According to conventional wisdom, most people fear public speaking more than death.
While this sounds extreme at first, upon reflection, it does follow a certain logic. After all, we’ve been designed by natural selection to feel a healthy dose of nerves anytime we’re speaking to a group of silent people staring at us. In “the ancestral evolutionary environment,” being judged unfavorably and rejected by your tribe had some real consequences.
So it makes sense that most business leaders don’t take public speaking seriously as a craft; it’s nerve-wracking. Why would we want to spend more time doing it than we have to? And why on earth would the notoriously shy, young Warren Buffet take public speaking classes?
Because if you’re looking to grow your business and fast track your career, learning to speak articulately and authoritatively is a “master skill”.
It’s not enough to have great ideas if you don’t know how to communicate them. By improving your public speaking skills, you’ll be more persuasive and establish authority with any audience.
If you want to grow your business, you’ll almost certainly need to have some sort of sales presentation, regardless of industry. While you may be able to delegate this over time, for small and/or new businesses, sales is always the founder’s first and foremost job. This could take the form of persuading a client to hire you to solve a problem, or even using a pitch deck with potential investors.
There are also few better ways to establish authority and generate leads than giving talks or hosting workshops. Whether you’re doing a lunch and learn for a local small business or keynoting your industry’s biggest conference, you’ll be positioned as an expert and give potential clients a feel for what it’s like to work with you.
And even inside your organization, the ability to organize and deliver your thoughts in a clear and compelling fashion will make you more persuasive.
Public speaking, like any skill, needs to be practiced. You can’t learn how to do it by reading an article. However, if you review the best practices below and put them into practice, you’ll immediately become more effective.
As you prepare your content, you always want to start with the big idea; what’s the number one thing you want your audience to take from your speech?
To clarify this you have to understand two things:
1) Who is your audience?
2) What do you want them to know, do, and/or feel?
Once you’ve articulated the core outcome, you want to create a compelling opening that grabs your audience’s attention and quickly makes it clear “what’s in it for them.”
Openings not only set the stage for your talk, but they impact how people remember it: “People will remember what they see first, and what they feel last.”
There are a lot of ways to open a speech. Whether you use a story, a quote, or a provocative statement, you want to immediately draw your audience in and make it clear what you have to say has real benefit for them.
A good opening helps your audience understand there’s a problem that needs a solution. I once heard a speaking coach offer this colorful metaphor: “Before you can sell the ambulance, you have to sell the car crash.”
After establishing the big idea, but before you dive into the content proper, provide some background about yourself. How much biographical background you need will depend on how well the audience knows you. But more often than not, you’ll need to provide (just enough) credibility-building details to make it clear you’re the one who can help scratch the audience’s itch.
Organize Your Points Into A Logical Structure
Working back from the impact you want to have on your audience, create an orderly structure of points and subpoints that support the big idea.
A full-day workshop allows for much greater detail than a fifteen minute laser talk, but the outline will remain the same. While advanced speakers can occasionally go completely rogue and play with structure, for those new to speaking, it’s a good practice to write out your points and subpoints. This will provide the bones of your talk.
It’s also important to build in interactive moments so you’re not just talking at your audience. Even the most compelling speaker will start to lose some of the audience if they don’t build in periodic moments of engagement. Some examples include:
- A writing exercise
- Partner conversation
- Group brainstorming
In addition to providing data and logical arguments for your main points, stories are a useful tool. Just make sure they actually elucidate your points and subpoints. Stories for their own sake can sometimes build rapport, but since shorter is always better, you want to be sure they actually add value to your talk.
Few things ruin a great speech more than a withering ending. Since it will weigh heavily on how your audience remembers your talk, spend time crafting a strong ending that leaves no doubt about your big idea or what you want them to do next.
After you’ve delivered the body of your speech, it’s usually a good idea to review the main points again at the end. And if you have to handle logistics, make sure that’s not the final slide or comments. Simply cover them before your “real” ending.
As you consider how to close, go back to your big idea. Creativity will once again be your friend, but however you choose to end, it needs to be in service of your big idea. What action do you want them to take next? And what’s in it for them if they do? What do you want them to feel as your talk comes to an end?
A Few Thoughts on Slides
As someone that gives a lot of talks, I have seen countless slide decks. And most of them are… not good. Creating great slide decks is an art in and of itself, and beyond the scope of this article. But below are a few random thoughts to consider.
- Not Too Many Words - The epitome of “Death By Powerpoint” is a slide full of too much text that the speaker reads aloud. As a rule, you want to use as few words on your slides as possible. If your intention is to give slides to your audience as a standalone resource or to remember your talk, create a different document or pdf. Slides should support your talk. They’re not the appropriate format to communicate everything you said.
- Not JUST Pictures - As a reaction to “Death By Powerpoint” word-dump-slides, many professional speakers have gone the opposite directions and use pictures only. While there can be a time and place for this style of picture-only slidedeck, more often than not you miss an opportunity to provide a visual structure for your content. To be clear, visually dynamic and well-designed slides definitely benefit from thoughtfully chosen pictures. But as long as you’re not burying your audience with too many words, bullet points can absolutely serve your big idea.
- If You Use Bullet Points, Use Them One At A Time - If you do decide to use bullet points, set up simple animation on your slides so the bullet point only appears when you’re ready to discuss it. If your slide shows all your bullet points at once, your audience will be reading the slide and not listening.
- When You Use Words, Either Read Them OR Give Your Audience A Moment - When slides have words, your audience will always spend a moment reading. Since you’ve read this article, your words will be kept to a bare minimum. Nonetheless, it’s confusing for your audience to read one set of words while hearing another. You can either read the words as your slide appears, OR simply pause for a moment to let your audience read.
By taking the time to plan out a strong opening and ending, logically ordering your content, and building a slide deck that doesn’t suck, you’re already way ahead of the pack.
But to really succeed in public speaking, we’ll need to spend some time mastering the delivery as well. Be sure to click HERE to read part two.