by Blake Menefee
No matter what profession you’re in, you’re going to encounter opportunities to speak publicly to your peers, customers, investors, or stakeholders. It can be a smart move for your business or personal brand, so polishing your skills is critical.
I’ve spent the last five years speaking to audiences ranging from 20-person classrooms to events with hundreds of attendees. I’m not particularly charismatic or blessed with any unique gift — other than a strong desire not to embarrass myself — but I’ve learned a few things throughout the years that I think are worth passing on.
Here’s what you need to remember the next time you find yourself in front of an audience with a dry mouth and sweaty palms:
1. Do the Work
Luck favors the well-prepared, but pros don’t need luck. Know your content, know your opinion, know yourself, and know your audience. Do the work and define a clear objective, then actively visualize your utter failure or a standing ovation before you present.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the best thing that can happen? What really needs to happen? This exercise is as old as speaking itself. Take the time to live in all worlds, and you’ll find yourself in the world where preparation and training yield a good result.
2. Avoid Bullet Points — Keep It Conversational
As soon as you put up a slide with words, your audience begins to read instead of listen. Do not overestimate your audience’s attention span! The first few moments in a presentation are the most important for establishing a connection. Set the expectation that people should feel safe to speak and participate. (You can even start with a question and call on people to answer to keep them on their toes.)
3. Articulate Value Early, Then Invite Agreement
Begin every presentation by establishing a clear objective, and set the timing expectations as you go. Frame the conversation to be mutually beneficial, acknowledge the doubts and questions everyone is thinking, and ask for agreement on resolving them.
This may seem irrelevant when you’re speaking to people, but working in verbal agreement with a joke or a challenge can pique the audience’s interest — even if your premise isn’t what they want to hear.
4. Remember That You Are the Presentation
Effective visual aids are not limited to PowerPoint slides and handouts. You are the image: your body, your clothes, your hair, and how you speak. Pay attention to the way you stand and what you do with your hands. Don’t cross your arms or touch your face. Avoid pacing or swaying. If you must use slides with words, keep them big and basic, and rely on the energy of the audience to carry you.
5. Tell a Story
Everybody talks about the importance of storytelling, but not many people do it well. Pepper the conversation with anecdotes from your personal experiences. Think context, tie-ins, and resolution. Keep it basic, and focus on starting a conversation. Use evocative descriptions to illustrate your story verbally, avoid clichés and throwaway statements, and make sure you know your stuff. If an audience member stumps you with a question, never make it up as you go. It’s always OK to say, “I don’t know.”
6. Realize That People Don’t Want You to Fail
People inherently want to root for the speaker because when you get up on a stage, you become the spectacle. Every performer begins with a blank check. Make investments early and wisely with your audience. Nobody wants to watch a speaker stumble and struggle. This creates cognitive dissonance with the audience, which is painfully awkward and can utterly derail a presentation.
7. Cherish and Reward Interaction
Ask people who willingly interact with you what their names are and what they do in front of the audience. Stress that you appreciate all interactions, and invite them as much as possible. If you have to force it, keep interactions comfortable and personal to avoid embarrassing people. This will set the tone for the audience and create an environment conducive to learning and sharing.
8. Make the Time Work for You
End early, and offer to give time back. If you’ve done your job, this will create a forum for people to ask questions, pursue additional discussion, or take some time for themselves.
9. Capture Your Passion
Speaking well requires practice. Learn how to articulate what you’re passionate about. Think of a topic that you love (whether it’s “Star Trek” or French cuisine), and pretend you’re telling someone why it interests you. Do this in front of a mirror, and see what you look like when you’re speaking about topics you love. If you can bring this passion to the speaking environment, you’ll be much more effective and captivating.
10. Enter the Void
Anxiety and fear can be reduced with experience, but they’re never eliminated. There are countless tricks for reducing your stress — deep breathing, voice exercises, etc. — but in my experience, none of them work all the time.
Just get intimate with your fear, and use it to your advantage. I’ve given hundreds of presentations, and I still get slightly nervous before I go on. It keeps me humble and focused — and it actually makes me better.
Above all, remember that even the best speakers have bad days. It’s your job to continue, anyway, and find some joy in the act of expressing yourself and making connections with people. The more you practice, the better you become, and there are few skills as powerful and rewarding as being able to present persuasively to any audience.
Blake Menefee is a co-founder of the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs. He brings 15 years of emerging technologies and marketing experience to the program. Blake comes from a long line of entrepreneurs and, prior to Dell, he had a nonprofit startup and was the founder of a talent agency. Connect with Blake on LinkedIn.
This piece was co-authored by Matt Cowart with the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs.
David Martyn Hunt | Courtesy of Blake Menefee