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March 05, 2015 | Margaret Wolff

Speak Up:  Tips for Achieving Your Goals with Any Audience, Any Time

Whether preparing to speak to an audience of five or 500, to employees or to the local zoning board, these tips can help you quickly prepare, and confidently deliver, a focused presentation sure to succeed

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It works from the moment you are born until you stand up to give a speech.” Wise words from George Jessel, an actor known as the Toastmaster General of the United States back in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, too many people can identify with his statement. Why is it that the most perfectly formed idea in your brain somehow gets totally garbled before it leaves your lips? But more importantly, how do we prevent it from happening?

Experts often fall into two camps. Some argue that a good presentation is all about preparation. How well did you research your topic? How pretty are your pie charts? How well planned are your transitions? On the other side are those in the presentation camp.  It’s all about speaking skills, they argue — your vocal variety, your animation, your ability to connect. I say you need both, and your experience confirms it. We’ve all seen the speaker who had a perfectly researched speech, but she was so boring that we never heard a word. On the flip side, we’ve seen the engaging speaker who held our attention for 30 minutes, but we left asking, “What was the point?”

In this article, we’ll explore two tools you can use to improve your preparation — tools that will help you sharpen the focus of your message for your specific audience. And, we’ll talk about three presentation techniques you can use in the moment to ensure that you are engaging and credible. All are strategies you can use with any audience, from the co-op board to your employees.  

Let’s start with preparation. Step one, when preparing for any kind of presentation, is to think about the audience. Speakers who skip this crucial step risk missing the mark entirely by speaking over the audience’s head, not covering material that is most important or failing to address resistance.  Eight questions can guide you as you consider your audience:

  1. What is the background of the audience?
    Understanding the demographics helps you prepare appropriate stories, examples and quotes.
  2. Does the audience know you or your organization?  If so, how do they feel about you?
    You, or your organization, may come with baggage — sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Considering your previous reputation tells you how much time you need to build your credibility and back up your assertions. If the crowd knows you and respects you, you can dive into your real content fairly quickly. If they are skeptical or hostile, you need to take more time to establish credibility and cite sources.
  3. How do you feel about the audience?
    If there’s no love lost between you and the audience, you need to guard against that leaking out in your presentation.
  4. What action do you want the audience to take as a result of your presentation?
    If you don’t know the answer to this question before you start, the audience won’t know the answer when you’re done.
  5. How will the subject of your message affect the audience? 
    Are you asking them to give time? Give money? Change their mind? Be clear on the impact you seek.
  6. How much does the audience know about your topic?
    Have they heard speakers on this topic before? Have they studied the topic? Worked in the field for years or are they neophytes? Considering this before you begin can help ensure that you speak at the right level.
  7. What would motivate the audience to take the action you want?
    Chances are, you know more about your topic than you have time to share. And different things interest and motivate different people. Answering this question helps you focus your message.
  8. Why might the audience resist taking the action you want? How can you reduce those obstacles?
    If you don’t address these points head on, the audience will leave with the same resistance.

Let’s apply this to an example. Let’s say you need to request funding for a renovation from your co-op board. You know their background and they know you, and hopefully they respect you. You want them to approve your funding request, and the impact on them is money out of their pockets. The group should be fairly familiar with the finances of the co-op, so you shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on that. The motivators to the audience might include higher profits later and faster processing times for products. They might resist taking the action you want because they think it will take too long, it will go over budget, and the changes aren’t necessary right now. To succeed, you’ll need to focus your message on the motivators and tackle the resistance.

Once you’ve considered your audience, you’re ready to start organizing your presentation. Too many speakers get tangled in this step because they try to start at the beginning and write the speech in order. Instead, use mind mapping to brainstorm your key points and supporting ideas and begin to organize the speech.

Start with a blank piece of paper. In the center, write the purpose of your speech. To continue our example: persuade board to fund renovation. Next, ask yourself “What is one main topic that I will need to cover to achieve this purpose?” Maybe it is benefits of renovation. Draw a spoke from the center and write it down. It’s important during this step to think about categories of information, not the specifics; they come later. What other main topics do you need to cover? Expected costs? Timeline? 

Continue to draw more spokes with one topic at the end of each spoke. Your goal is to get about three main topics/spokes. Four or five is fine, but 12 is too many for your audience to remember. If you have too many topics, look for connections and broaden your topics until you can narrow it down to three or four. Neatness doesn’t count. You are brainstorming. Scratch things out, rewrite and rethink until you are satisfied with your main topics.

Next, start with any one topic and ask yourself “What are the specific details, statistics, examples or stories that would support this topic?” For expected costs, maybe that includes permits, labor, consultants and materials. For each detail, draw a spoke out of that general topic. Jump around. Change your mind. Keep going until you’ve got several supporting details for each main point.  

You’ve now got the basic structure of your speech. When you give that presentation, you’ll preview your main points during the introduction. Then you’ll discuss each point, sharing your specific supporting details as you go. In your conclusion, you’ll repeat your main points and end with what you want them to do: approve your funding request. It’s focused. It’s fast. It’s easy for your audience to follow.

You’ve considered your audience and determined you content. You are ready to succeed, but what do you do during the moment of truth — the actual presentation — to appear to be the competent professional you are? Focus on three things: posture, gestures and eye control.

First, posture. Stand with your feet about shoulder distance apart and knees slightly bent. Avoid shifting your weight and taking aimless small steps around the room. Don’t pace. All these extra movements distract from your message. Instead, stand still with your hands at your side, and move with a purpose: a minimum of two steps in any direction — to signal a transition in your message. For example, you might stand in one place for your introduction, move a few steps and replant for your first main point; then move back for your second main point. In this way, you use your movements to emphasize a change in topic, which helps the audience stay focused and remember your message.

Next, the hands. There are a number of things to avoid doing with your hands: wringing them in front of you or behind you, crossing your arms, putting them in your pockets and jingling your change. Instead, leave them hanging naturally by your sides and gesture frequently.  

There are two ways to incorporate more gestures into your speaking. First, exaggerate your natural gestures. Rather than a simple hand motion, use your whole arm. Pay special attention to your upper arms. When your upper arms are away from your rib cage, your gestures are big and bold. When they are tight against your ribs, you look like a frantic T-rex.  

Second, show things with your hands whenever possible. If you are saying that profits are high, raise your hand high above your head. If you are talking about a global market, make some sort of round shape in front of you (remembering to keep it big enough that the upper arms are away from your body). If you are going to cover three main points, hold three fingers in the air when you say it. It’s not sign language — you don’t have to do a certain gesture each time you say a certain word. But showing things with your hands when you can gives you a beneficial outlet for your nervous energy, helps your audience stay engaged, and helps your audience remember your message.  

Eye contact is extremely important in our culture. We don’t trust someone who doesn’t look us in the eye, and we are skeptical of those with shifty eyes. So why do we think it’s OK to simply look over the heads of our audience members? They know it, and we are missing a valuable opportunity. Eye communication is a key tool to establish rapport and build trust. And, when you look the audience in the eye, you get feedback about how well you are doing, which enables you to modify your message or your presentation style mid-stream if you have to.  

When speaking, pick one person and look her directly in the eye and finish a thought. Then, pick another person and do the same. Continue on, speaking directly to one person then another, randomly across the room. Ideally you’ll maintain eye contact for about three to five seconds per person. That’s long enough to make a connection but not so long that you make them uncomfortable. If you look, finish a thought and move on, it should be about right. Be sure to include people randomly in all parts of the room; you don’t want to be like a roving bank camera sweeping across the crowd from right to left and then back again.

The next time you’ve got an opportunity to speak, seize the moment. Consider your audience. Build your speech using a mind map. Deliver your message with confidence using posture, gestures and eye contact to reinforce your message. With preparation and practice, you’ll successfully streamline the rocky road from your brain to your mouth before you know it. And whatever you do, speak up!

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