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In sports, we often revere coaches for their ability to plan and anticipate. Still, many would stumble over themselves if they ever took the field—their mental acuity doesn't translate into physical prowess.
Public speaking is no different. Despite your talents, you may lack the intangibles necessary to charm an audience. Too often, a viable message can be easily be unraveled by the messenger. And your deficiencies can reflect poorly on those people you represent.
You can write and rehearse forever, but eventually, you need to execute. So if you're serious about projecting your best, try applying the following advice:
Start strong. Remember the slogan, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression?" This is particularly pertinent to delivering a presentation. If you lose your audience at the beginning, it's nearly impossible to get them back. So how do grab their attention and build that elusive momentum?
With a small audience, you can break them up and hold an icebreaker activity. This way, you can get your attendees personally involved, while mixing in a hook you can refer back to later. For a larger audience, ask for a show of hands to a closed-ended question. You can even open with a goofy cartoon or picture to loosen up your audience (and you, too).
Either way, remember that your opening must quickly answer two questions:
1. Why is this important?
2. How will this help me?
Without addressing these sentiments, your speech is nothing more than an obligation.
Don't improvise. Leave ad-libbing to the professionals; you have a lot of work ahead before you can pull that off. Right now, your job is to avoid those ramblings that can distract your audience (and test their patience). And that means sticking to your points.
Most important, don't get hung up if you forget something. You'll have time later to get back to it. Chances are, your audience won't notice what was missed, anyway.
Don't use every moment. Sure, they allotted you 30 minutes, but you might be more effective using less time. Face it, your audience may already be burned down and overwhelmed by the time they reach you. And events often run behind, so you may not enjoy your full slot.
Respect your audience's time by cutting your presentation a little short. Start by timing yourself beforehand. Always know where you should be and when. And have everything ready ahead of time…or your fumbling will suck the energy out of the room.
And who says you have to do all the work? Don't be afraid to include a second person on stage, both to take off some pressure and keep your audience engaged.
Finish strong. Next year, your audience may remember a point or two…if you're lucky. In reality, your speech competes for mind space thereafter with everything from talk radio to grocery lists. And your precious charts and factoids are usually the first items they forget.
Sure, you need to recap your central points and themes. But what can you do to differentiate yourself? Maybe it's a story, image, or prop. Or, maybe you touch on their sense of passion, purpose, or community. Whatever it is, pound on that point repeatedly, using various mediums and contexts to keep it fresh.
Watch for common mistakes. Sure, message, preparation, confidence, connection, and enthusiasm are the most critical elements of success. Still, there are other small tics that can snowball into a distraction if you're not careful. Here are some common errors to avoid:
• Don't turn your back to your audience.
• Avoid filling every pause with "um" when you're searching for a transition.
• Make eye contact, but don't lock onto one person like a lovesick teenager. Attempt to visually touch everyone.
• Move around, but don't pace like a caged animal.
• Use occasional gestures, but don't let them become a diversion.
• Keep your hands out of your pocket…and be aware of nervous tics like playing with coins or a pen.
• Listen to your voice, making sure it doesn't trail off as you reach the end of a sentence or as the session progresses.
It doesn't end after you step offstage. Okay, you've finished. Now what? Time permitting, answer audience questions so you can clarify or expand on points. Distribute a handout, containing all those details you painstakingly removed, so they have a reference to jar their memories.
Next, gladhandle with attendees to lay the groundwork for deeper relationships. Submit a follow up e-mail to keep your message top of mind.
Last but certainly not least, include a survey. By soliciting audience feedback, you'll know exactly what to improve the next time you hit the stage.
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.