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Communication Tips: Public Speaking

OVERVIEW [top]

Public speaking ranks somewhere between root canal surgery and sudden death on most people’s lists of enjoyable activities. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the effort. As your company grows, it will be ever more important to speak to your board and your employees to convince them to participate in fulfilling your vision.

For an entrepreneur, fear of public speaking is worth conquering, especially when you consider how even the occasional speaking engagement can help grow your business. Formerly timid speakers say you can learn to love it — and learn to do it well.

Whenever you appear as a public speaker, you create visibility for your company. You expand awareness of your products and services every time you speak at a seminar or conference, or at an industry or community-association meeting. This is a great marketing strategy. What’s more, it costs you nothing except the time you spend on preparation and delivery.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Strategies for preparing your presentation.
  • Ways to grip your audience.
  • Smart tips for avoiding common mistakes.

SOLUTION [top]

Think "audience" when preparing and giving a speech. You’ll succeed if you keep the audience’s needs in mind. What do you want them to get out of your speech? What will they be expecting to hear from you?

People want to be entertained, whether they’re a group of like-minded entrepreneurs or students listening to your career-day speech at the local high school. Humor can help keep your speech engaging, but steer clear of jokes with controversial or offensive subject matter, like sex and politics. Beware: Even sparkling wit falls flat if delivered poorly.

A dry recitation of facts and figures — no matter how relevant — will not engage your audience. Using a few well-designed charts or graphs can enliven your presentation, but don’t get carried away with elaborate animated graphics.

Your speech should focus closely on the topic you’ve announced. If you’ve promised to talk about "How I learned from my mistakes as an entrepreneur," don’t spend most of your speech time on all the wise decisions you’ve made. You can use handouts or slides at the beginning of your talk to preview the main points, keeping yourself and your audience on track.

Organize your speech. If you don’t want to read a presentation verbatim, keep an outline of topics and examples handy to guide you. You can structure your speech in many ways, such as chronologically, topically, with ascending or descending lists (like Letterman’s Top Ten), or with detailed problems and solutions. Write an introduction using a related anecdote, catchy quote, attention-grabbing statistic or interesting question. A good conclusion is just as important — summarize your main points, refer back to your opening anecdote, or finish off with a killer quote.

Keep these guidelines in mind when preparing and delivering your speech or talk:

  1. Be clear and stay focused. Your goal is not to stun the audience with reams of information. Pare your speech to key points. Ideally, you should leave them wanting to find out more about your topic.
  2. Aim to be interesting and likable. Use anecdotes, stories and humor to support your key points. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Don’t be afraid to let your personality come through, and feel free to gesture and move around a bit. Think how you could win over audience members who might otherwise be inclined to snooze from boredom.
  3. Keep your ego under control. Approach public speaking in a spirit of generosity. The audience doesn’t want to be told how smart you are or hear you brag about your success. A lengthy list of your achievements belongs in the small-type notes of biography at the bottom of your brochure or other handout. Remember you’re there to pass along what you’ve learned and to inspire and motivate others.
  4. Practice. Do this ahead of time in front of a trusted colleague or alone, but make sure you, in fact, do it. Too often, people who have spoken frequently in the past rest on their laurels. They may not be shy in front of an audience, but that doesn’t mean they have a well-constructed or timely presentation.
  5. Don’t fear stage fright. It’s the adrenaline-driven excitement that can fuel your speech with energy and enthusiasm. Use that excitement to your advantage. Practice breathing deep from your diaphragm, and visualize yourself confidently delivering a speech to an enthralled audience.
  6. Go for conversational delivery. Use your notes for rehearsal, and practice frequently. This will help ensure that you sound natural when you actually give your speech. Make frequent eye contact with the audience to hold their interest; never keep your eyes down reading your notes. A relaxed, conversational style may not come naturally to you, but it can be developed through extensive practice and a willingness to accept constructive criticism.
  7. Get feedback. Ask someone you trust to coach you during rehearsals. Is your voice lively and enthusiastic, or is it a monotone? Are you speaking at a pace that ensures audience comprehension and interest? Are your points clear and relevant to your purpose? Ask your "coach" for a critique like this during your first few public speeches as well. If you don’t feel ready for a coach, get a video camera, and watch yourself on tape.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Claudia Post frequently speaks to members of her industry or to a group of entrepreneurs as "a way of giving something back by sharing my experience." The president of Philadelphia-based Diamond Courier Service Inc. has a wealth of topics from her 10 years in business. How to be an Incredible Boss, Managing Change and Moving from Great Manager to Visionary Leader are among the talks she gives at meetings, conventions and seminars.

Boring your audience is the worst mistake you can make as a speaker, Post says. "You have to get to the point, pepper your speech with humor — and never drone on." Many speakers are crashing bores, she says, "because they don’t make an effort to keep the audience interested and motivated."

Post’s strategy is to captivate her listeners by encouraging them to participate. "I actually go out into the audience with a microphone and ask them questions. If the topic is managing change, for example, I might ask individuals questions such as, ‘How do you handle change?’ and ‘How do you communicate with your staff during a period of change?’"

Engrossed in the questions she’s asking and the responses they bring, "The audience doesn’t end up just watching me speak," Post says. "They’re actively engaged." Know, too, that some of them are just afraid they’ll be called on next. Have a prepared response for an uncooperative or hesitant audience member. Either way, they’ll be paying attention to you.

How does Post know her speeches really are effective? "I get standing ovations!"

The impression you make as a dynamic speaker can pay off at the bottom line, Post says. "You’re building credibility. If you’re compelling and interesting, people are going to want to do business wit h you."

DO IT [top]

  1. Take a public-speaking course. They’re easy to find through your local community college or university or organizations such as Toastmasters International. You’ll learn all the basics, and get to practice in front of a supportive, non-threatening audience.
  2. Know your goals. When preparing your speech ask yourself, "What do I want the audience to know in the end?" Focusing on desired results will help you stay on track and make your key points clearly.
  3. Grab your audience right away. Begin with a startling statement or an interesting story. Example: "Last night I dreamed I died and went to entrepreneurial heaven…. I know you’ll all relate with what I’m about to tell you&#133!" The audience’s ears will perk right up in anticipation of a good yarn that relates to their own thoughts, dreams and desires.
  4. Be prepared to answer audience questions. Make a list beforehand of all questions that might be asked. Write down your answers and practice them out loud, but be natural and conversational when you actually answer questions from the audience. And be equally respectful of all questions; don’t praise some and not others.
  5. Assess your performance. Identify strengths and weaknesses. Give yourself credit for what you did right; think about what you could do differently next time ("rehearse more rigorously") to avoid repeating mistakes.
  6. Seek opportunities to practice. Join Toastmasters. Run for president of the local chapter of your professional organization.
  7. Apply your skills. Take some of these tips, and use them in conversation with groups of employees and in meetings with visitors to your business. This will help reinforce the lessons, and public speaking will get even easier.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Speaking Is an Audience-Centered Sport by Marjorie Brody (Career Skills Press, 1998).

Public Speaking: Proven Techniques for Giving Successful Talks Every Time by Steven Frank (Adams Media Corp., 2000).

101 Ways to Captivate a Business Audience by Sue Gaulke (AMACOM, 1996).

How to Give a Terrific Presentation by Karen Kalish (AMACOM, 1997).

High-Impact Presentations: A Multimedia Approach by Jo Robbins (Wiley, 1997). The first half of the book is a primer on public speaking. The second half offers tips for making media support more effective.

Videos

Speak Up, Action Seminars, 808-879-5661.

Internet Sites

Toastmasters International

How to Make Presentations

Presentations.com Speaking Tips

Allyn & Bacon Public Speaking Website

Article Contributors

Writer: Kathleen Conroy

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