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Public Speaking

Show ’em you mean it

Cropped view of a man in a suit speaking into a microphone with his hands in fistsI recently had the honor of judging a university-level speech tournament. In one event, Persuasive Speaking, each of six finalists had 10 minutes to make a case about a cause. Judges looked for knowledge of the subject, a structured approach, documentation of the points made, and a good finish, often including a call to action.

Most of the speakers were good; they had all that. In fact, they were so good that when it was over I had a hard time ranking them.

Yet, something was missing from every one of those presentations—something important. These speakers, who were excellent in every other way, all had choreographed their gestures and movements. Here, I step to the left. Here, to the right. Here, I lift my hand. And all kept their hands at their sides when they were not actively gesturing. Thus, many of the gestures and movements they made seemed forced and false to my eyes.

My guess is that when you feel strongly about something, you don’t rest your hands at your sides. You probably hold them up about belt or waist level so you can easily lift them to punctuate your point, to signal the sharing of information, or to invite the listener to consider your position. You do this without thinking about it. You radiate energy. And the higher your hands, the more energy you show.

There’s a certain balancing act we do when we present in front of an audience, akin to what professional actors do when they perform on the stage. We are “in character” and yet conscious of the audience at the same time. We feel something for real, but we also remember that we are there to get something across. Our gestures are informed by our passion. But they are aimed toward those we’re addressing.

These competitors had the aim right, but not the passion behind it. No one will believe you really mean what you say if you look like you’ve been choreographed. You have to be comfortable enough inside yourself to feel what you ought to feel and be unafraid to show it. When you make a gesture, make it natural and bring it from the heart. That’s one way to show ‘em that you mean what you say.

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Location, location, location

boardroomThere’s an important component of speaking logistics that can make or break your talk: knowing your location.

Where will you be presenting? With what kind of equipment? How will the audience be oriented? Where will you stand in relation to the screen? These details should be nailed down in advance of your actual presentation. If you are wise, you will go and nail them down yourself.

When you arrive at the venue, find out where the light switches are, where the electrical outlets are (will you need an extension cord?) how the room temperature is controlled, and whether there is Wi-Fi. Find out where the sun will be at the hour you present. Will it be pouring in through that south-facing window and landing on your screen? If so, you’d better know how to operate the blinds.

Check the lighting. How and where is it controlled? Is it just an on/off switch? Or will there be a dimmer? What quality of light is it? Strong fluorescent? Soft incandescent?  LED? Whatever it is, put an image up on the screen and see how the room lighting affects it. Adjust either the light or your visuals accordingly. And while you’re at it, make sure you are lit as you speak. Audiences must be able to see you.

Check the projector and connections. If you’re using your own equipment, that’s easy. But if you’re using an in-room projector, then you must test it. If you don’t, you may find when you begin your presentation that this projector’s color temperature is different from yours. You may find that everything looks yellow or magenta because a connecting cable has gone bad. Make a dry run using the very equipment you’ll be using and you can head off some awkward problems.

Finally, on the day of the presentation, bring a back-up projector. Bring every connector you have. Then get there early enough to switch out any equipment that’s malfunctioning.

My partners once walked boldly into a room in our State Office Building to check the venue for a presentation an important client would be giving the following day. They didn’t ask permission—they just went in and ran the slides through the in-room projector. They found that the mandatory corporate color used by the client was several shades too light when projected through in-room equipment.  They darkened the slides accordingly, making it perfect during the actual presentation.

There’s nothing like being prepared.

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Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.

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So we now have the attention spans of goldfish. What’s that mean?

gold fish isolated on white backgroundThe goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.

The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now.  Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.

But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!

  • There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
  • Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
  • And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.

Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.

So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.

Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.

Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.

Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.

Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.

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New-Business-Presentations
How to Make an Impression That Wins New Business

The most important presentation you ever do may be the one that lands you important new business. New business can launch your organization. It can keep your bottom line secure. It can signal the world that you’ve arrived.

But first, you have to win it.

Whether it’s private business or a public agency whose business you’re seeking, there will probably be a Request for Proposal (RFP) that outlines its expectations. Some RFPs are complex and demanding. The important thing is that you fulfill all the requirements, no matter how involved or troublesome. This is the price of securing a new client.

But there’s more, and here’s where a good presentation comes in—you also have to establish a point of differentiation. Every good business does this, but it’s especially important when you’re seeking new business. Your audience must understand and remember what sets you apart. No one ever got a new client by saying, “Me, too!”

Are you more efficient? Better equipped? More experienced? Do you offer more expertise? Have you found a new approach? Find something you have that no one else does, and make sure your presentation stresses this differentiator. Keep coming back to it as you present so that the audience remembers it when the presentation is over.

And while you’re at it, you must do one other vital thing with your presentation—you must form a warm connection with your audience. You’re not just presenting numbers here; you’re presenting yourself. You need to make those people want to work with you. If you don’t, they will cool to your presentation soon after it’s over, however qualified you seem to be. People go where they want to go. Make sure they want to go to you.

A stellar presentation can make the difference. So don’t leave it until the last minute! Don’t concentrate on the RFP requirements and think you’re done when every taxing detail in them has been fulfilled. The truth is that your would-be client doesn’t like reading those details any more than you liked writing them. That’s not what will push you over the line. What your audience remembers about you will push you over the line.

Get a coach. Gather your materials and create a presentation. Rehearse it over and over until it comes naturally. Scout the location and see how large a room you have. Find where the electrical outlets are. Determine where the sun will be at the time you present, and if it will be on the screen, know how to work the blinds. When you appear, everything you do will look effortless to your audience because you took this part seriously.

And that’s the kind of impression that wins new business.

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Blogart-platformfear
3 Ways to Handle Platform Fear

I spoke not long ago with a group of caseworkers from a government social services agency. These are the people who do the hard and often thankless job of seeing that children in difficult circumstances get the financial support they need.

But some of them told me they were most stressed out when they had to get up in front of an audience. One said she broke out in hives every time. She asked what could be done about that.

I told her I’d never been schooled on how to treat stress rashes (though I’m told that moisturizer and hydration help), but I know some ways to reduce the stress that leads to them. It begins with realizing what’s going on in your body.

There are those who believe stage fright stems from our evolutionary heritage. When we get up to speak, we face a sea of eyes looking back at us. We humans all have pretty strong threat detection radar, and those eyes seem threatening.

Why is that? The audience is just sitting there.

Well, some anthropologists have a theory about that. They believe that down through human history, everyone looking at you at the same time has pretty much meant bad news. It could mean you’re about to be hunted. Or attacked. Or accused. So your body prepares you to fight or outrun those you’re facing. It gives you a nice shot of adrenaline to help ensure your survival. That’s why, just when you want to be calm and in control, your body makes your hands shake, your palms sweat, and your voice break.

There are a couple of ways to handle this. One is to work off the adrenaline.

Before you speak, go someplace you can’t be seen and do something strenuous. Do pushups against the sink in the restroom. Shadowbox. Run in place. If you can’t get off alone, grip the arms of your chair or the rim of the podium or the chalk holder behind you. You’ll find your jitters are reduced, placing you in better physical control of yourself. That alone will calm you down a little.

A second technique is to focus on just one person in the audience at a time.

If you go from face to face when you get up to speak, you’ll get another shot of adrenaline each time you assess those faces for signs of a threat. This isn’t the rational part of your brain talking, of course. But we’re human beings, and when we’re nervous all we can see are more reasons to stay nervous.

When you focus on a single face you have to perform only one threat assessment. Once that’s behind you, you can just talk with that person as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve made your point, move on to the next person and talk to her for a while. Do this again and again, covering all parts of the room as you move along. People will feel engaged even when you’re not looking at them, and they will relax. Once you see that, you’ll probably relax, too.

The best and longest-lasting technique takes a while to perfect. That’s to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking what your audience needs from you. After all, that’s the reason you’re up there, or should be. If you think, “What can I do for them?” you’ve made them into a group you will act upon, not a group ready to act upon you. You begin thinking more about your message. You begin looking for feedback, for signs of understanding. You put yourself in the right frame of mind to speak.

Now, none of this is likely to keep you from getting at least a little nervous before speaking. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and I still get nervous before each talk. But I’ve found that nerves aren’t really my enemy. They keep me alert and on my toes. I speak best when I’m a little on edge.

When you can think, “This isn’t hurting me; it’s making me better,” you’ll have mastered the art of handling platform fear.

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