Some would say that “Content is King” and everything else plays second-fiddle when delivering presentations. I vehemently disagree. As a person with plenty of public speaking experience (I’m a former President of a Toastmaster’s Club), who has seen many great and not-so-great speakers with varying levels of experience, I know that even the most witty and intelligent words crash and burn if the speaker cannot deliver them. Though having useful and interesting content is good, I believe that the following three tips will help you with your public speaking regardless of content:
1) Always Be Prepared
I think if a speaker is well-prepared, the speech practically delivers itself. The problem is that most people simply do not know how to prepare. I’ve seen public speaking manuals make all sorts of outlandish claims regarding preparation. Some say that it is absolutely necessary to write a speech out before learning it. Others say that practicing in front of a mirror is a waste of time. The truth is that any advice regarding preparation is completely dependent on the speaker. One of the great lessons I learned in Toastmasters was that everyone prepares differently. I, for example, started out writing speeches in full and then struggling to memorize them. At some point however, I realized that other methods worked better for me.
So how do you know what works best for you? Simple. Try them all. If you’re serious about bettering your presentation skills, you have to put yourself in a position to deliver tons of presentations. Whether that’s a Toastmasters Club, or a group of friends, or whatever. You have to speak! But before each speech, change up your prep method. Afterwards, reflect on how you felt. Did your preparation make you feel confident? If so, that’s the one to use. The audience doesn’t care how you got ready as long as your speech fulfills its purpose. But it won’t fulfill its purpose unless you care about preparation.
Hand in hand with preparation is timing. I don’t mean the timing that’s involved in delivering a joke, although that’s useful, I mean the timing that’s synonymous with punctuality. To start, it’s important to arrive well before you are set to speak. The obvious reason for this is it gives you chance to scope out the room and solve any technical difficulties you wouldn’t want to encounter later. More to the point, however, is that it gives you a chance to interact with your audience. If you’re the only speaker, I recommend standing near the door and greeting people as they walk in. If you’re one of many, just chat with the people around you. Get a sense of their mood so you could easily roll with it during your talk. Being social early on also serves as a warm-up of sorts. It gets you into the talking mode letting you connect with the audience right away instead of having to go through that awkward moment or two in the beginning when you’re getting into your speaker frame.
Timing, or punctuality, in public speaking also refers to staying within your prescribed speaking time. It’s one of those true cliches that says “Everyone likes when a speaker ends early, no one likes it when he ends late.” Of course, we all want to believe that our fantastic speeches put audiences into a state in which time is invisible and forgotten, unfortunately that is rarely the case. As a small concession, it’s frequently not the speaker’s fault; even if your speech is perfect, there’s that pesky presentation scheduled after yours, or everyone has to get back to work, or nature calls. Whatever the reason, ending on time is the right thing to do.
Personally, I find that having a set time of X minutes to speak allows me to make a much much simpler job of narrowing my talks to the best stuff. I’m naturally a blabbermouth so a time limit is the best thing for everybody. From an audience member’s perspective, I think it’s disrespectful when a speaker goes way over time. It means they didn’t care about the audience enough to time their speech during practice. If they practiced at all.
Caring about the audience is where I’d like to conclude. It should be obvious that different audiences react differently depending on time-of-day, location, and who they are (whether that refers to profession, religion, race, or anything else), and yet I’ve seen presenters ignore all of that. For the audience’s sake, I implore you, think about them as you’re preparing your talk. The obvious way of looking at this is content, but I think that the speaker needs to look out for the audience beyond that. Ask yourself questions like, “Can they hear me?” “Do they need a stretch break?” “Is what I’m wearing getting in the way of your speech?” That last question brings to mind a training I attended where one of the presenters was wearing a shiny metallic necklace that blinded everyone in the audience whenever the stage lights shone on it at just the
rightwrong angle. It’s hard to predict that sort of thing, but getting to the venue early is the perfect way to catch it (remember timing?). Many other considerations are involved in making the audience comfortable, some that the speaker can fix, and some that she can’t. It’s not your responsibility to fix everything. It’s enough to prepare a great speech, show up early, end on time, and make sure they audience can hear you.