What do most of the best and worst ideas have in common? They are worthless if you cannot communicate them effectively.
From the many mediums of communication, perhaps the most influential when it comes to moving people to action is through a persuasive speech. That is because while logic might convince brains, emotions is what moves bodies to action, and emotions are strongly conveyed by looking someone in the eye and communicating a message using your body movements and unique voice.
For these reasons, public speaking is a tool that the best influencers of any era have relied on, and continue to do so today. This post is about how to confidently approach and deliver a public speech or presentation so that you can effectively deliver your message, while enjoying the process and allowing your audience to do the same.
How do you judge whether a presentation is successful? Unequivocally, it is your audience who gets to decide. If you get them to listen to you, provide a message that is useful to them, and explain such message in a way they understand, then you did your part.
As with most things, let’s start at the beginning: getting the audience’s attention.
Start with Them
If there is one thing you can change to become a more effective and charismatic presenter, it is to know this:
The presentation is not about you, or your ideas, or your awesome life. The presentation is about your audience.
No person leaves a presentation thinking “That presentation was amazing. She told us so many great things that in no way apply to my life”. No. If you liked a presentation it is because it was relevant to you. Maybe it changed your way of looking at something, or it taught you something new, or it made you feel an unconventional emotion. Or, even better, it inspired you. Or maybe it simply made you laugh. Still, in all of the above cases, you took something out of it. Eliciting that reaction from an audience is not accidental. You as a presenter must be intentional in making the presentation relevant to your audience.
A cliche advice you hear when preparing for a presentation is to picture your audience naked. Forgetting about how creepy that is, it also requires a lot of imagination. A better approach is to let everyone keep their clothes on, and picture yourself as sitting in the audience. When preparing your presentation, any decision you make about what to say and how to say it should be based on whether you, as an audience member, would listen to a stranger that is delivering that presentation.
Imagine I tell my audience I can dunk a basketball. That will impress most and interest some, for I am not very tall. But, will they be talking about it tomorrow? Most definitely not. However, if instead I tailor my message to be not about me dunking, but about the steps and process to achieve something you were unlikely to achieve (e.g. me learning how to dunk), then the audience can form a connection between my presentation and their life, and they will be listening attentively. In that case, they might be talking about what I taught them for years to come!
Now that it is clear you need to make your presentation about the audience, how do you do that? How can you possibly know what they are interested in? It is not too hard actually. For starters, there is information you can gather in advance to know your audience’s profile. For example, if presenting at a conference, your audience shares an interest in whatever topic the conference is about. Before your presentation, work on gathering as much information as possible about them. You can most likely get statistics about who they are, what they are interested in, their age range, etc. from whoever is organizing the event. You could even talk to members of the audience before your presentation begins. This has the additional benefit of helping you relax before presenting.
What if you cannot get any intel prior to your presentation? There are still useful tools available for you. One is to start your presentation by asking them questions. “Who here has ever been to the ocean”. Then you tell them all about Nemo and his sea turtle friends. Here is the kicker: you do not need to modify your presentation on the spot based on how many hands you see go up. In fact, you should already have an accurate expectation for the response you will get. What you are doing by asking questions on the spot is not so much learning about the audience (although that part is useful) but more so showing your audience a clear connection between your message and them. In that way, you are allowing them to identify with you and your content. It is not terribly important for you to know how many people in the audience have been to the ocean. The important part is to make it clear to them that in some way your talk about sea turtles has a connection to them. As humans, we are way more similar to each other than we are different (yes, you are special, but so is everyone else). Therefore, most of the time making the message relevant to the audience is as simple as reminding them of the connection between you and them. A great example I once heard was of a guy who started his presentation about the female reproductive system with “Who here has a uterus? (half the hands went up). Ok, who knows someone who has a uterus? (most hands went up). Alright then, if neither of those, you definitely came out of one”. Just like that the topic was of relevance to everyone, because we either are women, know them, and/or came out of one.
Another way of achieving a connection with the audience--and one of the most effective ways--is through stories, but more on that later.
Before we leave the “audience” topic, remember this: everyone in the audience wants you to succeed. Our social nature makes it uncomfortable for them if you perform badly, and they do not want that awkward discomfort. Unless you have some shady enemies in the audience, know that everyone is rooting for you. And if someone for some reason is not, so what? Prove them wrong.
Now that you know how to connect with the audience, it is time to design your message so that it will actually be useful to them.
In 2011, the city I grew up in was declared the deadliest city in the world. With over 9000 people killed in 4 years, Ciudad Juarez and its drug cartel wars received global attention. As I shared these facts during a presentation, I had a slide with just the number “9000” on it. I clicked on the slide and the number started to rapidly count down to 1. “From the 9000 people killed, I want to focus on one particular case today” I said. The story I shared was about a family I knew closely, who had been a victim of this violence. The point of my presentation was that cities can turn into violent, chaotic places when designed and administered poorly, and about actions urban planners and public officials could take to prevent that from happening. The point of focusing on one, as opposed to 9000 cases was for my audience to identify with the victims of one murder. One person, one family, as opposed to 9000. It is very hard to empathize with 9000 cases. It seems abstract and it is hard to imagine. But one victim could one day be us. One victim could one day be your loved one. That is how I showed the audience that the information coming could one day be relevant to them.
Stories are one of the best mediums humans have to connect with other people. We have used stories for millenia, and they have proven effective ways to share knowledge. If by telling a story you can get your audience to float from their sits and stand on your shoes, your presentation will have an impact on them that simple words cannot achieve. Visualization is powerful.
If told well, stories allows your audience to relate to you. If they see a part of them in you then they will be more attentive and open to your ideas. And if they are open to new ideas they are open to change. It is this change or newness that will make your presentation memorable.
The advice here is to use stories to make messages resonate with your audience. The details on how to accomplish that depends on your message and your life stories, so we will not dwell on it much, but look at presentations from great storytellers (comedians and TED Talks are a good place to start).
Going beyond a story to introduce your message and capture the audience’s attention, what should your content actually be? The answer to that question depends entirely on your particular situation, but here are some guidelines on how to help you answer that question. First, ask yourself “what do I want the audience to leave with?”. There should be one key objective you want to achieve. When your audience leaves, what knowledge do you want them to possess? Or, better yet, what action do you want them to take? If you are trying to convince them that they should recycle, then your whole presentation should be around that message, and they should leave motivated to recycle.
Your main topic should be obvious and easy to grasp. If you can elevator-pitch it (meaning, explain it in 30-60 seconds) to a friend and it is clear to him or her, then that is a good sign. The message of this article, for instance, is to help you better prepare for and deliver a presentation so you can communicate your message effectively and confidently. By being crystal clear on your message, you avoid any ambiguity and are able to guide your audience so they approach listening from the right perspective. If two people leave your presentation arguing what it was about, then your message was not clear enough. Note: sometimes you may want that ambiguity, just like art is the individual experiencing of an artist’s expression, you may want your audience to individually live your message in their own way; but most of the time, you want consistency.
To ensure your audience leaves with something, you must distill your message to its core form and focus on the key points. Then, you must be able to clearly and succinctly explain those key points to them. At the end, you want to remind them what those key points were. In other words:
Tell them what you will be telling them. Tell them. Then tell them that you told them.
The above is how you structure your delivery. But how do you actually deliver it? Do you spit out the lines you have rehearsed and memorized? How do you remain calm? Do you stay standing still or move around? And, what do you do with your damn hands?
If you are someone who gets unreasonably nervous prior to a presentation, I have good and bad news. Good: most people are afraid of speaking in public. Bad: there is no quick fix. The only way to get calmer is by being more confident, and you become more confident by a combination of courage and practice.
Practice comes in two ways. One is when you actually present, that is practice for your next presentation. But, before every presentation, you also get to practice.
Many would say that the best way to present is just to wing it. Many are wrong. Great orators became great by practicing. A good example of a bad person doing this well is Hitler; he practiced his speeches until perfection, often in front of a mirror. It is cringey to scrutinize yourself in the mirror when practicing a speech, but it is well worth it. When you do it, focus both on what you are saying, and how you are saying (including voice, but also posture and gestures).
First, let’s talk about what you are saying. I cannot think of a better way to make yourself nervous for a presentation than by memorizing your lines. First, they are easy to forget. Second, they require a high cognitive involvement that makes you go into your head and leave the room. That disconnects you from your audience and removes liveness to your delivery. The one exception to this rule is when your presentation has a short time limit (1-2 minutes) that you cannot exceed. In that case it is okay to memorize so you make sure to say it right and not go overtime.
A better approach is to memorize an outline, focusing on the transitions from thought to thought and filling the information with your own words.
The best way, however, is to create an outline and convert it into a vivid story in an imaginary world you can effortlessly travel in your head. This is the same method used by people who win professional memorization contests. For example, let’s say some dude was presenting this:
“My name is Aladdin and I will be talking to you today about how to improve your credit score. First, you want to start building your credit history early. So, open up a bank and credit card account when you are young. Second, you want to have variety in your credit. So do not just open one credit line, open several, but not all at once. Get one, then after a year or two, open another. You do not need tens of them, but at least more than a couple. The other thing you need to remember is to never spend more than one-third of your available credit for any given credit line. If you have a card where you can spend $6000, do not spend more than $2000. In conclusion, credit score agencies use certain factors to judge how risky you are. If they have no data, they will play it safe and think you are risky, so start early and have variety. Conversely, if they have data on you but is bad data, like you spending close to your limit, they will penalize you. Happy shopping and thanks for listening. Now, to talk about diversity in Disney princesses, Jasmine!”
Aladdin could try and memorize all of that word by word, but we already agreed that is a bad idea. He could instead create an outline like the following:
That is easy enough for super short presentations like this one, but not for longer ones. Instead, Aladdin creates the following story in his head:
“A baby goes to buy one magic flying carpet (that represents starting early). The baby then flies to a playground and meets his chubby baby friend, Carl. His carpet cannot fly with that much weight, so he goes back to the market and buys another magic carpet for Carl (this represents variety). They then go flying together, racing to see who is the fastest, but they get pulled over by a magic carpet police officer for going over the baby limit, which is one-third the adult limit (you get the idea). Finally, they go to baby jail and get their fingerprints taken because they are not yet in the system (this represents the lack of data part). However, apparently Carl does have a record! Turns out he is a known baby criminal!! (this represents the bad-data part).”
By visualizing his speech as a vivid and unusual story, Aladdin is able to remember every step in his presentation, and just fills in the words.
That covers what you will be saying. Let’s now talk about how you will be saying it.
When it comes to your voice, there is no one way of doing it right. But there are sure ways of doing it wrong. The most wrong is to be monotonous by not varying your tone (mainly pitch, pace and volume). Unless you want to put people to sleep, introduce some variation.
When it comes to your body, you should move with purpose. That means you should stand steady and move your body and hands to make a point or signal a transition. No swaying from side to side. No penguin gestures (when you keep your hands to your side and do quick and small unnecessary hand movements). No walking back and forth for the sake of it. All those movements are bodily expressions of unease or nervous states of mind.
Instead, face your audience. Move your hands with large gestures when appropriate, but otherwise limit movement. If the stage is large enough, walk to one place and stay there. Then after some time, walk to another spot, especially to signal a transition in your presentation. Also, speak slower than you would usually. Almost uncomfortably slow because chances are that by being nervous you will speed up when you talk and you will not notice it.
Most importantly, remember to breathe!
One thing most fail to notice is that being nervous is not inherently negative. It is your body’s heightened response to an experience that merits (or seems to merit) a heightened response. It is our perception of nervousness that we associate with negative emotions. We feel the stress, so we become anxious. But without that anxiety it is your mind and body entering a sharper, more alert state. Do not fight it. You want to be alert. You want that sharp focus. Thank the body, and take agency over your reaction to it.
That is a lot of things to remember. But not if they come to you naturally. How do you accomplish that? Well, when you talk to friends you do not move nervously, you move with purpose. You talk at a reasonable speed. You breathe. This means you do not need to memorize how to behave, you only need to place yourself in the right frame of mind. To do that, before you start the presentation, take a deep breath, a pause, and ground yourself to reality. Notice you are there. Notice your audience. Do not think. Be present. Then, and only then, begin your presentation. Once you do, do not talk to an audience. Talk to a person. That means, look at one person and tell her something, then move to another person and tell him the next thing. Your presentation then becomes the sum of those individual conversations (some heavily monopolized conversations though).
I mentioned pauses above. An additional note on that: do not be afraid of them. Pauses are powerful. When timed right, they keep your audience waiting in suspense. The good news is that your audience does not know your script, so they do not really know if you timed a pause right. Even unintentional pauses (like those when you cannot remember what to say next) can have a powerful impact. Own your pauses, whether you planned them or not.
If you cannot communicate effectively, it does not matter how great your ideas are. When speaking in public, communicating effectively means doing certain things, such as making the message relevant to your audience, connecting with them by using stories and by allowing them to stand in your shoes, and providing a clear concise message. While your words and message are crucial, their impact is proportional to the quality of your delivery. The best deliveries come with preparation, and the best preparation comes from putting yourself in the place of your audience, and from deliberate practice. To increase the chances of delivering a memorable presentation, you must be in a controlled frame of mind. This means grounding yourself to reality and using stress to your advantage. Effective ways of getting to that state include taking control of your movements and breathing, creating a vivid story to navigate your presentation without much cognitive overhaul, and varying your voice and tone to avoid a monotonous sound.
Armed with all this, you can be confident that your presentation will be more memorable than before. With enough practice, you might have people talking about your presentation for years to come.