Do you get nervous when making a speech or presentation? Don’t worry, most people do. In fact, studies show that public speaking is humankind’s number one fear. However, it doesn’t have to be. Almost anyone can improve their communication skills to the point where they can grab and hold an audience’s attention, and even deliver content that is engaging and/or compelling.
Public speakers are made not born. Sure, some people begin with more natural talent than others, but even the world’s greatest speakers hone their craft through repetition and practice. Some, like Winston Churchill, even overcome great speech impediments to develop into world-class orators.
Practice is the key to becoming a great speaker along with preparation and learning some simple public speaking techniques. Over the past few years, I have worked with dozens of CEOs, senior managers, politicians, public servants and members of the military on improving presentation skills. I have found the following techniques the most effective in developing clarity and confidence – and in making speeches or presentations more compelling.
Elements of An Effective Presentation
An effective presentation must have several verbal elements to generate and hold audience interest including a basic structure, smooth transitions and engaging content. However, these elements are only part of the equation; a good presentation also requires effective non-verbal communication. This includes vocal delivery, eye-contact with the audience, hand-gestures and body movement – along with the use of visuals and/or props. Staging, lighting and adornments also impact how the message will be received, along with what you wear. Clothing, hair and make-up are also important factors in sending out strong non-verbal signals during a presentation.
Experts suggest the key to a good presentation is simplicity. Keeping things simple and straight-forward makes a presentation easier for the audience to follow. That’s why I always recommend that speakers limit the use of technical language (or jargon) and go easy on numbers or statistics. The best presentations stick to 3-or-4 main points, book-ended by a strong introduction and conclusion.
Verbal Elements of a Presentation
1. Basic Structure
A good presentation should have three main elements: an introduction, body and conclusion. While each of these elements should work together to maintain audience interest, your introduction is most important in getting the audience interested in your topic. It’s true that you only have one chance to make a strong first impression, so start your presentation with a bang.
■ Begin with a question or story to engage the audience
■ Clearly state your thesis and to orient the audience as to where you will go
■ Think of yourself as a tour guide taking the audience on a trip: i.e. “Today, I’m going to talk about (thesis). First, I will discuss (point 1). Next, I’ll look at (point 2). Finally, I will examine (point 3). Now, let’s being with our first point (point 1).”
■ Use humor ONLY if you are comfortable telling jokes
■ Keep this section simple, limited to 3 or 4 main points
■ Make each point different if possible. i.e. use a story to support the first point, statistics for the second point and an analogy for the third point
■ Don’t overload a presentation with too many ideas, turning it into a ‘shopping list’ that audiences cannot follow
■ Should restate your thesis and recap main points. i.e. “Today, I told you about (point 1, point 2 and point 3). I hope all of these points have convinced you of (main thesis).”
■ Conclusion should lead back to your introduction
2. Smooth Transitions
Transitions are effective in guiding your audience through the various elements of a presentation. Transitions move your listeners from the introduction into the first point and then connect each main point and your conclusion.
Sign-Posting, Listing or Sequencing
■ Outline each element as you come to them to guide the audience through your presentation (this is called ‘signposting’). i.e. “I have just told you about (point 1). Now, let’s move on to (point 2).”
■ Helps to orient the audience in the direction you want to go
3. Interesting and Engaging Content
The best presentations contain focused content that supports one or two main ideas. These ideas become the thesis of your presentation. Boil presentations down to the most important idea that you want to get across. Then state this thesis in your introduction; refer to it during each main point and show how you have supported your thesis in the conclusion. By continuously referring to your thesis as you go along, you keep the audience on message and help to sell the main idea of your presentation.
The style of writing used to create a presentation is also important. Presentations are meant to be heard rather than read, so the writing should reflect this fact. Professional speech coaches recommend that a presentation be listenable – in other words, easy for the audience to understand. Your language should be simple and easy to follow, free of technical words or jargon that might go over everyone’s head.
For example, a presentation might include a sentence such as this, “The sanitation engineer was able to devise a control mechanism to mitigate the propagation of fluid from the corroded conduit…” A more listenable sentence might read, “The janitor fixed the leak in the rusty pipe.”
A speaker should not try to impress the audience with vocabulary or technical language but with the ideas they are trying to convey. An audience that cannot follow what is being said will not understand these ideas.
Non-Verbal Elements of a Presentation
In a presentation, how you say something is as important as what you say. Your subject might be fascinating and your content highly interesting, but if your vocal delivery is a flat monotone, your audience will quickly lose interest. A presenter needs to be dynamic, varying their speaking style and using their voice to its full capacity to elevate a presentation beyond the mundane.
Key T.I.P.S. for Vocal Delivery (Tone, Intonation, Pace & Style)
■ Tone: The volume of your voice or how loudly or softly you speak. Don’t stay at one volume, vary it up. Speaking softly at key times during a presentation draws the audience in, while raising the volume for key points drives your message home.
■ Intonation: Or how high and low the pitch of your voice goes during a presentation. A high voice can be grating on the ears while a low voice can be difficult to hear. So again, change things up. Use a lower voice to end or support key points, the way broadcasters end segments on authoritative ‘down notes.’ Also, avoid using the same pitch patterns during presentation and don’t start and end paragraphs at the same pitch. This is called being ‘sing-songy’ during a presentation.
■ Pace:How fast or slow one speaks during a presentation. This is crucial to being understood. Those who speak too quickly are difficult to follow, while presenters who speak too slowly bore the audience. Again, vary your speed; go quickly over less detailed areas but slow down to deliver key facts or statistics. Varying the speed of your vocal delivery creates interest and keeps the audience engaged.
■ Style: Formal or casual. This should be appropriate for the audience at hand. Do not use an overly casual vocal style with a business audience but also avoid too much formality with a public audience. (In general, English audiences prefer less formality than Japanese audiences due to cultural differences in communication).
As the old saying goes, “The eyes are the window to our soul.” They are also the most important non-verbal element of a presentation. Strong eye-contact allows the presenter to engage with members of the audience, driving home key points subtly but effectively. Eye-contact also allows the presenter to get non-verbal feedback from the audience. This information tells the presenter whether or not the audience understands what is being said and whether or not the audience is still interested. A good presenter makes eye contact with as many audience members as possible and uses this non-verbal feedback to adjust or improve their content while it is being presented.
Eye-contact also helps fight nervousness. A presenter who sees that audience members are ‘getting it’ gains confidence and becomes a more effective speaker. So making eye-contact is a great way to fight presentation anxiety.
Tips for Eye-Contact
■ Look from front to back and left to right as you deliver your information
■ Stop at favorable faces and return to them to make key points
■ Try to look at audience members for 2-3 seconds before moving on
3. Hand Gestures and Body Movement
Hand gestures are important in supporting main points. They add value to the spoken content, offering a visual element to back up the audio (vocal) elements of a speech. In a similar vein, body movement creates visual interest for the audience. A speaker who moves around the room appears more dynamic than one who stays in one place for the entire presentation. A note about hand gestures and body movement – they are culturally defined. Some cultures, such as North Americans and Europeans, use hand gestures and body movement a great deal when communicating. Other cultures, such as Asians, use few or none. So again, a presenter needs to know the appropriate non-verbal cues for the audience at hand.
Audiences get bored easily in this television and internet age. They are used to computers and (now) mobile phones that deliver content through audio and visual means. Although a presenter can be effective with style and vocal delivery, visual aids and/or props can add value to a presentation. In fact, many audiences expect to see visuals such as Powerpoint slides at the very least.
Powerpoint slides, charts, maps, drawings and photographs complement the spoken portion of a presentation and make it easier for the presenter to explain complex details or statistics.
Tips for Visual Aids/Props
■ Keep them simple and do not overload slides, etc. with information
■ Limit slides to 3-4 simple sentences or bullet points
■ Make sure visual aids are appropriate for your audience
■ Make slides, charts, graphics, etc. large enough for everyone to see
■ Use flip-charts (not slides) for smaller or one-on-one presentations
■ Use audience members as props – or to demonstrate props Ultimately, delivering a strong presentation is not difficult. But it takes confidence, organization and practice. Work on the tips suggested here, and you will be surprised at how quickly you improve.