I recently attended a two-day conference where I listened to several different speakers weighing-in on a range of topics. Many of the speakers were either very experienced at presenting, or had prepared thoroughly in advance.
A few speakers, however, stumbled: While their content contained valuable information, their delivery style was flawed in some way. One speaker ended many of her sentences with an upward inflection, which to me suggested a lack of confidence in what she was saying.
Another speaker droned on in a sleep-inducing monotone voice and would periodically?--and consistently?--insert an annoying "um." And one speaker kept using the wrong word.
Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of an audience: According to some estimates, 75 percent of all people experience some degree of anxiety or nervousness when it comes to public speaking. Some surveys have shown that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death.
In fact, there's a word that means fear of public speaking: Glossophobia. It derives from the Greek "glossos," meaning "tongue," and "phobia," or "fear."
What could some of the speakers I listened to have done to improve their presentation style? What lessons could I draw from this experience that might help others deliver more impactful presentations? Here are five suggestions:
1. Script it out.
Writing down my presentation and then practicing it several times?--even silently to myself--helps me deliver a more fluent, more confident, and I hope, more impactful presentation.
Even if you're using slides, I recommend you script out your presentation. It will help you flesh out the story you want to tell in the most natural language for you.
But be careful: You don't want to stand in front of your audience and simply read a script. I might have my script in front of me when I'm presenting, but I don't read it verbatim. I change the words even as I read it. And I make sure I'm looking at my audience, not at my script.
2. Record yourself.
What if you were able to sit in the audience and listen to yourself present? While this may be physically impossible, you can of course record yourself delivering your presentation. Capturing yourself on video is ideal, as you'll be able to observe your body language, along with listening to your delivery style. But even an audio recording is enough to help you identify problems--and fix them.
3. Get an honest critique.
Ask someone to watch you rehearse and give you an honest critique. It might make you feel awkward at first, but at least you'll have the chance to surface problems and fix them before you get in front of an audience.
Some people seem to be naturally endowed with the ability to go on stage and deliver a flawless presentation without rehearsing. I'm not that sort of person, and I don't think most people are. Even the best speakers I know make a point of spending time to practice before going up in front of a crowd. You should too.
5. Engage your audience.
You've scripted out your talk, recorded yourself, solicited some hard-hitting feedback, and practiced like crazy. There's one more suggestion to consider as you take the stage: Engage your audience.
One thing I noticed about the most effective speakers at this conference was that during their presentation, they mentioned at least one person in the audience. Even briefly mentioning someone in the room can create a stronger sense of connection between the speaker and the audience
One speaker, for example, called out an audience member and discussed a project they had worked on together recently as an example of "best practice" project management. By calling out the audience member, the speaker not only created a very direct and powerful level of engagement with the audience member, many of the others in the audience also appeared to become even more attentive to what the speaker was saying.