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Tag Archives: Presentation Tips

Make Your Audience Feel Something

I was stuck in a meeting from hell today. Boring agenda. Listless participants. Too many tangents. If that weren’t enough, the meeting leader was not on his game and had introduced the first agenda item and then the second without taking time for introductions. One participant raised her hand and asked, “I know we’re half-way through this meeting, but I would really like to know who’s here. Could we go around the room and introduce ourselves?” Everyone agreed so we stopped the meeting for introductions. These too, were mind-numbingly dull until one guy shared a fun fact about himself.

After giving us his name, rank and serial number, he happened to mention that he just returned home from his honeymoon. At that point a few heads turned his way. The meeting leader made an off-hand comment about vows of marriage being a really big step in a person’s life, to which the guy replied, “True, but when you strike oil, you stop drilling.”

Everyone in the room perked up and looked at him directly, and what we saw was a smile on his face that went from one ear to the other. He was beaming. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to assume that the women started smiling back at him because it is refreshing to hear a guy publicly express loving thoughts about his wife, even if he did compare her to an oil gusher. I suppose the men in the room – and I’m taking a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess here – started smiling because the speaker’s facial expression may have conjured up images of, well, a great honeymoon.

From that moment on the meeting changed. There was energy and bonding and whoever else was left to introduce themselves stepped up their game. In scientific terms, the speaker’s sharing of personal information and expression of genuine emotion opened up a neural pathway in our brains that then let in more information and encouraged us to participate.

Sharing emotion may feel risky, but it can help you make a much better connection with your audience.

– Barbara

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Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Part One of a Two-Part Series on Ridding your Speech of Clichés

The debt ceiling debate has shed light on many problems, not the least of which is our penchant for speaking in clichés. After weeks of listening to politicians on both sides of the aisle sound like used car salesmen, we now have a list in my house of the Top Five sayings that should never be uttered again in this century:

 

  1. At the end of the day
  2. Kick the can down the road
  3. To be perfectly honest
  4. Robbing Peter to pay Paul
  5. Thinking outside the box

Thanks to the endless parade of talking heads, these expressions are plumb wore out (I just had to do that).  When you don’t have anything substantive to say, or you haven’t prepared, these clichés come in handy.  Many of our clients will respond to our feedback on eliminating clichés by saying that it’s important that they sound casual and conversational.  That’s fine.  You can still appear easy-going without uttering one of the five bizblabs above.  There is a difference between conversational speaking in which you avoid fancy, ivory-tower-sounding words and sleep-inducing catch phrases.

Do your audience a favor and delete these expressions from your memory.

– Barbara

Larry Crowne and Public Speaking

Having taught undergrads at the college level, I believe that gives me license to critique the movie Larry Crowne.  Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are back together again, but in no way do they deserve your hard-earned money.  I went because I wanted to see what Hollywood would do to the art and craft of public speaking.

Julia Roberts plays a cynical, disaffected community college professor who reluctantly teaches Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks.  In every classroom scene she conveys a palpable loathing for her students, except at the end, of course, when she has been transformed by the “life is good” energy of her star student Larry Crowne, played by Tom Hanks.  Did she have to hate her job?  Would the movie be less compelling if she jumped out of bed every morning with the anticipation of shaping young minds and developing the talents of her students?  Oh, wait, I get it:  Larry Crowne is competing with Bad Teacher for box office revenues.  But I digress.

Do not see this movie.  I think Rex Reed said it best in his review:  “In an endurance test of 99 minutes that feels more like running a marathon on the Equator, nothing ever happens in this movie. There is no conflict. The characters are dead on arrival. Somebody must be held accountable for clunky, unspeakable dialogue like ‘I was worked up and under the influence of the demon rum.’ I mean, who talks like that outside the pages of paperbacks for hyper-thyroidal teens sold in airport departure lounges?”  Wow. Harsh.

On the bright side, the movie did get a couple of things right about public speaking.  First, Mrs. Tainot (Julia) suggests to her students  that they find three focal points in the room – one on the left, one on the right and one in the center of the room.  And when you have an important point to make, look directly at the center point for full effect.  Correct. One point for Hollywood.

The second thing they got right was how to deal with nerves.  Toward the end of the movie when Professor Tainot is preparing her students for the final speech, she has them stand up and move their bodies in all sorts of ways while reciting tongue twisters loudly.  This is a great way to diminish nervous tension and it was a real plus in an otherwise wasted two hours of my life.

Sorry Tom and Julia – I love your work, just not in this particular instance.  But Rita Wilson?  Your cameo as the mortgage loan officer stole the show.

– Barbara

What Good Are Your Words if We Can’t Understand You?

Did your mother ever say to you, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? That may be true if you are trying to maintain harmony in your household, but it’s bad advice for aspiring public speakers. How you say the words is just as important as the words you choose. Take for example the important skill of articulation. When you combine poor enunciation with a fast, nervous pace, it is easy to be misunderstood, and possibly even insulting to others.

The other day I was working out to an exercise DVD with my head down, shuffling side to side, not looking at the TV when the instructor yelled “Congressman Brown, Congressman Brown!” I stopped in my tracks and stood up. What?! Surely he didn’t just say that. I rewound the clip and this time I watched while I listened and it turns out that the words were “cover some ground, cover some ground.” OK, that made more sense.

The best way to improve your articulation skills is to speak into a tape recorder and listen back to it. Better yet, have someone else listen to it and tell you what they heard. It’s a better technique than videotaping because the only cue a listener has to understand you is your verbal delivery.

Do you want to hear a great example of verbal articulation? Listen to a clip of Anna Deveare Smith. She’s a master.

– Barbara

Unplug Before You Present!

I attended a keynote presentation last week at an international conference of 3,000 or so executives. I arrived at the ballroom early to get a good seat for the kickoff event because I wanted to gather a lot of new ideas from the keynote speaker who was a nationally known expert in his field. I was the ideal audience member: my interest and expectations were high, I had pen and paper in hand, and a look of anticipation on my face.

Imagine my disappointment when ten minutes into an awkward introduction, the speaker’s Skype alert pops onto the screen. In case you don’t have a Skype alert, see the image above, except that there is no blackout of the person’s name.

Anyway! When this otherwise small and inconspicuous alert pops up on your desktop back at the office, it’s a helpful tool at best, and at worst, it’s a minor distraction. But when the message is magnified on a 20×30-foot I-Max screen, it’s a huge distraction. The speaker didn’t notice it because to his credit, his attention was focused on the audience.

Luckily, there was nothing too personal or potentially damaging during the 1-hour presentation, but it was very distracting. I kept hoping someone really famous would go online, like Hillary Clinton or Chris Rock. I could hear several audience members commenting on how unfortunate it was that the speaker forgot to turn off his alerts and how clueless he seemed to be about the whole thing. Those murmurs turned to laughter at each consecutive pop-up. Needless to say, it was harder to stay focused on the content of the presentation because we all just had to read every alert. After all, inquiring minds want to know.

Before your next big presentation, turn off all your alerts, sounds, beeps, and any other potentially damaging or distracting information. And speaking from experience, this goes for your desktop wallpaper. Need I say more?

– Barbara

What Should You Do With Your Hands?

Charlotte and I facilitated a Speaker Bootcamp this week for a great company whose employees were ready and willing to learn.  When we reached the section on hand gestures, one participant asked, “Does a speaker have to use hand gestures?”  Our answer:  Only on the days of the week that end in Y.

If you want to connect with and leave a lasting impression on your audience, gestures are one leg of a three-legged stool. Without them, the impact of your words and your voice will be diminished.   Great speakers communicate visually as well as verbally.

When we asked the participant to elaborate on her question, she explained that she always felt awkward using her hands and therefore felt that her gestures detracted from her presentation.  She is not alone.  And for that reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to share the coaching we provided during the workshop:

  1.  Find a comfortable base position for your hands near your belt line.  This is the ideal spot for resting hands because it is neither too close to your chest (which can signal fear) nor too close to your, well, crotch, which can signal defensiveness.
  2. While in the base position, try not to grip your hands too tightly. White knuckles are a dead giveaway for nervousness.
  3. Visualize the gesturing “box” which is just outside and above your shoulders and no lower than your hips.  Keep your gestures in this box when you are standing up to speak.
  4. If you are sitting – for example, as a member of a panel presentation – don’t rest your elbows on the table while you gesture.  Sit tall in your chair with your forearms off the table when you are speaking.  When you are waiting your turn to speak, it is fine to rest your arms, but be mindful of your posture so you don’t slouch.
  5. Don’t bounce your hands when gesturing.  Your goal is to enhance your words, not detract from them.  Bouncing hands only worked for Mussolini.

Finally, keep one important thing in mind:  your energy has to go somewhere.  Whether it’s nervous energy or positive energy, using your hands effectively will channel that energy to the right place. Otherwise, it’s going to ooze out in your stance and you will rock and roll in your feet, hips and knees.  Your audience will wonder if you need to use the restroom.

So, yes, Virginia, always use your hands when you speak.

– Barbara

Beware of the Audience “BS” Meter

“I learned from Dad to see and smell out a bullshitter at five hundred yards.”  – Nancy Sinatra

There’s a massive piece of artwork at the entrance to the Sculpture Garden at the Delaware Art Museum.  Made out of 20 feet of twisted metal with a verdigris finish, it’s hard to miss.  The installation is entitled “The Crying Giant,” yet visitors who encounter the piece always laugh out loud.

I’m not sure what the artist (Tom Oterness) had in mind when he named the piece, but each time I walk past it I wonder if he’s OK with the reaction his piece engenders.  I’ve decided that he’s fine with it and perhaps even enjoys the disconnect.

The same cannot be said for public speaking.  Every audience I have ever encountered has a built-in Bull#@% Detector.  If you as the speaker are not genuine, truthful, and aligned with your message, your audience will pick up on it and suddenly that needle has moved into the red zone.  They don’t like it.  Correction: They don’t like you.

I worked with a client last week who called because his recent presentation to pitch a new project to his peers was a ‘swing and a miss.’  He said, “I struck out and I need to find out why.”   As it turns out, his ultimate goal was to get his colleagues to support his own personal and professional agenda.  He figured he could just mask his real purpose by hiding it in organizational buzz words about being innovative thinkers and seizing synergistic opportunities.  But everyone saw through it.  Now he has to do a lot of work to swing the needle back to the left.

The next time you have to persuade or inspire others, be sure that your objective is directly aligned with your delivery.  Be genuine and forthcoming, and your audience will most likely join you on your journey.

– Barbara