Today's audiences have short attention spans. They are stimulation junkies. Their television habits have coined a new term -- channel surfing. With the advent of remote control, no one watches anything that stands still enough to bore. Substandard content, boring material, or inane commercials are no longer endured. Your audience will forgive you of almost anything except being boring.

Since we professional speakers perform live, this is the same frame of mind we confront when we stand before our audiences. We are no longer competing with yesterday's general session speaker -- we are now competing with the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and MTV. A presentation has to be stimulating, spirited, and in motion. The following tools will add "zing" to your material and presentation.

Working with Humor
Humor can enliven your talk. Avoid telling generic "funny stories," but rather find and build more humor in your own stories. Jokes may get a laugh, but a humorous personal story pertinent to your talk will freshen up your anecdote and be memorable for your audience. You can build rapport with your audience by telling stories about yourself that apply to your subject. Come up with an experience that was embarrassing for you if the point you are making can be tied to an awkward moment that caught you off guard and is humorous in the retelling. Study your material, discover a vignette that is relevant to a segment of your speech, insert it as a humorous example in your talk, and cap it with a punch line -- this is the essence of comedy.

It is also fun to introduce an entertaining "character" to your story. Then, as you present the anecdote, learn to affect the role of that character onstage by shifting your position, changing your head movement or facial expression -- amazingly the audience can "see" the story and appreciate it more. It takes practice -- rehearsing in front of a mirror, trying out new material on friends, and discarding it when the story falls flat. But, when you put comedy into your material and make your audience laugh, you will keep their attention and add to their enjoyment.

Working with Movement
Effective role playing and character portrayal depend heavily on the use of body language. On the platform, it is an essential part of your message and can help you enhance the words you use to create pictures in the minds of your audience. First, avoid making the same movements or gestures over and over again. It's a difficult exercise, but it's important to practice a variety of movements and to control the same repeated gestures with your hands. Try practicing aspeech by clasping your hands behind your back to avoid meaningless, repetitive arm and hand gestures. It will be tough at first to concentrate on your talk without using your hands, but it will help stop superficial flailing and gesturing. Remember, if you lose track of your gestures, it doesn't mean your audience will. So avoid using gestures too often or too broadly.

The same applies to facial expressions and movement of your position on the platform. To emphasize a shift in your speech content, move to the left or right of the lectern. If you have a strong point to make, use that moment to take a step or two forward to emphasize that issue. Rehearsing movement is essential to ensure that your gestures are relevant and not redundant. It is important not to overdo the same gestures or stand inert before your audience. Movement keeps your presence fresh. Even with top-notch subject matter, superfluous or repetitive movements can be jarring, just as no gestures can render your presentation boring.

Working with Voice and Speech
Humor and movement strengthen speeches. Your voice and the inflections of your speech are vital. The way you pronounce words can weaken your presentation. An example is saying "axchually" in place of "actually" or "perfekly" in place of "perfectly."

Even if you have good diction, you have many natural enemies on the platform. Noisy air-conditioning systems, faulty microphones, banquet staff clattering dishes, association members whispering and moving in and out of the room -- all of these distract your audience. You need to sound intelligent, powerful, polished, articulate, and confident. In today's competitive market these qualities are not optional, they are essential. A technique for being more profound is to use short, simple declarative sentences and to cut out useless words. You can bemore articulate if you make a special effort to pronounce the final sound in a word and use its energy to carry over to the following word. Pay special attention to the final "t" and "ng."

Working with Delivery
One of the most exciting elements of presentations is the art of not using one's voice. Pausing at exactly the right moment in your speech is often more effective than anything you could do with your voice or body. A symphony orchestra becomes a lot more "listenable" because of the variety of sound -- sometimes soft, sometimes loud, sometimes still. Learn to pause more often. Since you know your material very well, you may have a tendency to talk too fast. Your audience may be hearing your information for the first time, so it is important to slow down and give them the opportunity to catch every word.

The faster you speak, the more you have to open up your material with pauses. If you do not, you limit your audience's ability to absorb your stories and ideas. Using pauses and silences to punctuate your material will draw in your audience. After making a point or delivering a punch line, accentuate it by standing still and shifting only your eyes. The impact will be much greater. Another key element in the delivery of a speech is how you use your energy levels. Studies have shown that the first and last 30 seconds of a presentation make the most impact on an audience. Don't be afraid to grab your audience. But develop pacing and variety in your delivery energy. If you come on with a gangbusters opening and then drop to a steady, low energy level, your presentation will seem flat. If you stay high energy for the entire program, you may risk losing your believability. Adopt variety and pacing in your delivery, and your audience will remain alert.

Patricia Fripp is a San Francisco-based executive speech coach and professional speaker on change, teamwork, customer service, promoting business, and communication skills. She is the author of Make It, So You Don't Have to Fake It and Get What You Want! Fripp also served as president of the National Speakers Association. She can be contacted via e-mail, at 800-634-3035, or through her Web site

Copyright © 2000 Patricia Fripp