Do people ever go on courses to become a parent? Rarely, I’d say. And yet, somehow, we are expected to be able to do it, and do it well.
It’s a similar thing with making presentations. There are courses on how to do it properly, of course, but few people use them. And yet, once one reaches a certain position in a modern organisation, presentation skills are assumed – usually wrongly.
Over the past 40 years of working in major organisations all over the world, I have seen many people fail, and just a few who have the skills and personality to do it well, with the majority falling in between. Certainly in the last 12 years, since actively making a living from public speaking at conferences, seminars, etc, I can confirm that, however interesting someone’s subject matter may be, it is the style quality that makes an audience listen, and, more importantly, take in the message.
So why is it so difficult to get it right, and why do many people have a massive fear of public speaking? I’d like to summarise what I think are the key issues when making a presentation or speech to an audience, large or small, at, say, a seminar or conference.
Some people will always be better at it than others
I start with the issue that, like most things in life, some people will always be better at it than others. As presenting is a skill, techniques can be learned to improve delivery and design, but still there will be some who should never try it, and the first rule is, if you are one of these people, admit it to yourself and don’t do it! It is not true that the higher up one goes in an organisation, the better one’s presentation skills get (though practice does help). Still, time and time again I see CEOs invited to address conferences (and accepting) solely because of their position in the organisation rather than whether they are any good. This doesn’t do them, or the event organiser, any favours at all. Far better to use someone with the flair and skill to present as the organisation’s public face.
Slides should be simple, clear and backed up by loads of knowledge
Next, there are many ways in which the task of presenting can be made easier. Nowadays, PowerPoint is the primary tool to support the speaker in getting information across to an audience, but so often it is used badly. Font size is too small, slides are too crowded, colours clash, the speaker tries to use complicated video and web-links that rarely work (even if they did 10 minutes ago at rehearsals!). Worse still, even with all of the support of the slides, the speaker then tries to read the speech from a lectern. As a result the style is wooden, the presenter comes across as someone who doesn’t know the subject, and the audience drifts/dozes. PowerPoint IS the prompt, and a good speaker uses it purely as the jotter to remind him/her what comes next. The slides should be simple, clear, sometimes entertaining, and backed up by loads of knowledge in the presenter’s head.
Let’s get jokes out of the way
There is certainly a place for humour in excellent speeches, as long as it is part of the speaker’s normal personality. Occasionally visuals jokes can work, but rarely do purely verbal ones, though one-liners can be remarkably successful in puncturing the seriousness sometimes. The point is that the humour must be relevant to the topic. A side dig at the oxymoron concerning a sentence with the words Ryanair and good service in it means much more to an audience than a stand-alone joke that might be funny down the pub, but not in front of 600 people.
Smartness is still necessary
Physical things can mean more than one would think. Dress codes nowadays are much looser than they used to be, but smartness is still necessary, unless you have cultivated a scruffy look for a while and are known for it – like Steve Jobs or Simon Woodroffe. Having said that, one can also be too stuffy, and it’s difficult to be flamboyant in a suit and old school tie.
Does one move around the stage or stay at the lectern? This is totally a personal preference, though, if you are naturally demonstrative, being tied to the lectern is restrictive. However, it can help calm nerves, and sometimes one can get artificially tied there when the organisers haven’t provided a remote slide changer.
Poor time keeping
One of the commonest faults with speakers, however famous, is poor time keeping. Too often have I seen speakers who have not put enough effort into practising and timing their speech, usually because they think that their subject matter is so important that it must be heard. This is NEVER acceptable. If the presenter cannot fit the message into the allotted time slot, within a minute or so, then they are being rude to their hosts, their audience, and their fellow speakers – no exceptions. Practice, familiarity, and flexibility with the presentation timing are essential to allow ad-libs, small case studies and anecdotes to add flavour.
The right timing
However, on a similar point, many organisers of conferences and seminars have to take some blame for making this task harder. To expect an expert speaker to get the topic across in 20, 30, or even 40 minutes can be a bit of an insult, and as a result the points being made are not covered in enough depth. Personally I refuse all bookings for speeches of less than 30 minutes, and rarely do gigs less than 45 minutes. This is not conceit, it’s just that I want to maximise the impact of my message, and not overrun.
OK, these are the key external factors that a speaker should get right to ensure a smooth performance. Yes, I use the word performance deliberately. While, of course, attempting to get a message across to an audience, a good speaker should never lose sight of the fact that they are also there to entertain. One should want the audience to not only learn, but appreciate the talent in front of them – i.e. you – and this takes more skill than just getting the housekeeping right.
Controlling nerves is a difficult thing for everyone; yes, even the best of speakers. It is the channelling of these nerves into adrenalin that makes the difference between being a nervous wreck and a success. Acting skills help, as does a clear voice and excellent projection. Some of this comes from personality, of course – an extrovert may have an advantage, but can still come across as a conceited a**e, and a know-it-all is easily spotted by a sharp audience. The image one should be looking for is the consummate professional, extremely knowledgeable about the subject, sure in opinions, and perhaps even a teeny bit controversial without being bombastic.
Practice means putting in some real time
Training and practice can make much more of a difference than you may think, especially if you are really serious about it. I have seen many people on the circuit who were, let’s face it, poor to average when they started, who have blossomed once they got comfortable and realised that this is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Practice means putting in some real time – watching yourself on video, bouncing ideas off friends, starting with small groups and events before moving on to national and international conferences, etc.
This is the most fun you can have with your clothes on
The number of really great speakers in any particular field is not massive, and many know each other. It is perfectly possible for most people to get to that level, with effort, as in all walks of life, but if you don’t quite get there, don’t despair. Becoming a good, reliable, timely and entertaining speaker is an incredibly satisfying thing to do personally, and it will put you well ahead of many who attempt it without thinking or working at it.
I look forward to seeing you on-stage some time soon.
Paul Cooper is a Director of Customer Plus (www.customerplus.co.uk)