We wrote recently about how to grow your practice with public speaking. That post focused mainly on finding places to speak, and how to turn speaking opportunities into paying clients. Since then, however, I’ve had a few discussions with practitioners who want more help with the actual preparation and speaking part.
If you’re nervous about the idea of speaking, remember that it’s normal to be scared. Maybe even helpful. The key is to understand that great speakers are built not born. Are some naturally more comfortable? Innately better communicators? Born storytellers? Undoubtedly. But anyone can learn to engage an audience and deliver a presentation that gets results. Here’s how.
1. Outline First
To beat an old analogy to death, it’s hard to build a decent house without a blueprint, and the same goes for presentations. The structure is everything. It defines what you’re trying to say, and creates a logical flow. It’s also a huge help when it comes to creating great presentation materials.
Mostly, though, it helps create the story. You need structure to tell a story, and story is what makes it all work.
Story doesn’t necessarily mean “interesting anecdote” though. Here are the elements I consider important for your outline:
- One clear message. In one sentence, why have you brought everyone here? The story of this blog post is: Anyone can become an effective presenter by following a few simple rules. I like a clear objective that says, “Here’s why you’re all here. Here’s what you’re going to discover.”
- Clear structure. Think of the outline as your table of contents. The map. It says, “Here’s how we’re going to get to our destination.”
- Flow. Do the pieces fit? Does it make sense?
- Novelty or surprise. What have you got for your audience that’s new? Surprising? Did you know that it’s wheat, not fat, that’s driving obesity? Did you know that the antibiotics you’re using to fight infections might be helping to create them? Remember that these ideas might be old news to YOU, but for the general public, they help create that sense of curiosity that all good stories have.
Outlining this blog post, for example, I get something like this:
- Anyone can be great. Speakers are made not born.
- Outline first
- Rehearse early
- Leveraging your work
There’s no rocket science here. It’s just simple clarity. Once sentence, plus a bullet outline. That’s all you need to get to the next step…
2. Rehearse Sooner
Once I have the outline, I’ll turn that into a few very quick PowerPoint slides, without any regard for appearance, concise wording, spelling, images, etc. And then I start rehearsing. Yep – right away.
Once the blueprint from Step 1 is in place, I can launch the slide show, stand up with my remote in hand, and start speaking as if I’m doing the talk live. Then I just make notes along the way.
To clarify, you don’t have to use PowerPoint to actually present. For me, it’s simply a tool at this point to start to develop the presentation and to start rehearsing as soon as possible.
Is it messy? Absolutely. Embarrassing? Definitely. But no one’s watching at this stage. And early rehearsing does a few critical things:
- Gets you comfortable speaking. The more you practice, the better.
- Generates new ideas. Speaking out loud brings new insights, phrases and related ideas out into the open that might never have come to conscious thought otherwise.
- Improves flow. Often, what seems like the right sequence or combination of ideas and slides in theory doesn’t work as well when you speak. The sooner you start speaking, the sooner you find the gaps and inconsistencies that only show up when you speak aloud.
- Gives you a feel for timing. You’ll start to get a sense as the presentation develops of how long it takes to cover certain areas. That’ll help you refine your presentation to the right length.
- Improves improvisation. Trying to fumble my way through my bare-bones outline creates more comfort with having to wing it when things go off the rails. Last summer I spoke to at a conference and my presentation files were corrupted. I had to speak for an hour and a half with no resources at all. S&*$ happens, and practicing sooner pays off when it does.
- Helps memory. The sooner you start rehearsing, the better you’ll know your topic, the less content you’ll need on your slides, and the less you’ll need any kind of memory aids.
The key takeaway is this: the best oral presentation is created orally. Sure you can write the whole thing down and read it. But you’ll get a better outcome if you build it in the same way you’ll be delivering it. It’s not about how soon before the event you start rehearsing. It’s about how soon in the process you start.
Use your outline, and start speaking. Then stop and jot notes each time you fumble or come up with something brilliant. Eventually, you’ll have a great story.
3. Do PowerPoint Right
Once you’ve got your presentation refined to pretty much it’s end form, you can start to refine your slides into something more presentable. (Assuming you’re going to use them at all.)
If you’re going to use PowerPoint or Keynote slides for the actual presentation, though, then use them well. The best single piece of advice I’ve heard is to pay by the word. Imagine you have to pay for every word you put on a slide. You’d almost certainly use fewer words and more images. You’d be less tempted to just put up slides and then read them to your audience. You’d be able to use larger, more legible fonts. You’d be less boring. And you wouldn’t insult your audience by reading to them like children.
In short, “paying by the word” drives great PowerPoint. Remember:
Your job is to tell a story that engages and inspires an audience, not read PowerPoint slides.
Some great resources for slide design:
4. Skip The Handouts
“The audience will either read your slides or listen to you. They will not do both. So, ask yourself this: is it more important that they listen, or more effective if they read?” – slide:ology
I don’t like handouts at all anymore – at least, not ones that are just printouts of slides. I send that out after by email or using slideshare.net so people can reference it, but I encourage people to just listen, think, and interpret, and then write down any key “a-ha’s” only.
Are there things worth printing on paper and handing out? Sure. But not your slides. Consider instead sending it out as a resource after.
Not printing handouts also is the single best way to encourage people to give you their email address so you can follow up. ’nuff said.
5. Respect the Audience’s Time and Physical Presence
Remember that you need to justify that there are many people burning time and money to be in the same physical space with you. Ask yourself, “Is this worth the audience showing up?”
- Could this presentation have just as well been a blog post or an article?
- Could I just email my slides to everyone and they’d be just as far ahead?
- What’s the benefit to the audience of being in this room together? Can I connect them to each other?
- What am I offering, right now, that they can’t get online or from a book?
- What is the audience gaining by being here in person that they couldn’t get in a webinar or teleconference?
Presentations are resource heavy. If I assemble 50 health care professionals in a room for two hours, I’m burning at least $10,000 dollars in billable time. Make your presentation worth it. I think This Dilbert cartoon says it far better than I ever could.
To sum up, presenting is something you can do, and do well. And it can be worth it. To get the most from your engaging talk, though, you’ll want to follow up. You can use the tips from our previous post for ideas. And if you’ve got ideas from your own experiences, let us know in the comments!