You’ve been giving presentations for years, decades even, but you still feel your speech-making skills aren’t your strongest suit. Yet a strong presence on stage or at the head of the meeting table can make or break a promotion or even a job hire.
Here, advice even seasoned speakers can learn from. Our expert, Nick Morgan, is a nationally known consultant who’s written speeches for Fortune 500 CEOs, coached keynote speakers and people who are giving testimony before Congress. His company, Public Words, advises speakers in corporate America and small business alike.
Actions speak louder than words. “A speech is really two conversations: it’s content plus body language,” Morgan says. “When the two are aligned – positive message, happy and excited speaker – you have effective communication. But when they’re not aligned, people believe body language every time.” He offers an example from the homefront. “Say you’re a 9 to 5er, coming home to your significant other who’s standing at the door. ‘How are you doing?’ you ask. ‘Fine,’ she says, arms folded with a scowl on her face. Do you believe the words or the body language?” Body language.
Here’s the implication for your next presentation. If you’re giving a speech, you think about content, make an outline, write the speech, rehearse it, create Powerpoint slides. You spend a lot of time thinking about content. Most people spend very little time thinking about body language, Morgan says. “When they get up to speak, 10% of people are terrified, 80% are nervous and another 10% are happy to do it.” The 80%, which is most of us, typically get over our nerves in five minutes. But when we first stand up, our body telegraphs in a thousand little ways that we’re nervous. The audience mirrors our emotion, going into the same defensive communications crouch the speaker is experiencing.
The solution? You need to spend preparation time – even the majority of it – thinking about how to get the emotional message across and not shut down the audience. Interestingly, Morgan does not recommend opening with a joke. “Commonly, people tell jokes to make themselves relax. Problem is, they fluff the punchline because they’re nervous. I advise against opening with a joke unless you’re very good at it. Jokes are not a sure-fire thing.
“Instead, I recommend starting with a story – one to three minutes — that typifies the theme of your speech. For example, when I give a speech about communications, I often open with this story: A few years ago, I was sitting in an audience much as you are today — excited, looking forward to hearing this speaker. He is legendary and I’d never seen him in flesh. The speaker ran late, a full hour late. The audience was restless when out walked the speaker dressed in funny colored robes. He sat down on the floor and said nothing, just looked at us. At the end of three eternal minutes, he let out unearthly laugh and said, ‘I’d better give a very good speech after making you wait.’ It was the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, everyone said, ‘I felt that he was speaking to just me.’ Something phenomenal went on in those three minutes and it shows how powerful body language can be.”
Forget the rule of three. “Repetition is another pet peeve of mine – that old guideline about telling people what you’re going to say, saying it, then repeating it a third time in a wrap-up. People sense repetition coming. Put your agenda up on a slide and people are instantly on their BlackBerries. It’s hard to get them back.” Morgan recommends keeping your speech moving to new ground.
Don’t cue the Powerpoint. “Powerpoint should be like singing in a musical comedy, where you break into song when you’ve got something too powerful to say in words. Powerpoint should convey emotion through a photo or, occasionally, show a statistical relationship visually. One client of ours is a woman who climbed the Seven Summits. She does a speech on setting goals and reaching them. It makes sense for her to use Powerpoint because she has amazing photos of the mountains.” The wrong way to use Powerpoint, says Morgan, is as a device to keep yourself on track via speaker notes. The audience can only do one thing at a time and you want them paying attention to you, not the words on a Powerpoint screen. If you do use Powerpoint, Morgan says, don’t leave it on all the time. Turn the slide off or put up a blank slide as a place holder when you want the audience’s attention.
Go ahead: break a rule. Corporations have their own rules for presentations, but to stand out sometimes you have to follow a different drummer. Break a rule, says Morgan, but do it selectively, carefully and tactfully. “We worked with a big consulting company that did sales pitches to clients. There were fixed rules about what those pitches should be. They always started with a 10-minute cookie-cutter description of the consulting company. I argued that there’s nothing more off-putting than having someone you just met talk about themselves. Instead, you want to focus on the client.” Morgan convinced them to bury the self-talk deep in the presentation, after they’d hooked their audience. It worked brilliantly.
Describe the problem, be the solution. When they prepare a speech, most people over-prepare, so they end up rushing to finish, going on too long, or leaving important things out. Morgan says the way to time things just right is by asking yourself one question: what is the problem the audience has for which your speech is the solution? “The ancient Greeks did this and 2,000 years later it still works. You talk about audience problem for the first half of your speech, then outline your solution in the second half. Another way of looking at it is going from why (why do I care?) to how (how do I do it?).”
For more information, check out the tips on how to give a great presentation in Nick Morgan’s blog.