Some of the smartest and most competent employees stop dead in their tracks at the idea of speaking publicly. If that’s you, then getting up in front of a boardroom to persuade members to give you more resources probably feels like torture.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
With the right preparation, you can confidently walk into any room ready to present. Follow this advice from 15 of the top public speaking experts out there to nail any presentation you have to give.
Incorporate Storytelling Into Your Facts
“Keep your audience engaged, and add some humanity by controlling the narrative,” writes Fia Fasbinder, CEO at The MOXiE Institute. “In fact, compelling stories help your audience retain data significantly more than simply providing the facts alone.”
If you’re unsure how to do this, sketch out the facts of your presentation, and then look for opportunities in the statistics to tell a story. This might be an individual customer case study or a recap of changes the company made that lead to that number. Stories can help answer the “why?” question in a data-heavy presentation.
Alternate Between What Is and What Could Be
An effective way to incorporate storytelling in a professional environment is to vary your emotional appeals between aspirational hope and fear of negative outcomes.
Start by introducing the “What Is” part of your speech by explaining why your company is in such a bad state and what will happen if it continues on this path. This is the negative outcome and dire emotional appeal in your presentation. Then, alternate with a solution or the “What Could Be” part of your speech. This gives your company hope that following your advice could lead to positive changes.
“The audience is taken through a journey of emotional highs and lows throughout the speech,” Kit Pang writes. This is what makes it effective.
Focus On Your Audience’s Needs
Gary Genard suggests changing your point of view to focus on your audience's needs, not your own. You might need to get approval for a larger budget or a deadline extension, for example, but you’re approaching executives who are asked for things all day.
So instead, flip the script and explain how a larger budget would increase revenue goals, or how an extended deadline could match the company's objectives to create better work.
Genard ends with one more piece of advice for nervous speakers: “This particular appearance is just a small piece in the fabric of your life and career; people seldom lose a job or harm their career prospects because of a single presentation.”
Strategically Map Out Your Points
Your audience is there to hear what you have to say. So, make your points count. To help, Scott Berkun has five questions every presenter should answer when they’re drafting the content of their presentations:
Why is your audience there?
What problems are they trying to solve?
What five questions do you need to answer about the topic?
What resources do you need to give practical answers?
What outline expresses these answers and provides a sense of progression?
Answering these questions will give your presentation a solid structure that you can build upon.
Provide Choices for Your Audience
Fred Miller encourages clients to use the phrase “My Way Is Not the Only Way” when they draft their presentations. Providing multiple alternatives demonstrates that you have thoroughly considered the situation and decided on the best possible option. It also shows your flexibility and increases the chances of getting some form of approval.
Think about the parent who offers their children a choice of carrots or green beans instead of just telling them to eat their vegetables. The parent walks away with something while the child feels like they have options to choose from. You may not get everything you want by offering management multiple options, but getting something is better than nothing.
Identify Where Your Weaknesses Are
Magnetic Speaking CEO Peter Khoury encourages speakers to focus on three things when they’re working to improve their public speaking skills:
Structure and organization
By examining each facet of your presentation one at a time, you can see where your message might falter. Is your delivery too demure? Too aggressive? Do you structure your presentations with too much technical information? Evaluating each individual element can lead to small improvements that together produce big results.
Ask Someone to Help You Rehearse
Rehearsing your presentation help you better understand the material, and it will give you the opportunity to examine your public speaking quirks and challenges objectively.
Kenny Nguyen, CEO at Big Fish Presentations, encourages clients to run through their presentation at least three times, either with an audience or with a recording. When evaluating your success, look for these six criteria:
Purpose. Is it easy for the audience to understand what you’re asking for?
Jargon. Are any words or acronyms confusing the audience?
Pace. Are you speaking too quickly? Do you need to pause at certain times?
Flow. Do you stick to your presentation or run off on tangents?
Body language. Is your audience getting distracted by your movement or any bodily tics?
Reliability. If your AV system crashes or the printer breaks, can you give this presentation without visuals?
It can be hard to see these issues in ourselves, so asking someone to sit in on your rehearsal can help you recognize any problems before you actually present.
Schedule Your Presentation at Optimal Times
The time of your presentation could determine its effectiveness. John Zimmer encourages speakers to schedule their talks or meetings earlier in the morning when most people are still sharp. By the afternoon, your audience could be lethargic and have trouble paying attention.
Scheduling your presentation in the morning also gets the pressure off of you earlier so you’re not worrying about it throughout the day.
Visit Your Speaking Venue Before You Present
Dustin Mathews actually dropped out of a required public speaking course when he was in college because he was deathly afraid of giving speeches in front of his class of 300. Today, he’s a public speaking specialist and author. One of his top public speaking tips is to visit the venue before you have to present.
Get to the conference room early in the morning before other people have arrived so you can get a feel for the room and understand where your AV system will be. This way, your brain won’t have the added stimuli of orienting to a new place alongside the normal stress of presenting.
Make Healthy Eye Contact
Good presentation skills require a balance of eye contact. Dr. Nick Morgan has seen both extremes: He’s seen someone give a presentation without once making eye contact with anyone in the room (they were told to look at a point on the back wall to manage their anxiety), and he’s seen someone establish and never break eye contact (which crossed the line from persuasive to psychotic).
Dr. Morgan recommends striking a better balance by making eye contact for three to five seconds at a time before letting your eyes move away naturally. This will make your audience comfortable and help you look natural.
You Don’t Have to Banish Your ‘Um’s
Public speaking coaches typically advise people to remove filler words like “um,” “like” and “just” from their public speaking repertoire. But Denise Graveline argues that while these words can be distracting when used in excess, there’s nothing wrong with dropping the occasional “um” when you’re talking.
You’re ums work to buy your brain time to come up with the best possible wording of an idea. And ironically, if you’re focusing too hard on trying not to um, you’re likely to lose track of the important points you wanted to make in the first place.
Use Movement to Emphasize, Not Distract
“When it comes to your delivery, movement means you’re transitioning your body through space with a purpose,” Jill Schiefelbein writes in her book Dynamic Communication.
Instead of standing behind a podium as stiffly as possible, Schiefelbein encourages readers to use their bodies to emphasize the points they want to make. This might mean gesturing to someone in the room to engage them or shifting your position when you’re changing from one thought to another.
Keeping your body in control can also prevent twitching and nervous tics that distract from your message.
Admit When You Don’t Know Something
Your credibility is one of your biggest assets as a presenter and employee. If you squander it, you can never get it back. That’s why Jezra Kaye says it’s OK to admit when you don’t know something. It’s better to be honest and tell the audience you will find an answer to a question after the presentation.
Lying or making up facts can destroy your credibility and make audiences question the truth in the rest of your content.
Listen Closely to Questions and Comments
Trish Springsteen has found introverts to be some of the best public speakers because they listen to others. They pay attention to what audience members have to say and how they react. This helps careful listeners tailor their messages better.
The best public speakers engage with their audiences and ask questions. Answering questions or even stopping mid-presentation to address a concern will also give you an opportunity to prove that you know your stuff.
Your Audience Won’t Remember As Much As You Think
You’re likely to remember every detail of your presentation because you’ve rehearsed it multiple times. You’re also likely to remember every slip-up. Your audience, however, is unlikely to remember most of your presentation.
“Given the limitations of your short term memory (which typically struggles to retain more than 5 to 6 things at a time these days), your instinct is to ignore the vast majority of information you encounter,” Eamonn O'Brien writes. “Because of these limitations, you’re incredibly selective about what information you listen to, never mind retain. If you weren’t, you’d never get anything done!”
Your audience will only walk away with the gist of your presentation, which is why stories, repetition and clear thoughts are so important.
Many of the public speaking experts on this list started as amateurs. They, too, stumbled through their notes and lost the attentions of their audiences at some point.
Improving your public speaking skills takes practice and time, but the more you do it, the better you get.