I've been a professional speaker for a long time and I've presented on a lot of different topics in a lot of places around the world. I love to present, I really love engaging an audience and inspiring them to take action. Over this time I've sat through thousands of presentations from other speakers and I'm sure that I've learned something from each and every one of them.
Here are 13 lessons that I've learned from my own speaker experiences and from observing all of these other speakers.
1. The best speakers are the authentic ones
I always say I became a good speaker when I stopped trying to be one. The day I made the conscious decision to be the most authentic speaker I could possibly be as opposed to being the most technically perfect speaker is the day that my speaking went to a whole new level and I've never looked back. Sure, I had plenty of experience and a lot of technical skills and training to back this up, but speaking from my heart not my head changed everything.
2. Nothing beats practicing your presentation
I did a TEDx talk a little while back. This was one of the most important and meaningful presentations of my life and I rehearsed this 15 minute presentation over 30 times. I was very happy with how it went and it reinforced to me just how important rehearsing a presentation is. When I'm teaching new speakers I go to great lengths to encourage them to rehearse their presentations as many times as possible because I know that they will get better with each and every rehearsal.
3. Talk slowly
I am a fast talker by nature - and when I got on a stage I talked even faster. I've had to learn to speak slowly on stage, to really use the speed of my talking to add interest to the presentation, to pause and use pausing for effect, to give my audience time to recover from a big piece of information, or a story of some kind by leaving some space. Watch any great speaker and they will talk slowly, they will pause often and they will use their voice for impact throughout the entire presentation.
4. Don't try to impress with knowledge, tell stories
When I was a young, fresh faced speaker, I felt insecure and lacked confidence. I relied on trying to impress the audience with facts, figures and squeezing as much content into an hour session as possible. I've learned a lot since those days. Now I say much less, I say it much slower and I tell many more stories. This creates a more engaging presentation, the audience relaxes, I have more fun and my audience leaves with the messages I'm trying to share thoroughly clear in their mind.
5. You have to capture your audience quickly, start with common ground
If you don't connect with your audience quickly, you probably won't connect with them at all. The best way to do this is to start with common ground. As an example, if I'm speaking to an audience of small business owners, I open by telling them funny stories about the first business I bought at the age of 18, which was a SCUBA diving shop. It shows that I understand them and the challenges that they face on a day to day basis. So take the time, think about your opening and always start with common ground. It's very easy to get this wrong but wonderful if you get it right.
6. Make your presentations as fool proof as possible
Be careful of having an overly complicated presentation. So many presenters rely on fancy transitions, internet connection to show a video (every venue in the world seems to have poor internet connection), bad photos, way too many fonts that default and the greatest sin of all, animated clip art. All of which make a presentation complex, ugly and prone to disaster. Think about making your presentation visually stunning, but as low tech as possible so there is very little to go wrong.
7. Be the first person at the event
There is nothing worse (and more unprofessional) than a last minute presenter. These are the ones who turn up late, bumble to get their presentation started, look disheveled, and spend the entire presentation apologizing about being late, not having time to talk through things and so on. To me this is really disrespectful to the audience. I always get to the venue hours ahead of time, I check out the room whilst it's being set up (ideally I do this the night before), I make sure I know where everything is, I get my presentation to the AV people first and do my run through before anyone else arrives. This gives me all the time in the world to be ready and it pays off every single time.
8. Make a friend before you do your presentation
This is a great tip for anyone who suffers with nerves (and most of us do). Before you go on stage, perhaps in the coffee break or even whilst sitting at a table, make a friend or two. Have a chat, find out what is going on in their world, ask some relevant questions about the event and generally get to know them. Now you have a friend. When you get on stage look at them if you feel a little intimated and they are obligated to smile and be friendly. It is also very engaging to mention them in your presentation. It shows that you are friendly and approachable (many speakers are not).
9. Take your time when you get on the stage
I used to jump on the stage and in a bundle of nerves I would start rambling before I even reached the lectern. I learned from watching more experienced speakers, to slow down, get to the stage, get to the lectern in my own time, take a moment, get myself sorted, stop, look up, give a big smile and start. When I do this I always start my presentations strongly and how you start your presentation will generally determine how the rest of the presentation goes.
10. Look everyone in the room in the eye
Great speakers are really good at eye contact, especially in odd shaped rooms. If you don't make regular eye contact with everyone in the room, or in bigger rooms, looking in every direction throughout your presentation, people will switch off, start playing with their phones and often become disruptive.
11. Don't mistake a lack of audience reaction as a lack of interest
This used to bring me unstuck all the time. I would be presenting to an audience that was totally non responsive. I used to get really frustrated, interpreting their lack of response as me not connecting with them and I would let my frustration boil over to my presentation. Over the years I've learned that often this apparent lack of response is simply the audience listening and being engaged. I learned this from getting audience feedback after events and being told, for example, that my presentation was the best one of the event, yet if I was going to rank their enjoyment level I would have thought they hated it.
12. Respect your audience, they've given their time to you.
I really struggle with any speaker who doesn't show their audience absolute respect. To me this means being on time, being honest and open, being committed to helping those in the audience, acknowledging the fact that they have given you their time and it's your responsibility to give them your knowledge. Respect your audience in every way.
13. Make your next presentation your best presentation.
The best presenters are the ones who are totally committed to constant and never ending improvement. This means that they try their hardest to make every presentation their best presentation in every way and it shows.
These realizations have made me a much better speaker and I feel like I'm just hitting my stride. As a speaker, there is so much to learn, so much to consider and so much to work on, that only the most committed of people become truly great on a stage. Those that do then have the most extraordinary of lives.