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Off stage, you may be a peerless closer or Six Sigma black belt. You can probably horse-trade or arm-twist with the best of them. But what happens when all those eyes focus squarely on you? Do you seize the moment…or freeze up and lose your mojo?
The center stage is different from anywhere else. Suddenly, you're operating in a bubble, all alone, always wondering if they really understand—or even care. Want to connect with these people? Then apply this advice:
Relax. Remember the cliché about imagining your audience in their underwear? You probably chuckled when you first heard it, but it's a good reminder: Your audience is human and public speaking isn't a life-or-death exercise.
So don't walk onto stage with any apprehensions; your audience can intuit weakness. To steady your nerves, consciously breathe and stretch. Cut the tension by smiling, remembering a good joke, closing your eyes, or reliving a life-affirming memory. Most important, visualize success and feed off that emotional high.
Start early. Your presentation begins long before you step on stage. In fact, your audience has probably formed an impression of you before you even speak. Make sure it's a good one.
Start by working the room ahead of time. Bring food and refreshments to create goodwill. Never forget, you have the spotlight…and you earned it through stature, accomplishment, or expertise. Sure, you want to be "one of them." But if you were, someone else would be speaking. Dress like you're special because this is your moment. And moments like these are fleeting.
Don't use PowerPoint as a crutch. Far too often, we hope PowerPoint can convey our message for us. Well, if it could, we'd just hold Webinars and spare ourselves the embarrassment. But your audience is watching you (not the screen), and PowerPoint is just another tool to be used judiciously.
Start by making sure your font is readable. Keep verbiage to a minimum: five bullets maximum. Keep your slides to a minimum too; every extra slide just makes it harder to absorb your message. Include images, particularly to inject humor. Lastly, don't read every word on a slide. Focus on expanding the scope of each point instead.
Set expectations. Everyone has an internal GPS. They want a sense of a beginning, middle, and end…and where they are in that process. Quickly outline your talk early on to give your audience a semblance of direction.
Watch your audience. As an audience member, you've probably dozed off, fiddled with your BlackBerry or made chit-chat with your neighbor. You know what? Your audience will do the same to you!
On stage, it's hard enough to recall your next point, let alone make sense of the light, sound, and movement around you. So how can you tell if your audience is still with you? Does a whisper or folded arms mean you should adjust? Throughout your presentation, consciously focus on the larger picture, rather than the individual pieces.
Even more, use attention-getting techniques like pausing, slowing down, raising your voice, or making a specific gesture or noise to compete with other stimuli vying for their attention. Like your high school algebra teacher, speak directly at people not paying attention to reel them back. And of course, lavish extra attention on those who appear engaged to express your gratitude.
A final note: Even the best speakers get interrupted. Stay composed and don't take it personally. Chances are, your audience will reflexively disapprove (even if you have poor delivery or arguable points). Recognize your heckler's position and offer to discuss it afterwards. Never argue: You'll never get your time, rhythm, and atmosphere back otherwise.
Project enthusiasm. An upbeat attitude can compensate for a multitude of sins. While your style may never scream "watch me," you can still energize an audience. Enthusiasm is contagious: Exude it so people sense you're having fun, not slogging through a task. If anything, unify your audience by including a slide that pokes fun of a higher up's shortness or baldness.
Remember, 99 percent of your audience wants you to succeed (if anything, to make time move faster). Feed off that sentiment and reciprocate it.
Be authentic. Your audience probably already knows you, and they'll quickly tune out if you try to be something you're not. Sure, you can say or do something out of character—the surprise will grab their attention. But overall, stay within your audience's core expectations. If you're sincere and likable, you've already won half the battle.
Similarly, look for ways to build that personal connection. Devote 30 seconds to who you are, with special emphasis on your family. Turn any weakness into a strength. If you're stiff, make a joke about it. Your audience can relate, and they know you possess other strengths, anyway.
Also, watch your word choice. If you're not speaking their language, they'll perceive you as haughty or out of touch.
Most importantly, make your presentation personal. No, that doesn't mean you continuously speak in the first person. Instead, find places in your speech to draw on your life experiences. Explain how the topic impacts you and those around you personally.
Use that connection you've created with the audience, so your experience resonates and pulls them in deeper.
Next week, we'll focus on how to deliver your presentation.
SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.