Comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously said, “Ninety percent of the population would rather be in the box than give the eulogy.” Although Seinfeld is an entertainer and not a psychologist, his perspective on the enthusiasm – or lack thereof – most show for public speaking was spot-on. Those who manage to brave the stage or podium, whether by choice or assignment, tend to be fairly uninspiring. In fact, the most common appraisal from colleagues who have listened to another executive speak is a one-word review: “fine”. And “fine” is adequate praise, considering the limited creativity, enthusiasm, and delivery techniques that most presenters display.
So what’s the antidote to a “fine” presentation?
The Power Source of a Presentation
Most presenters tend to follow a very academic model for their programs, meaning they invest the bulk of their effort, time, and energy on research and content. It’s a mistake. Content, of course, is critical, but to deliver it well one must first be prepared—or coached or trained—to convey confidence, or at least the illusion of confidence, to reassure the audience that the speaker is qualified and worth listening to. In addition to real or perceived confidence, a presenter must actively seek to make a compelling connection to their audience, both to include the room as a whole and to appear to engage with as many individuals as possible, through eye contact, compelling gesture, and vocal dynamics.
Keep in mind that when we listen to a speaker in the workplace or on a political stage, our main judgments are rarely in response to the content—“What did you think of her speech?”—but on the speaker: “What did you think of her?”
As much as content matters, it is equally necessary to give attention to the human behaviors that audiences respond well to, which include the appearance of confidence, fluid body language, the illusion of direct contact, an engaging voice or tone of voice, well-structured content, and perhaps most important: energy, passion, and personalization.
Albert Mehrabian, psychology professor emeritus at University of Southern California, has studied the impression-making effect of behaviors on an audience, discovering that 55 percent of all impressions are purely visual – and this includes attire, personal appearance, posture, and gesture. Mehrabian also found that 35 percent are tonal (having to do with pitch, volume, and pace of speech). Only 10 percent of impressions, Mehrabian discovered, are directly related to content.
Again, this underscores the importance of performance in delivery, and the benefits of sophisticated communication technique to help deliver content effectively.
Choreographing a Presentation
The main power of any presentation hinges on a performance, so it makes sense to consider your stagecraft as you begin to develop a framework for content.
Think about how you might dress up, dramatize, or demonstrate various elements of your delivery, to make your messages more immediate, visceral, and lively. In other words, whenever possible, show rather than tell – and no, the use of PowerPoint does not fill that requirement.
Also, consider the significance of your own attire: a compelling presenter should demonstrate elevation in the role by paying careful attention to wardrobe, personal grooming, and accessories.
The Magic of Three
Your core content should fit in the palm of your hand. This means that in organizing your talk, always work from three main points or messages so that you can easily introduce those topics and then signal to your audience as you move from one to the next, ending with a summary of all three. Using this simple and straightforward structure, you should be able to present familiar content without notes, script, or slides.
Thus, you can supply your audience with a roadmap at the outset of the program, saying, in effect, “Today I am going to talk about three things…” You can also enumerate them visually on your hand and fingers as you preview your topics.
The Five W’s, Your Role(s), and Your Goal(s)
Before presenting, you should know the five W’s: who are you speaking to? What do you need the audience to know? Where do you want to lead them, intellectually and emotionally? When should you invite interaction? Why should they listen to you?
Also know your role(s): what “character” are you playing: advocate? Salesperson? Lobbyist? Marketer? Lastly, know your goal(s): what do you want your audience to feel, know, and/or do during and after your delivery? Enroll in a program? Buy a product? Change their behavior? Change their minds?
Delivering a Presentation: Bringing Content to Life
In terms of capturing your audience’s attention and commanding their respect, you have a very limited window of opportunity, as they will make a determination about your worthiness as a presenter in a matter of seconds.
In order to command the stage powerfully, make sure you enter the space intentionally and energetically. Elevate your posture, engage the audience with eye contact, and don’t forget to pause and smile.
You should not, under any circumstances, grip the podium as if it were a life raft, stare at a fixed point or focus on one person. Also, don’t forget to breathe.
One of the best—and easiest—ways to engage your audience is to cross what is known in the theater world as the fourth wall, or the barrier of formality and distance between speaker and audience. Bridging that gap can be done through inviting your listeners to participate through a poll, exercise, or sharing results of a pre-survey or questionnaire.
If you are using technology, make sure that slides or other devises support you; not the other way around. Always be prepared to deliver a program “live” in case your technology fails. If you are using PowerPoint, keep in mind that you use it as an enhancement, not a script or prompt, and certainly not a document to convey detailed information. If you want your listeners to look at statistics or charts, hand them out; just don’t distribute your entire presentation or they will pay you no attention.
Managing Questions and Answers
It is generally advantageous to invite questions from your audience, but do keep a few guidelines in mind. You should repeat or paraphrase questions so that they are heard by everyone. Also, learn transition techniques to refer, defer, or neutralize irrelevant or hostile questions. Also, you must be willing to say, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” If you don’t know an answer, don’t pretend to.
If there are multiple speakers, make sure each individual presenter focuses their attention on the colleague who is speaking. During a question and answer section, select a single moderator and then have the most appropriate colleagues respond to particular questions.
Keep in mind that a positive attitude will ultimately make all the difference in terms of how you approach the opportunity, and how the audience responds to you. Even if you are a reluctant speaker, visualize success in the role, and remember to focus your attention on the audience rather than yourself.
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld: If you are going to climb out of the casket, you might as well make the most of it.
Raleigh Mayer, the Gravitas Guru and principal of Raleigh Mayer Consulting, is an executive elevation advisor, coach, and keynote speaker specializing in communication, presentation, and leadership development. She is currently a senior fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, an instructor Barnard Collegeʼs Athena Center for Womenʼs Leadership, and an adjunct professor of marketing and management at New York University.