I’ll bet you’re good at what you do – but I hope you’re just as good talking about it.
Because one day, I might be sat in the audience waiting to hear you speak.
And because I’ve sacrificed my time and possibly some expense to be in the audience to see and hear you deliver a message, I want that message to be worth my while—and I’m not just talking about content; I want to be fascinated, entertained, moved, intrigued —motivated!
Let’s assume though that we’re starting from a realistic scenario, you’re good at what you do but you’ve had no presentation training whatsoever. The only instruction that you will have received is from seeing other untrained presenters giving their talks so you naturally assume that what they do is the accepted way to go about it.
Generally, those presentations you will have seen probably went something like this:
- Opens with an apology
- Includes text-laden slides that are used as a cheap auto-cue
- No real structure
- No props used
- Had no stories
- Delivered in a monotone
And being untrained, those presenters were probably nervous and, as an audience member you will have subconsciously detected that fear faster than a lion spots a limp so you became nervous for them – will they get through the talk without embarrassing themselves?
After so many of these talks you’ve more than likely come to the conclusion that all talks are inevitably of this standard. Then one day you just happen to see a speaker who knows what they’re doing and holds you transfixed with their story. It’s then that you realise there is a gold standard in presentation.
The mistake nearly everyone makes however, when they see an accomplished speaker for the first time, is to think that they were born this way, somehow they just had the gift and well, not everyone can have this gift.
Which is nonsense.
The truth is, these remarkable speakers have studied technique and practiced. Then practiced some more. Then pr… Okay, you can see where this is going. Practice makes improvement.
Here is a true story …
Many years ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy just to see if I could do it. There was a club I went to that had regular open mic evenings and I became familiar with a few of the other young hopefuls starting out on the comedy path. I remember one young lad called Dom who was performing his material on stage and not getting a single laugh. Eventually, Dom recognised this and said, “I think I’ll go now… because no-one’s laughing.” This got a huge laugh from the audience. Why?
He was suddenly honest. It was a glimpse of a vulnerable human being. As a result he connected with the audience on an emotional level and they empathised with him.
Unfortunately, Dom was still inexperienced and didn’t quit while he was ahead. He took the laugh as a sign that he was getting through to the audience and reverted back to his wooden and humourless routine.
The laughs continued not to come …
I tell this story because it vividly demonstrates what human beings respond to: they like honesty and being able to identify with whoever is holding a conversation with them. But there’s more…
My stand-up adventures were only ever going to be for fun and I withdrew from the industry when I achieved my goal of making a roomful of people laugh. Dom however persisted and several years later I saw him again on stage as a professional comedian and this time I couldn’t stop laughing. He’d practiced and learned what worked and what didn’t. He kept the working elements and dumped the non-working ones. The result was a continual honing of his material and skills.
My point is, that with practice, your improvement becomes inevitable. You can’t help but improve if you practice!
Why is the skill of presenting not taken seriously?
The truth is that today, the bar for speaking skills is set so low in our society that it lays on the floor like some trip hazard. And metaphorically, it is a tripping hazard; we’ve all seen speakers fall flat on their face because they didn’t realise there is a bar for speaking skills.
And the unfortunate thing is, most poor speakers don’t even realise how poor they are; they think showing some text-filled slides and describing what’s on them is enough to do the job. The other unfortunate thing is that too few conferences have feedback forms to alert the speakers of any issues – at least the comedian gets instant feedback from laughter (or lack of it).
Nobody wants to see a poor presenter. The audience will feel short-changed and the presenter (along with their message) will be quickly forgotten. It’s a lose-lose situation. Remember, if you’re brilliant at what you do, you want people to know that when you talk to them. It needs to be implied in your skills as a communicator.
I want you to succeed
When I see a live speaker I want them to sell me their idea. That’s right, live presentations are about influencing the audience into thinking or doing something differently (otherwise, just email the speech). You influence people by engaging with their emotions. Every time. No exceptions.
Stories tap into emotions, images carry an emotional charge and sound influences those emotions – why do you think films are so popular?
Because we laugh, we cry, we reflect and sometimes we learn.
That’s why you’re not just delivering content when you give a live presentation. A manual or memo can deliver content.
But a manual can’t look you in the eye, check that you’re hooked into their fascinating story, act out the last climactic scene of their adventure and then BAM! Hit you with a payload line and pause just long enough for you to take in the importance of the message before it gives you the killer, softly spoken, call to action… * Cue rapturous applause.*
Has a manual ever made you burst into spontaneous rapturous applause? Thought not.
Don’t we all want to see a confident, passionate speaker who tells a great story and delivers a lasting message? Of course we do, why else would we give up our valuable time and show up to the event?
And isn’t that the kind of speaker we would all like to be?
Of course it is, that’s why we admire speakers who can move us.
So why are speaking skills WAAAAAY down the list?
In a school I once saw an Olympian speak about his swimming career. For such a highly trained individual it was one of the most ill prepared speeches I’d ever seen. He really did seem to be making it up as he went along. His story was full of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, loose ends, repetitions and distracting on-stage fiddles with the microphone lead. He also overran his time slot and volunteered an unplanned Q&A session much to the horror of the head teacher.
I was confused by his attitude – he was an Olympian. The training regime he described in his talk was ferocious, nothing was left to chance—teams of people watched his every move and guided his development. He told the audience that due to injury, his swimming career was prematurely over and speaking was his new one.
So what sort of training had he undergone for his new speaking career?
What happened to his attitude? Why didn’t he think that speaking required as much training as swimming to attain the highest levels of excellence?
I can only come to the conclusion that he had decided presentation skills were easy and anybody could do them with no training whatsoever. Well, on that day, he proved himself wrong.
Being able to communicate an idea with passion is a hard-won, priceless asset.
Which is good news for you because
- you already know the value of giving a memorable presentation – that’s why you’ve read this far and
- you want to improve your skills further so you become unforgettable after a talk.
The other good news is, once you’ve improved your skills, you will immediately set yourself apart from the rest of the field who don’t even realise they’re being measured every time they speak with someone.
Gracefully striding over the bar
You’re reading this because you want to change peoples mind when you make your presentation. You want to influence the outcome of a decision.
Great presentations have a structure and rhythm that can be analysed and the mechanisms and techniques can be learned. The resulting principles can be applied to your own talks as a template in the same way that an athlete studies the basic techniques of their chosen sport and then masters them.
By using this template and gracefully striding over the metaphorical speaking bar—even if it’s still low—without tripping over it, will mark you out as a distinctive speaker who can hold the audience’s attention with your expertise.
Confidence is all you need
Everyone new to presenting invariably wants confidence on stage more than anything else. Nerves can be debilitating for the speaker. The truth is, confidence comes with practice. Think about it, it can’t work any other way; fear comes from the unknown, until you’ve explored the territory and reassured yourself that it’s safe, you can’t properly relax.
When you learn to swim you first start in the shallow end with all the flotation aids to help you gain confidence in water. It is only later, when you have got used to the idea of being able to operate in the water without them that you can swim in the open sea. With regular stage time your confidence to operate on a big stage will follow.
Your presentation can be turned into a memorable one without requiring great confidence from you the speaker by using basic techniques such as:
- Personal stories
- Professionally designed slides
- Varying your voice
I know all this because I’ve seen people growing in confidence on stage.
Such is my passion for good speaking skills that along with a colleague I co-founded a speaking event in Leeds called BettaKultcha. The event operates on three prime rules: each presenter must use 20 slides, each slide will change automatically after 15 seconds and there must be no sales pitches. I compere the event and I’ve seen over 400 presentations in the five years it has been running so far.
I remember one particular young woman who regularly volunteered to present at our events. She’d identified Bettakultcha as a huge, Olympic-sized swimming pool to practice her skills in but with an audience made up of well-wishers cheering her on regardless of the result (the Bettakultcha audience is renowned for its supportive enthusiasm). She saw the value of stage-time and I remember seeing her develop her technique and grow in confidence with each new presentation.
When I spoke with her recently she told me that she had just flown back from Dublin where she had given a pitch for her firm.
She now had a full time job pitching ideas to prospective clients for her employer.
This demonstrates how much can be achieved by practice and where good presentation skills can get you. Your employability rating shoots up the scale.
A Presentation Skills Workshop
As a direct result of people from Bettakultcha asking me how they can improve their on-stage presence, I’ve developed a presentation skills training workshop for individuals and for organisations alike.
It’s designed to help you improve your confidence and communication skills by showing you the techniques of public speaking and by encouraging an interactive approach. Uniquely, if you live in the Yorkshire area, you can put all your new learned skills into practice in front of a 150+ audience with the Bettakultcha Leeds event. Because the audience is so supportive and you talk about what you’re passionate about, the learning experience is invaluable as there is no pressure to be anybody but yourself.
Being able to influence people is a skill everyone should master because in the coming years, if the projections are correct, self-employment is going to be the way the majority of people earns a living.