10 Tips for Giving an Important Speech
The better part of a million dollars was on the line. Every year the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in Amsterdam gives away 500,000 Euros for the best idea for a green product or service. In 2008, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre presented their alternative to synthetic building materials.
"In terms of a high pressure talk, that was probably the hardest in my memory," Bayer says. He practiced the talk out loud in front of his computer, making changes to his slides as he went. In the end the talk was a success. Bayer's team won the coveted check.
Since then, Bayer has become CEO of Ecovative Design, a company he co-founded that makes green packaging materials derived from fungi near Troy, New York. He's been invited to give many more speeches, including at the annual Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, and the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in Oxford, England.
With self-directed, local "TEDx" talks taking off, more communities will be inviting local innovators to speak. Presenting at this kind of event is an opportunity to capture the energy of a packed auditorium and translate it into a boon for business.
Those preparing for this kind of talk have heard "practice, practice, practice" and "less is more," but there are still speakers who make audience members fight to stay awake. With that in mind, experienced presenters offer these key steps for rallying a large, influential audience of peers around a central idea.
1. Be Your Passionate Self
Audiences are perceptive. They can even sense enthusiasm from back in the nosebleed seats. "Even if you're reading off the slide but you're really excited about it, the audience will give it to you," Bayer says.
Nan Crawford is an executive coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area who primarily works with female leaders on their presentation skills. Crawford coached Elayne Doughty, a psychotherapist who was raising money to go to the Congo and participate in the international V-Day movement to end violence against women and girls. Doughty expected she would need to do several events to raise enough money for the trip, according to Crawford.
"I coached Elayne on her stories," she says. Crawford drew out what had grabbed Doughty about the cause, asking her when and how it had captured her attention. She also framed fundraising as an opportunity to shift away from fear and invite others to invest in a solution.
"She gave an impassioned presentation," Crawford says. At the end of the first event, Doughty surpassed her fundraising goal by 25 percent.
2. Tell a Helpful Story
Speakers are usually advised to try to know their audiences. Taken a step further, Crawford suggests that speakers make sure they understand not only who is in the audience, but also the challenges the audience faces. Then, the talk should address those challenges with a personal and powerful story that resonates.
Daniel Pink, author of the books A Whole New Mind and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is a former speechwriter for Al Gore. He says he's seen the opposite happen too many times. "The biggest mistake is people think it's about them rather than about the audience," he says. "They spend too much time talking about themselves."
Instead, an effective presenter will focus on the challenges without giving a laundry list of accomplishments. Anthropologist, filmmaker, and National Geographic explorer Elizabeth Lindsey is frequently invited to speak about leadership through an anthropological lens. "The more we talk about the things that matter to us, and less about our achievements, people breathe a collective sigh of relief," she says. "All of us want to be better. Human nature is always seeking advancement."
3. Use Fewer Words Than Usual
Less really is more when it comes to big talks. But putting that into practice is far easier said than done. Giving a talk is an opportunity to amplify your message in a way that books and articles can't. Being a different outlet, it has different requirements.
"If all you have for me is information, invite me to buy your book," Crawford says. "But when we stand in front of an audience we have an opportunity to share not just our information but our energy."
For Bayer, seeing how slowly he can give his talk helps him communicate better. "Typically what feels best to the communicator is to give as much information as possible," he says. "But what you really want to do is tell them the idea in a simple way three times or more. If you blast them with detail they get this mushy feeling in their heads."
Pink emphasizes that speaking is a relatively small window, and the audience has a limited attention span. "It's far easier to make seven small points than one big point," he says. "You have to think to yourself, what do you want to leave people with, what do you want them thinking, and what do you want them doing?"
4. Engage the Audience Early
Don't wait for a Q&A at the end to go for audience participation. Start right away, Crawford says. Ask questions so that audience members can stand up instead of raising their hands. Invite them to take a minute, turn to a neighbor, and share a thought. Ask one person to describe theirs.
"Great, how many people share that same concern?" Crawford suggests asking. "Sometimes when you ask that question everyone will stand." Getting responses can help focus a talk, even for an extremely large audience.
Pink describes watching symphony conductor Benjamin Zander give a presentation years ago. "He actually used his piano and brought the audience into the talk, had the audience do things, and made a lot of brilliant points about leadership and humanity," he says. "It wouldn't have been the same if you had read a transcript of it."
5. Make the Stage Home
Get on the stage where the talk is scheduled and practice there as soon as possible, Crawford says. Move around on the stage and go sit in the back row so that the setting becomes familiar.
The organizers will probably want to do a sound check, but see if they will allow it earlier than just a few minutes before the talk. "Even if you can sweet-talk the hotel staff to let you in the night before, that experience of being in the physical space is really important," Crawford says. Walk in as if you're walking into your living room and sitting down on the sofa. Gaining that level of comfort will help calm nerves.
6. Go Beyond Memorization
"A lot of times people look at this and think it's some exalted task with some magic to it," Pink says. "But it's like playing the piano, or laying bricks, or hitting a good tennis serve. It's about knowing what you're doing, doing it for the right reason, and practice, practice, practice."
Bayer practiced what he was going to say in Amsterdam until he could time it down to a second, although he cautions that knowing every line by heart is less important than making sure the message is clear and focused.
"Start developing early," he says. "You don't even have to put slides into PowerPoint, but think early about what it is you want to communicate. You should be able to summarize it in a few words."
7. Turn Nervousness Into a Boost
When Crawford coaches speakers who get fluttering stomachs, she asks them to think about their fear in a different way. "There's a physical sensation in our body that's associated with nervousness. The danger is when we think, 'Oh my god, I'm nervous,'" she says.
Call that fluttering something else, she says. Crawford advises her clients to think, "That's the fire in my belly. When I'm done presenting, everyone in this audience is going to have a fire in their belly to make a difference."
Elizabeth Lindsey knows that nervous feeling well. "When we name it, and we speak our truth, we rally," she says. Whenever her heart is pounding through her chest, Lindsey thinks about the elders in her native Hawaii who raised her and didn't have the platform she's been given, she says.
"Even though I'm afraid and even though I feel at times that it would be easier to be in the audience rather than on stage, I know the work that I'm doing is not mine. It's the work that has been given to me," she says.
8. Look With Purpose
Crawford uses her theater background to help clients work on stage presence. In addition to moving around the space and using the whole body to convey the message, she suggests that presenters pay particular attention to their eyes. Instead of "scattering seeds" by scanning one part of the audience and then another, she recommends "planting bulbs."
"I want this idea to bloom in this one person's mind," she says. "Maintain eye contact for one full thought — it might be a phrase within a sentence or two sentences." That eye contact also looks great on camera if the talk is being recorded.
During eye contact with specific audience members, Crawford asks her clients to pay attention to what that person looks like, what they're wearing. A moment ago they were nervous, but as soon as they start describing hair or the color of a shirt, that anxiety level drops, she says.
9. Leverage Fellow Speakers
Look at the roster and reach out to the speakers you're excited about, Crawford says. "You have an opportunity to build that relationship far earlier than people imagine."
Everyone has been invited to talk for a reason, and that can open new doors. Ask the organizers for contact information if you don't have it, Crawford says. Plan to meet interesting speakers for one-on-one time during the conference, whether it's at a dinner or just for a quick conversation.
"If you're sharing the stage you at least have that in common, if nothing else," Crawford says.
And, who knows, maybe knowing your company will only make you feel more comfortable and able.
10. Choose Your Moment to Inspire
Sometimes one has to say no. The idea of presenting should be energizing and enlivening, not draining. Presenters who say yes when they should have declined can cause unnecessary stress for themselves, and for the event organizers.
When the reason is bad timing, offer to present at the next talk well in advance. Sometimes the audience isn't what you're looking for. If you say no, do so candidly, Crawford advises.
"We have this opportunity to spark an idea," she says. "We're lighting fires in the minds of others."
The rewards for a successful talk can be enormous, and not just financial. After giving a presentation once, Lindsey says a woman from the audience approached her. "She said, 'I'm a grandmother and I will never have the opportunity to travel to the parts of the world that you will see, but I want you to know that I go with you wherever you are.'"