More presentations and speeches have been ruined by fear than by any other factor. In a sense, it is ironic because no audience wants a speaker to fail. On the contrary, people are voluntarily giving their time and, often, their money because they are interested in the speaker, the topic, or both. You would think that knowing a supportive crowd awaits would lift a speaker’s confidence more than shake it.
I am not going to lecture you on overcoming fear; there are reams of articles for that. What I do want to offer is a short list of ideas to keep you on track and, if all goes well, to help your audience be engaged in the presentation:
1) Think like a salesman: in a sense, you have already done this by virtue of the fact that people will show up to listen. It could be the audience is a captive one – an internal meeting, a presentation that audience members were told to attend, etc. Still, it is your job to make their time worthwhile, to provide information that is credible and convincing, and the first sale is to yourself. If you do not see you as the subject matter expert, this will end badly.
2) The lectern is your friend: that thing you stand behind is not a podium, it is a lectern. The podium is on the floor. That aside, the lectern provides a place for your notes or to rest your hands. Do not molest it by which I mean avoid gripping the lectern to a white-knuckle level. if you do not “speak with your hands”, a former Toastmasters colleague would suggest to let them hang at your sides and “let the sweat drip off your fingers.” One note of caution – do not allow the lectern to become more of a barrier between you and the audience than it already is. Nothing wrong with stepping out from behind it if you are comfortable with movement.
3) Be yourself: too many people try to emulate other people’s styles and carrying this act for an entire speech is exhausting. Besides, nothing kills credibility faster than phoniness. There is nothing wrong with incorporating elements you have seen elsewhere so long as you are comfortable with them. But you must develop your own delivery.
4) Know the audience: while you cannot always know the depth of every individual’s knowledge of the topic, you can have some idea of who will be listening and, from there, make assumptions about the level of explanation that will be needed, the word choices likely to resonate, the type questions that will be asked, and whether questions should be taken along the way or saved for the end.
5) Let the audience know you: nothing is more humanizing than being human, whether it’s a personal anecdote, how the information being presented benefited you or someone close to you, or some other way through which the audience can relate to you. Some of this will be stylistic features like smiling, making good eye contact; maybe there is something in your bio that lends itself to a quick story that puts a face alongside your credentials.
6) Few points are better than many – this does not mean speaking for as short a time as possible but in keeping the key points to a manageable number. Single digits will be most effective and, yes, I realize this list cracks that ceiling but the assumption is that no one reading this needs all ten. The point is to not overload the audience and it also allows you to go into greater detail on the key aspects of the presentation. What do you find more illuminating: a mile wide and inch deep presentation, or vice-versa?
7) Use humor only if you are comfortable with it: being funny is hard, much tougher than being dramatic, and not everyone’s personality is geared to telling jokes. You may have also noticed that jokes these days are under scrutiny for any potential offense, real or inferred. As with conquering fear, there are numerous resources about this.
8) Do not read it, say it – what could possibly be more boring. And that’s all I am going to write about that.
9) Bring something new – this seems obvious but how often have you heard a speech made up of things you already knew? Some of you may be looking at this article in that vein. People like learning new things, particularly about subjects they know something about already. For instance, chocolate milk was re-branded as a post-workout drink a couple of years ago by the same people behind the “Got Milk?” campaign. That is presenting a familiar product in a unique light.
10) Keep your contract – if you take away nothing else, remember this point. A 20-minute speech means 20 minutes. The audience has consented to give you a certain amount of its time in exchange for listening to you; honor their commitment to you by not straying past the deadline. If you go long, you have lied to your audience and that’s not how you want to be remembered.
And in the immortal words of a friend of mine: be good, be brief, and be gone.