Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Julie Bradlow.
Back in the 1980’s, it was common for interviewers to ask the now-cliched question: “What’s your greatest weakness?” The first time someone asked me this, I immediately quipped, “Chocolate.” While that was, and still is, true, I later learned that one is supposed to describe a former weakness that one has made over into a strength.
So here is the story of my former greatest weakness – difficulty with public speaking.
When a former boss, who was slowly going blind, wrote on my annual review that my presentation skills needed work, both I and the company I worked for took it seriously. For the following several months, I was assigned to report at my department’s weekly lunch meeting on new developments. Week after week, I had to give these reports. I read. I outlined. I sweated. I paced my office, giving my talks out loud to the four walls. And slowly, I got better. The last talk I gave – this past January, over 20 years later – I spoke for 45 minutes with nothing but four pages of notes, and got a standing ovation. And that made me very happy.
Here are my suggestions for giving presentations that will make your audience happy:
1. Know your subject.
If you know the subject matter well, you can talk fluidly about the topic at hand. So if someone asks you to give a talk on a subject with which you are unfamiliar, either (a) decline (b) research the living daylights out of it, if it is in your field of expertise. If nothing else, giving the talk will make you better at your job.
2. Outline your talk.
Making an outline beforehand will help you organize your presentation. As with essay writing or storytelling, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But don’t write out and read your entire speech, unless you are fortunate enough to have a TelePrompTer in front of you. (See also my point about slides, below.)
3. Don’t rely too much on slides.
Now that PowerPoint has made it easy to make slides, it is all too common to give presentations that lean too heavily on slides. Although this may be another post in its own right, try and (a) make your slides short – no more than 3 to 5 lines of text (b) avoid slides that are overly busy (too many graphics, etc.) and (c) whatever you do, please don’t read your slides to the audience.
4. Getting to Carnegie Hall.
There’s an old joke that goes something like this: One man stops another on the street on Seventh Avenue in New York, and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The second man immediately responds, “Practice.” To get to Carnegie Hall in the oratorical sense, this is true as well. Rehearsing your talk out loud not only helps you practice giving the speech, but also helps you discover the weak points in your talk so you can shore them up before you go out there and say “Um…ah…” It goes without saying that you should avoid colloquialisms like “Like,” and “You know,” as well as highfaluting words like “colloquialism.”
5. Keep your chin up.
Even in a room of a thousand people (and hopefully, your first presentation won’t be to that large a crowd), it’s important to connect with your audience. Even if you rely on your carefully-prepared outline, try to keep your gaze up and not down, making periodic eye contact with audience members on all sides of the room. This is like learning to use the mirrors in your car – it also gets easier with practice.
6. Use humor sparingly.
One of the worst talks I ever heard at a professional conference was from a speaker whose presentation was little more than a string of jokes – with hardly any substance in between. So I would say that humor in a speech is like hot sauce on food – a few drops go a long way.
So what are some of your suggestions for giving effective presentations?
* Image courtesy of benchilada