Public Speaking Success is Intentional

As my colleagues and I work with leaders at all levels in organizations today, it is clear that leaders are called upon to articulate their ideas in formal presentations as part of their normal  responsibilities more than ever before. Whether that means presenting a client proposal, introducing a new initiative, guiding their department or project team, training their staff or influencing an audience of professional colleagues or community constituents, leaders speak to audiences regularly. Many of them, including me, weren’t born with a particularly natural eloquence and public speaking can be incredibly upsetting to even the most sophisticated subject matter expert!

Much of the success of my best presentations has come from a good deal of upfront work or preparation–what I do long before standing in front of any audience.  Here are 15 of my best tips to help you improve that critical leadership skill called public speaking.

1. Prioritize the key messages of your presentation. Don’t try to cover everything about your topic. Your presentations will be full of useful, inspirational, actionable content so incorporating handouts, slides and stories to condense a complex topic into a succinct, memorable presentation will serve you best. And always, always, be sure to end with a specific Call to Action for the group. Your unique Call to Action is what you want your audience to do differently because of what you’ve presented. That may be different for each audience and indeed; may be the toughest part of your presentation!

2. Design activities and time into your presentation to facilitate discussion rather than lecture to your team, your staff, and your audience. Participants often surprise us with energy, excitement, questions we hadn’t considered,  We may even be met with even silence which will require you to be flexible with your prepared remarks. Allowing time on your agenda for interaction is critical to connecting with your group and ensuring they take the actions you’re Calling them to.

3. Practice. Even if you’ve presented the same content before, practice again anticipating the specific needs of each audience and the areas where they may ask questions or need more clarification of your key messages. You may even want to do a dry run in the location you’ll be delivering your talk. Consider a practice run with a friend or colleague, or try recording-even videotaping your presentation and playing it back to evaluate which areas need work. Rehearse an opening that you think will “hook” your audience immediately. Feedback from a trusted colleague may suggest you try something else.

4. Observe and Participate in other presentations. Particularly if you are part of a conference or larger program, attend earlier talks by other presenters. Consider the emotions of their crowds. Are attendees laughing or very serious? Are the presentations more strategic or tactical in nature? Use the conference theme and comments of any keynote speakers in your presentation to transition well into your topic while meeting the specific needs of conference attendees. I’ve learned so much about what I want to do and what I want to avoid doing in presentations—simply by observing others present to their audiences.

5. Arrive Early. It’s always best to allow yourself plenty of time to settle in before you are expected to speak. Use the time to rearrange tables and chairs as needed, locate poster paper and markers or other props, set up tables with writing paper and pens or post it notes, snacks and other items to make your listeners comfortable. You may want to get yourself a bottle of water. Arriving early will also allow you to calm yourself and prepare for any resistance you may encounter.

6. Adjust to your surroundings.  The more adjusted to your environment you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel. Make sure to spend some time in the room where you will be delivering your presentation. If possible, practice with the microphone and lighting; adjust technology and media as needed and set up handouts or other props in the order you’ll need them. Be aware of any distractions potentially posed by the venue including noise outside room, open windows, loud fans, placement of food or drink, etc. If possible, observe another presenter from the rear of the same room watching for audience reactions—perhaps they are having difficulty hearing or seeing slides or other props. Check to see that they are seated comfortably with opportunities to interact. When you present, you’ll have the opportunity to address any issues directly.

7. Greet folks as they arrive. Introduce yourself to others before your presentation asking about their interests, connections to others in the group, questions and particular issues with the content you’ll be addressing. You’ll learn a lot about their needs while beginning to establish the comfortable environment adults appreciate in meetings and presentations. They may provide inspiration and relevant experience or stories that you can incorporate into your own comments lending to the customization of your talk.

8. Transform nervous energy into excitement! When time allows, I take 5 minutes in silence or with soft music to calm my jitters before a talk. Many of my public speaking workshop participants, however, speak of the need for an energy drink, caffeine or loud music blasting on their IPod before they speak. They say this pumps them up and helps turn their jitters into energy for their presentation. Whatever works for you is the right warm up routine but be flexible. Often, the five minutes you have are more valuable when you can greet early arrivals.

9. Smile. Smiling increases endorphins, replacing anxiety with calm, allowing you to feel good about yourself, the connection you’re making with your participants and your presentation. Smiling also exhibits confidence and enthusiasm to others even if you’re in a virtual environment like webinar or conference call where people can’t see you.

10. Use pauses strategically. When you’re nervous, it’s easy to speed up your speech, fill in blanks that should be left blank, (that’s a whole other BLOG post), and end up talking too fast. Then, you’ll run out of breath, stumble, get more nervous, and even panic! Slow down and use pauses in your speech. Pausing can be used to emphasize certain points and to help your talk feel more conversational. If you feel yourself losing control of your pacing, just take a nice pause, perhaps pose a question to the group or to small groups of two to three allowing them a few minutes to talk with each other. You’ll be able to refocus, slow down intentionally, keep your cool and learn something new from the discussion in the room.

11. Engage, reengage and then engage the audience some more.  Adults, unlike kids, come to our public speaking events and presentations with their own values, experiences and expertise. They also love to share their opinions, experience and challenges.  Asking the audience what they think, inviting questions, and other means of welcoming audience participation  boosts engagement and allows attendees to feel they are a valuabe part of the conversation. Consider opening with a poll or survey. Sprinkling these often throughout virtual conversations, too to continue validating the audience’s input. Don’t be afraid of unanticipated questions. You may have to pause, ask for others’ opinions while you consider your own response or admit that you don’t have a response but always consider these opportunities to learn from your group by providing what is important to them.

12. Admit you don’t have all the answers. Very few public speakers are willing to concede that they don’t actually know everything about their topic. Perhaps they feel it undermines their authority or makes them look weak. The reality is with adult audiences, there often IS someone who knows more about our topic then we do! And even when we are experts on the content we are presenting, our listeners are experts on what and how they will ACT on what we are presenting.  Truly the experts ARE in the room! Our job as presenters includes mining the gold of the group—engaging them to present and share with everyone else.

13. Drink plenty of water. Prevent dry mouths by staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water before you appear before your group. Keep a bottle of water at arm’s reach while presenting in case you get dry mouth while chatting up a storm. If you need lots of water, consider who is doing all the talking! You may need to refocus your engagement techniques.

14. Work with a coach.  Public speaking is a leadership skill that is developed over time and experience. Meeting the unique needs of an adult listener who you want to influence takes creative design, development and delivery.  Learn tips and techniques from others so you don’t repeat their mistakes.  Choose someone who can demonstrate how to engage their audience, keep them motivated and end with a specific Call to Action. 

15. Remember Always: Listeners Want Us To Succeed.  A consistent theme I hear from my public speaking workshop participants is the fear that audiences are secretly waiting to catch an error or mistake. That has not been my experience. Audiences want to laugh, to get answers to their needs, feel valued for their knowledge and skill and even contribute to our success. They want to know what we are suggesting they do given the content we are presenting. I truly believe our clients, colleagues, teams and audiences want us to nail it!