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PUBLIC SPEAKING

How Not to Bore an Audience

For starters, stop trying to just wing it. You're not an improv actor, OK?
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Your goal as a speaker should be to have inscribed on your tombstone, "He Made His Point, and Bored Them Less." To accomplish this lifetime achievement, adhere to the following.

1. Ditch the Slides

OK, maybe in your business culture you need to have slides, but please don't make them the star of the show. You are the star. Your slides are your aides--your backup singers. Use them intermittently. In show biz, backup singers get fired if they take attention away from the star.

Make your slides clear. Write headlines that make a point. Control the eyes and minds of your audience by pointing to items on the screen. On each slide, you can begin and end with the big idea. (Just don't get too repetitive.)

2. Stuff the Bag

If it's a five-pound meeting, prepare five pounds of content and end on time. Good teachers create class lessons with a beginning, middle, and end, and you should do likewise. To end on time is to be divine.
Keep the nature of the occasion in mind as you prepare your message. Every situation and audience is different. Don't be tone-deaf. Your antennae must be sensitive to the need for formality or informality, seriousness or humor, words that work and words that won't. Pack for the climate of your destination.

3. Begin, Be Brief, Be Seated

There's no correlation between the length of a talk and its impact. Have a good beginning, a strong ending, and put the two as close together as possible. Or as Mrs. Humphrey said to her husband when he was running for President in 1968, "Hubert, for a speech to be immortal, it need not be interminable."

4. So, How to Begin?

Begin with the pitch, not with the windup! Any communication that you are willing to pay for begins effectively. Newspaper articles begin with a headline. News broadcasts begin with a teaser. Your job at the beginning of a talk is to capture attention and convince your audience that it's in their interest to listen. All's well that begins well.

5. Ride the Cycle

Listeners cycle in and out of attentiveness--mostly out. Twenty percent of your audience will be spaced out at any given time. Not because they're stupid, but because they're thinking about what you've said. So when you begin, establish your themes, and as you move through each section remind them where they are on the journey. When you get to the end, repeat your key points, with this special caveat: use slightly different language to make your points.

When you say something three times, you have a better statistical and psychological chance of getting your audience to hear you.

6. Make It Stick

Research indicates that attention-getting messages are simple, unexpected, and concrete. I worked with a guy who brought 11 different bottles of ketchup to a meeting to make a point about competition for shelf space in supermarkets. It was entertaining, memorable, and demonstrated his commitment and expertise.

"No ideas but in things," said the wonderful American poet William Carlos Williams (who lived in Paterson, New Jersey). The mention of an object creates a visualized idea in our minds--we form an image of the thing, and retain it in our memory. This doesn't happen at the mention of abstractions, like "value" or "memory." But mention ketchup, and we know what you're talking about.

7. Get Ready for Prime Time

Rehearse. An audience doesn't want to see you struggling to say what's on your mind. They've come for a show, an organized presentation of thought. Know your lines: your opening line, headlines, bottom line, and story lines. Being prepared will help you come across in a conversational manner, too.

We all need to learn how to rehearse because 80 percent of our success as presenters depends on our backstage process. And our audience is so accustomed to seeing polished speakers on TV and YouTube that when we mere mortals show up and fumble for words, we look like we don't belong in this modern age.

And don't get hung up on "keeping it real" and "winging it" for the sake of authenticity. That may be OK for improv artists or those of you who have been on stage for the requisite 10,000 hours. Most of us, without rehearsal, are dull, disjointed, and confusing.

8. Think Human A/V

Know where to stand, either behind the lectern, where you're half-hidden but feel safer, or out on the open stage, where you can point with your hand to items on your slides. You are the most important visual.

Know how to stand and move in such a way that you communicate the intangibles that motivate others to believe in you. Body language was the first language.

Just don't block the view of the screen for anyone, and avoid having the projector illuminate your belly with a slide entitled, "Growth in Market Share."

And by the way, a podium is a raised platform. A lectern is a stand with a slanted top.

Know how to project your voice effectively. There is overwhelming evidence that the tonal qualities of your voice carry a significant amount of information for the audience. In well-spoken English, there is a change of pitch on every stressed syllable.

9. Inform Your Face

Finally, when you're speaking, if you're having a good time, inform your face. Your face is the most valuable real estate in any meeting room.

Bangs blocking your forehead, or hair that covers your face when you turn to point to the screen are not good hair-dos for a presenter. You're just more present--in the room--when we can see your face.

Another poet, an Irishman named William Butler Yeats, said: "I always think a great speaker convinces us not by force of reasoning, but because he is visibly enjoying the beliefs he wants us to accept."

The audience wants to hear, see, and sense your face enjoying your belief in your clear and simple message. When they do, you and your ideas will be more convincing.

10. Content, Shmontent

Good content may be necessary for a successful presentation, but it isn't sufficient: it doesn't guarantee success. You must frame your good content so it holds attention and show up on time, dressed to say what you have to say in a lively, engaging manner.

Last updated: Mar 26, 2014

SIMS WYETH | Columnist

I'm a speech and presentation coach. I write speeches, work with executives on their content and delivery, run presentation skills workshops, and give speeches about speaking. My most recent book is The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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