Switching on your power of speech
Sunday 09 April 1995
This won't block a sparkling career, but, let's face it, if you could give a scintillating presentation, you would be one happy camper. We all need persuasive skills to rope in money and supporters from time to time. Like it or not, a knack of communicating in public is vitally important.
Having been a 150-times-a-year yakker, for-profit, I offer this advice:
1) Practice makes better. Obvious as it sounds, too many ignore it. There are damn few natural composers, golfers or racecar drivers. And there are no natural speakers - at least I have never come across one. You get better at speaking by speaking and speaking. It takes 10 years of training to become a journeyman physicist, so why should you expect to pick up sophisticated presentation skills "by the seat of your pants?"
2) Join a group where you get a chance to speak. In the US, Toastmasters International is the Alcoholics Anonymous of the speaking world, grouping generals, pastors, politicians and thousands of scared speechless engineers, accountants, supervisors and vice presidents.
The core idea is sound: you learn to get over stage fright by starting small and practising.
3) Forget the conventional rules - save one. Frankly, most laws of speechmaking (keep your hands out of your pockets, don't say "uh" and lead off with a zinger) are garbage. But there is a golden rule: stick to topics you care about, and don't keep your passion buttoned inside your vest. An audience's biggest turn-on is the speaker's obvious enthusiasm. That's as true for a pitch to purchase a $200,000 computer system as it is for a plea to save the environment. If you are lukewarm about the issue, forget it.
4) Stories, stories, and more stories. Charts and graphs have their place, and a prominent one in many sound business presentations. Nonetheless, even an analytically inclined audience will remember a key comment from a survey respondent - such as, "this company really doesn't listen to the likes of us" - long after forgetting your multicoloured bar chart which shows the firm's "openness to ideas" at 2.62 on a seven-point, sociometrically valid scale.
The best speakers, president or chief chemist, illustrate their talks with short and striking vignettes. In fact, the most potent speeches are often little more than strings of such vignettes, loosely linked by an outline.
5) For heaven's sake, don't write it out. If spontaneity isn't everything, it verges on it.
That hardly means you should just wing it: careful preparation begets spontaneity. But it does mean never write it out in full. When you do, you become a slave to your exact wording and inevitably lose 75 per cent of emotional impact.
6) Don't even think about getting it "right". After decades of giving speeches, from five minutes to five days in length (with breaks), I have yet to be satisfied with one of them. But tomorrow is another day.
Forget the "this is my only chance" feeling. If you're worth a damn, you will get plenty of chances to shine - and that one, 10-minute appearance in The Boardroom won't decide your career. But if you believe that "this is it", you'll be so tight you'll swing before the bowler even finishes his run-up.
7) Breathe. I am no expert when it comes to meditation, and I get flushed and breathless before any speech, to this day. One answer is to close your eyes (or not) and take five or 10 deep breaths (even in front of others) before going on stage to chair that big meeting.
8) Walk away from that podium. You're probably not a stiff round the office and almost certainly not at home, so why be a stiff when you're making an important presentation?
Make notes on index cards (in bold letters if your eyes, like mine, aren't getting younger), and don't nail yourself to the lectern. Wander about the platform, around the table, even into the crowd. Look comfortable and your audience will be more comfortable.
9) Loosen up - you're not going to convince them anyway. Speeches aren't about turning enemies into cheering supporters. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech hardly converted George Wallace into a civil rights champion.
A presentation is mainly an opportunities to reassure those who already agree with you that you're a horse worth betting on. The heart of board or committee work is one-on-one discussion before formal discourse. Try to relax and enjoy yourself, to present the "excited you" as excited you - which is just what the audience wants.
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