SpeechCraft: Give presentations that change things

This post is the summary of my talk at the Collegiate Information and Visitors Services Association (CIVSA) annual conference this week in Denver. It’s a presentation about how to give a presentation. That’s an audacious and terrifying thing to do. It’s hard to lower expectations when you’re presuming to be some sort of expert. I am no master of public speaking, but I have learned a lot throughout my career where I have stood before many audiences. And I want to get better. The best way to learn something is to try to teach it. Here are the key points and resources from my CIVSA talk.

SpeechCraft: Give presentations that change things, and teach your team how to be remarkable in front of an audience.

JFK said “The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” How many speeches, classroom lectures, sermons, work meetings, or other public presentations have truly had an impact on you? I can think of very few that have changed me. Most public discourse comes and goes with little effect. But you don’t have to be JFK, MLK, Churchill, or Lincoln to offer world changing words. With an audience-centered approach, a focus on the “Why?”, and a willingness to uncork some emotion you can offer a message that makes a difference.

Begin with “Why?” The first thoughts to consider when addressing an audience are “Why is the audience here?” and “What’s a problem they need help with?” Focus on the big picture and get inside the perspective of the audience. Make the audience the hero of your story. As author Nick Morgan suggests, take the audience on a journey from “why” to “how”.

Be clear about your purpose and how you want your audience to change or what action you want them to take as a result of your message. Come up with a simple, clear sentence that concisely explains your purpose. Imagine having one minute or less to explain the benefit your talk will offer. Or, consider expressing your purpose in 140 characters, the length of a tweet on Twitter. Here’s my tweet for this talk:

“My session will show you how to create presentations that CHANGE THINGS and how to teach your team to be REMARKABLE in front of an audience.”

Once you are clear about what change you want to spark and can express how your talk will benefit your audience, begin to put your ideas together. I often start with a big whiteboard where I mind map my initial ideas. Post-it notes work well, also. The mind map style makes it easy to see connections and rearrange your ideas so they flow into a narrative. In the early phase of preparation, I just dump in any idea that seems relevant. I particularly enjoy working with the “light table” view in Apple’s Keynote app. (Powerpoint has a similar view.) Even if you’re not using slides, this is a great way to see all your ideas at once and sort them into the best order to tell your story. Remember, you’re leading the audience on a journey, so seeing the big picture of all your ideas will help you put thoughts together in a way that makes sense and is compelling to your audience.

The "light table" view of my presentation early in the planning stage

Tell stories in your talk early and often. Take the key ideas you want to communicate, and build stories around them. Your stories, other people’s stories… Stories just work. We are programmed from 2 million years of human history to be drawn in by even the simplest narrative.

“The best way to begin a speech is ‘Let me tell you a story.'” -Alex Haley

Use visuals effectively. We remember what we see better than what we hear. I love using slides in presentations. However, the way most presenters use slides has the effect of diminishing their message and their effectiveness. Do NOT use bullet points on slides. Your audience will be distracted if there’s more than one point per slide. They will be reading your second or third point while you’re still talking about the first. In fact, the less text you use on slides, the better. Images and short bits of text (in very large font) will be much more effective at highlighting what you are saying. Your slides should serve to emphasize and make memorable the words you are saying, not to make your presence redundant. If the audience can get your point just by reading your slides, why even show up? Just send them your slides and save everyone’s time.

After you’ve organized your thoughts (and slides if you’re using them) into a compelling narrative that takes your audience on journey from “why” to “how”, you must rehearse. Out loud. Don’t just think it through. Find a quiet place and give your speech out loud. Do this more than a couple of times. I had a great speech professor in college who insisted on this, and I’ve found that it makes a huge difference. Just saying your speech out loud will show you what works and doesn’t and will spark connections and ideas you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. Ideally, get yourself in the room where you will speak to rehearse at least once.

GIVE your speech. It’s called “giving” a speech for a reason. Consider it your gift to the audience. Never begin by apologizing or by acting as if the audience doesn’t want what you’re about to share. And know that the audience is on your side. Those who fear public speaking imagine the audience is hoping they fail somehow. But think back on times you’ve been in an audience when the speaker is struggling and awkward. That probably made you uncomfortable as well. What you wanted was for the speaker to be great so you could relax. The audience is rooting for you to be awesome.

Don’t read or memorize your speech. Connect with the audience and make your talk like a conversation. Even with an audience of 500+ you can create the feel of conversation by making eye contact across the whole room and inviting questions and input. Even rhetorical questions where no response is expected give the feel of conversation.

“Language is at its best and most convincing in conversation.” -Eugene Peterson

About eye contact… Look audience members in the eye throughout your talk. Do not keep looking at your slides. Do not look at some vague spot above the heads of your audience. Just quick, one-second locks on the eyes of audience members is sufficient. Work the whole room, looking at individuals in every part of the audience. If it’s a small enough crowd, I try to make eye contact with every person at least once. The audience will know you are connecting directly, and you can better respond to how the audience is feeling about your message. You need to be like a jazz musician. Know your melody – your message – well, and be responsive in the moment so that there is a true conversation between you and the audience.

Avoid standing behind podiums and giving your presentation in the dark. Get close to your audience as much as you can and leave the lights on even if using slides. Know that dark backgrounds on slides will make them hard to see in a bright room. I use white backgrounds on my slides if I don’t know how bright the presentation room will be.

“Charisma is expressiveness…If you can unlock your own passion about the subject, and give that to the audience, you will be charismatic.” -Nick Morgan

Be charismatic. Easier said than done, I know. But you don’t have to be a larger than life personality to have charisma. You just need to care and let it show. Find what you love about the message you’re sharing, and express that emotion to your audience. Imagine your audience is filled with the people you love most in your life. How do you communicate to them? With caring and honesty and humor and enthusiasm. Give that to your audience, and you will be charismatic. Be bold. Uncork the emotion within you and speak with authenticity.

“Caution is the devil” -William Blake

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on the face of the Earth. So what the hell… leap.” – Cynthia Heimel

Don’t be attached to the outcome. Yes, you want to spark change. But be fully present in the moment with your audience. If you’re mind is distracted by imagining what’s at stake, you won’t be your best. The best job applicants I’ve interviewed, for example, are those who seemed to care more about having a great conversation with me than they cared about actually getting the job. They were more fully present. Many years ago I interviewed a college student who began crying immediately when I asked her the first question in the interview. (And it was not a challenging question.) After she composed herself, she apologized and said she was emotional because she wanted the job so much. (She didn’t get the job.) Another time I interviewed a college freshman for a very competitive campus leadership position. He was terrific. Relaxed. Insightful. Interesting. I hired him. He later told me he had assumed we didn’t hire freshmen, so he was only applying to get some interview experience. Talk about being unattached to the outcome… Put your focus on the audience, your message, and the moment and leave the results to take their natural course.

Don’t end on Q&A. Your final words will be at the mercy of random audience questions. Instead, either allow for questions throughout or do your final wrap up after Q&A so that you can finish strong with your call to action. When you do get questions, repeat the question for all to hear before answering. That will also give you a chance to possibly rephrase a question more elegantly and give you time to consider your response. Don’t look at just the questioner during your response. Look at the whole audience when responding. But do make sure you’ve satisfied the questioner with your response.

Finish well. Have your final message, your call to action, well polished. Too many talks start strong but tend to fade at the end with no clear resolution. Be clear at the end and come back to the “why” and “how” that you began with.

If you’re leading others who give presentations, teach them how to be effective as well. I serve a group of superstar college students who give campus tours. It’s a hard job to get, with almost 300 applying each year for 15 open positions. So, the students I hire already have strong communication skills. However, I’ve realized I can’t assume they know how to be great in front of an audience. And, again, the best way to learn something is to attempt to teach it.

This year we gave our new student staff a copy of Nick Morgan’s excellent book, Give Your Speech, Change The World.* They were asked to read it and then we built a two-hour training session around what they learned from the book. We then send new staff out to shadow veteran tour leaders so they can see the tour dynamic in action. Also, we shadow new staff as they train to give the tour and give them feedback on what’s working well and what could be better about their communication style. We challenge our students to come up with their own tour stories and a clear goal for what benefit they want their tour groups to come away from their tour with. Of course, the only reason to give a campus tour is to change the world.

We will continue to check in and offer communication tips even after training is complete. And we will seek more opportunities to observe our staff in action by periodically getting out and taking their tour. Teaching those you serve how to be excellent public speakers is a gift that will benefit them the rest of their lives.

So, go do your part to make the world a better place by standing up and sharing what you truly care about. Don’t shy away from opportunities to speak out. Take the initiative. Be bold. Tell great stories that move others to action.

*Recommended reading:

Give Your Speech, Change The World by Nick Morgan

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds

Resonate by Nancy Duarte

8 thoughts on “SpeechCraft: Give presentations that change things

  1. […] I’ve been at a conference all week. I appreciate how just being away from a normal routine and in a different environment can spark possibilities and new ideas. There is a lot of sitting and listening time in conferences. Often, the speaker is thoughtful, effective, and provocative enough to challenge assumptions, rock the status quo, and make you rethink your work. It’s great to walk out of a presentation with new possibilities and a surge in energy that a dynamic speaker can provide. (If you’re going to speak to an audience, why not be awesome?) […]

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