Last year, I gave a presentation on brand storytelling at StartUp Week. About two minutes before I was introduced, I realized my notes were sitting back at the office on my desk, alone and deserted. Thankfully, I had practiced and made it through without them, although I did miss them. So, in addition to “check your laptop bag for your notes,” here are six practical tips for a successful public speaking engagement.
1. Cut Your PowerPoint in Half
Like a billboard, each slide should have no more than 10 words. Ask yourself, can I give the presentation without this slide? Does it enhance my presentation and make it memorable? If the answers are no or maybe, then ditch the slide. More importantly, will your audience miss your spoken words because they are struggling to read your slide or understand your complex graph? If so, simplify or delete the slide. If you’re thinking, “No, I need those slides!,” then you might want to consider skipping the slide deck altogether. All too quickly, the screen becomes a crutch. Learning to present without one will help you focus more heavily on your message. If you need help simplifying, consider using Prezi or Keynote for more engaging content, but remember, less is more when it comes to these tools. Your presentation should enhance, not overshadow, your presentation.
Still not convinced? A 2010 study at Princeton University looked at brainwaves and demonstrated that slide presentations interrupt the connection between speaker and audience. [i]
2. Be Authentic in Your Style
When was the last time you told a joke? If the answer is, “Um, I don’t know,” then you probably shouldn’t start your speech with one. Think of an honest story, quote or personal confession that can help your audience relate to you, and skip those awkward, contrived moments that people love to stick into their presentations. If you don’t usually have a loud, boisterous attitude, now isn’t the time to try it.
Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business Schools and author of Presence, makes this point and encourages speakers to be 100 percent authentic. “There’s not one style that works for everyone…you really have to find what feels genuine and channel that when you’re speaking. You can’t pretend to be an extrovert if you’re an introvert…it’s about intimacy and not intimidation.” [ii]
3. Limit Yourself to 3 Main Points
This tip comes from professional speechwriter, communications pro and my boss, Tom Griscom. As he explains it, you can’t expect your audience to remember everything you say. By using three concise, repeatable messages, your audience should leave with a better understanding of your topic and be able to make your basic argument. Having less than three points leaves you without enough variants to discuss, and using more than three leaves your audience overwhelmed. There is good documentation for why the human brain organizes things into sets of three, so put that information to work for yourself in your presentation. Remember to circle back over your three points at the end of your talk. If this rule applied to blogs we'd already be done!
4. Embrace a Bit of Silence
I always give this advice during media training, but it applies here as well. Don’t fill every bit of silence. In public speaking, take a deep breath, and allow the silence to fill the room while you’re collecting your thoughts or finding the right place in your notes. Even better, purposefully build silence into your presentation, and use it to your benefit. Ask a question or read a contentious quotation. Then let the audience digest this while you get to take a quick look at those notes you’re trying not to stare at the whole time. Don’t rush forward just because it’s quiet. It’s better to stay on your message and be prepared to start speaking.
5. Video Yourself – Or Not
If you are working toward being a paid public speaker or have an on-camera engagement, then by all means, make your significant other film you while you practice. Then, review yourself for all those pesky things like verbal tics, hand position, eye contact, slouching, etc. If you are like most of us and speak a couple of times a year, though, this is not the solution for you. If you’re nervous thinking about the 18 things you shouldn’t do while up front, you will only make yourself more stressed. You can’t give a compelling talk while thinking, “am I gripping the podium? How many times have I said “actually” in this talk? Have I made eye contact with someone in the audience every two minutes?” Instead, pick one thing to improve. If you know you get stuck behind the podium, determine to walk across the stage at least twice. If you know you stare at your notes, put a sticky note at the top that says, “look at the audience.”
6. Practice Out Loud
For a successful practice session, you should time yourself, use the notes you plan to have on stage, practice out loud and con your friend/co-worker/spouse/intern into playing the part of your audience. This is certainly the best practice. But I must confess, I don’t do this, and you probably won’t either. I practice while walking my dog. Why does this work? It helps me get really comfortable speaking without notes. It also inherently has interruptions when we pass another dog or when crossing the street or when am trying to get Leeloo to drop some baby toy she’s found at the park (See photo. Yes, she steals from babies). Then, during an actual presentation, it’s not a problem if someone asks an unexpected question or the screen goes off and I have to stop and fix it. These things happen. Practice until you can give your presentation like you’re telling a favorite story.
Have you successfully improved your public speaking? Share your own tricks and tips in the comments! Do you have a presentation but need an expert to write your speech? Call us!
[i] “Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/32/14425.full?sid=08564275-c47f-4973-880a-f9d30bef9453
[ii] “A Harvard Social Psychologist Explains the Key to Mastering Public Speaking.” Inc. Video, July 6, 2016. https://www.inc.com/amy-cuddy/the-key-to-mastering-public-speaking.html