an art to it that takes time to learn and perfect. I’ve become a relentless student of every nuance, gesture, visual, and the choreography that goes into a great speech. You have to if you’re going to do well, much less master it. I look at it this way:
“If you have 500 people in an audience for a one-hour keynote then they have invested 500 person hours to listen to you. How much time have you spent earning that investment?”
Which is why I cringe at some of the lame speaking advice that I’ve come across over the years. Unfortunately so much of this advice is just accepted as gospel, and yet it trivializes what is involved in delivering a great presentation—and it undermines the experience for you and for your audience.
1. Imagine the Audience in Their Underwear
So let’s get one thing straight from the outset: It’s not the audience that’s in their underwear, it’s you. Until you accept yourself—flaws, quirks, and all—you will not be comfortable and authentic on stage. This is the hardest lesson for anyone to learn. We all want to transform ourselves into someone else when we get up on stage. You can’t. Audiences can sniff out a lack of authenticity like a bloodhound sniffs out a fox.
Be comfortable with who you are, be self-effacing, acknowledge your flaws—it’s amazing how you will win your audience over.
2. Start With a Joke
Laughing is a wonderful way to endear yourself to an audience, but please don’t start with, “Have you heard the one about...” If stand-up comedy is your thing then go for it.
But, if you’re like most people, the funniest things you can talk about are those experiences that you’ve lived through. Tell a story about yourself, your experiences, your kids, grandkids, or your life. Presenting is all about storytelling. Keep it real!
3. Introduce Yourself
This one has become almost universally accepted as the way to start a presentation. And yet it is one of the best ways to kill a presentation before it even starts. Here’s the thing: If they already know you, there is no need for an intro, if they don’t know you then they don’t really care who you are; they care about what you have to say.
Don’t announce yourself; announce your intentions. “I’m here today to...” Dive right into the deep end. Say it well and they will remember you.
4. Limit Slides to No More Than Seven Bullet Points
This is one of those pieces of advice that was rooted in science. The original intent was to keep messaging (for an entire presentation) down to no more than seven major points—that’s what we can absorb easily, like a phone number. The intent was not to use 30 slides with three to seven bullet points each! Oh, and while we’re at it, if you want to lull your audience to the precipice of REM sleep, then by all means use a PowerPoint template. Seeing the same pattern, background, and images over and over for 30 to 60 minutes is the best way to make them snow blind to the message.
I’ve got a better idea; don’t use any bullets. Your audience is there to see and hear you, not to read your slides. Think of slides as back-up singers who are just there to provide harmony. You should always be the lead singer. Use bold images, change up the backgrounds, keep them guessing and engaged. You are the story, the rest is just scenery.
5. Use Index Cards, Your Smartphone, Your Tablet, or a Teleprompter for Notes
I know how hard it is to believe this, but you do not need notes. Many people I’ve coached used to freeze when they went up on stage without notes. But unless you’ve been trained to use any of these devices professionally you will come off looking like an automaton.
Here’s a better idea. Use the images in your slides to queue your thinking and then just talk about the ideas you’re trying to convey. The blunt truth is that if you do not have your key points and the story line for each one memorized, and can weave them into a story, you will come off as being unprepared.
6. Don’t Overemote
I make a $100 bet with each of my speaking clients that they cannot overemote in front of a live audience. In 20 years I haven’t once lost the bet. (It’s all recorded so that they can see the truth afterwards.) The reason is that we all have an instinctive reaction to tone ourselves down when we are in front of an audience. It’s a survival mechanism that is intended to give us the chance to size up a situation when we are outnumbered. That works when you have the time and the luxury to do it. You don’t have that luxury in front of an audience.
You need to be who you are and amplify your personality. Putting yourself out there shows that you are vulnerable, yet comfortable and confident in yourself and your message. People respond to that!
7. Thank Everyone for “Their Attention”
OK, this one is just plain lazy. “Thank you for your attention.” Is that really how you want to end your presentation; with a whimper not a bang? Why not just say, “Gee, thanks for not leaving the room.”
Instead, end your presentation by coming full circle to where you started. Close the loop on your opening story. Punctuate your point with a pithy final line. It’s fine to say “thank you” at the end (drop the “for your attention” part), but leave it until after you get that rousing round of applause.
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