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Becoming a crowd pleaser

It takes more than expertise to make a public speech interesting. By Stuart Shepherd

Conference day. Presentation time. It is your moment in the spotlight. Your opportunity to shine, to show an influential audience why you and the company you work for lead from the front. To show why you, not someone else, have been asked to be up on the stage.

Being an expert in your field, or your office, is one thing. Presenting like an expert - that is something else.

There are plenty of people who have been there before, now running sessions in which they will share their insights into the good, the bad and the ugly and help you raise your game. Be a little mindful, however, of what you are buying into.

“Don’t be turned into a puppet by a presentation skills trainer,” says business strategist and keynote speaker Prof Richard Scase. “They should encourage you to be yourself, to bring out your personality and attributes and identify your own unique way of conveying a message.”

“The reason this is so important is that personality shapes the style and delivery of the content,” he adds. “Academics have been getting this wrong for years. They assume the content drives the presentation.”

“But you do not learn from a lecture itself,” he says. “It enthuses you and then you go away and learn outside it - he same is true of a presentation.

“That’s why authenticity is key - it is not what you say, it is the way that you say it.”

You will know the message has got through when people want to talk about it afterwards. Giving them something tangible like a handout or corporate brochure, a reminder to take away for later, will help to hold the enthusiasm.

Confidence tricks

“Take confidence in your presentation from the fact that it is you that has been asked to speak,” says Don Ward, chief executive of Constructing Excellence. “You hold something your audience want or need to know.”

“Be clear in yourself,” he adds, “that you know what that is in terms of a single message, something no one has heard before, and then build the content of the presentation around that.”

If the message is something you are likely to be asked to present on regularly then it is worthwhile, Mr Ward suggests, developing some core material with your company’s corporate values woven in.
The more familiar it becomes the more your confidence grows and the better you deliver it.

“You’ll stop relying on notes,” says Mr Ward, “and feel much easier about bringing in related anecdotes or stories of things that have happened to you.

“This personal element adds considerably to what you are saying, makes it more vivid and easier to recall. The audience can see they are hearing about something real instead of from a textbook.”
It is good to remember that there are lots of different ways of retaining information. Some people listen attentively and hang on your every word, others find visual images strongest, while some have a preference for numbers and graphs.

Visual memory

A month after your presentation more than half of your audience will still be able to tell you some of the pictures you displayed.

Some can remember something you said, while less than one in 10 is going to tell you accurately any of the phrases that went up on your slides.

Mr Ward says: “Usually it’s best to have a balanced mix and throw in some interaction as well.

“Get the audience to stick their hands up, even if only to show who is an architect or a builder. They then have a stronger sense of the occasion and who listens to you.”

It can be tempting to try using a lot of open-hand and other movements to emphasis a point. Be careful though. These signals do not always work the way you might intend.

“Gestures always have to be in keeping with who you are as a person,” says John McGurk, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “They look great on someone like Peter Snow, who has established his brand, but seem silly on the wrong people.”

Any presenter is going to rely on their voice as being one of their strongest assets. It should convey confidence without suggesting arrogance.

A nervous and faltering diction is unsettling and will make your audience think you do not know or believe what you are saying.

Pace and tone should vary to retain your listeners’ attention. Slower more deliberate passages will emphasise key messages and can be interspersed with injections of faster speaking and movement.

“Always greet your audience,” says Mr McGurk. “It frames the presentation and helps you get started on time.

“As a rule of thumb give two or three minutes for each slide and if you have 20 minutes to speak, prepare for 15.
“It gives you flexibility, allows for questions and if it comes to it you can finish early Đ which is far better than finishing late.”

Five key points for public speaking

First impressions count for everything, never more so than at a presentation. Prof Scase says: “It is very important to remember that you have 30 seconds at the beginning of your address to establish your credibility.”

There are some golden rules to help you seize the moment:

  1. The background factors – your dress code, your look, your body language – all lend themselves to establishing your authority and engaging your audience even before you speak.

  2. You will be portraying your personality through your presentation, so whether you are serious-minded, solid, understanding or enthusiastic, make it clear from the start which of these you are. Do not try to be what you are not.

  3. Set an agenda. Convey where your focus will be and show your commitment to your subject. Make your key messages clear.

  4. Good speakers do not use notes.

  5. Use language, terminology and illustrative examples that demonstrate you understand the needs, wishes and aspirations of your audience and how they go about things. It breaks down the barriers and lays out a common ground.

Professor Scase’s tips on how to make the best of the stage set-up

In his many appearances as a keynote conference speaker, business strategist and forecaster Professor Richard Scase has learnt some important lessons about being in control of the presentation space and keeping his audience engaged.

“Events companies try to turn speakers into talking statues”, he says. “They set up a podium, they fix the microphone to it and perhaps the Powerpoint cue button. Then they focus the lights on it as well. The crew dictates the environment to the speaker well before the presentation starts. It’s a killer. As far as possible don't stand behind a podium.”

The speaker, as far as Prof Scase is concerned, must always be in command of the area they are going to work in.

“I've had many a row with events crews on this one,” he says. “I walk around when I do a presentation and put in a lot of gestures. They hate this because it means I need a remote tie microphone and cue button. It really goes against their wishes.

“They try to give me reasons why it can’t be done, that the lights are already set up for instance,” Prof Scase says. “But I insist. I refuse to have my style of presentation dictated to me by the convenience of events organisers. I am the one whose performance is evaluated, the one who gets judged and assessed, not them.”

He also offers a word of caution to the presenter who may be tempted to ask forgiveness for keeping delegates from their refreshments.

“Never ever apologise in a presentation,” he says. “So often I have seen someone get up and say sorry for being the only thing between the audience and the coffee or lunch break.”

“What a terrible way to start! You might as well tell them you are going to be dull and they should get their coffee now.”

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