confessions of a public speaking convert

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Until a few years ago I hadn’t been one to embrace public speaking, and it’s mainly because I don’t necessarily strive to be in the center of attention. I like being a part of activities or work or events that are very public, like producing concerts or being a radio host or creating marketing campaigns, but I get more enjoyment when I am behind the scenes.

Over the first part of my career, I worked in roles that didn’t require much in the way of presentations or public speaking; however, when I decided to pursue an MBA, I knew that I would have to get past this uneasiness. Business schools are chock full of times where you give speeches, pitch presentations and talk about case studies. And it doesn’t stop there. You have to do this even more once you are done with the academic world and into corporate life.mic_image

Following my first few years at Best Buy, an interesting thing happened. After attending different conferences, watching presentations online and observing some of my co-workers who are effective presenters, I figured out that I could get comfortable being a presenter and use speaking occasions to my advantage.

What I came to understand was that when I gave a presentation it didn’t have to be about me. Instead, my focus needed to be on the story that I was trying to tell and what that story was trying to accomplish. I now view presentations as opportunities. They can be chances to challenge conventional thinking, persuade people, inspire others or create excitement about a particular idea.

Because of this, I am trying to be more observant about what goes into a good presentation and what does not. When I see someone that is really good at moving a room, I am sure to take notes. The same is also true when I observe presentations that are train wrecks. One conclusion that I’ve come to is the idea that how you tell the story is just as an important as the story itself. I don’t care how compelling an argument is because of data or insights or reasoning. If it isn’t presented in a thoughtful and elegant manner, then it’s a wasted effort.

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With that in mind, I’ve developed some guidelines that I use whenever I have to give a presentation or when I help my team members prep for their own.

  • Know your audience: this is the first tip and it’s the biggest of them all. Who you are presenting to dictates everything that you will be doing, showing and saying. How and what I present to a group of interns will be very different than what I do in front of a team from our finance department which will be very different than what I do in front of the senior vice-president of marketing.
  • Know your intended outcome: you need to have an end in mind with your presentation. You shouldn’t be presenting just for presenting sake. Are you trying to convince someone to do something? Are you trying to teach a new process? Are you trying to explain an upcoming marketing program? Your entire story should be built around the outcome you are trying to achieve.
  • Get good at creating the visual presentation itself: there is no excuse for not being able to make a solid looking presentation. You don’t have to be an art director or designer to effectively use PowerPoint or Keynote – the programs aren’t that hard to learn. A sloppy visual presentation can definitely take away from the story you are trying to tell. Lastly, when building out your slides remember that less is more, and white space is your friend. Trust me on that last point.
  • Anticipate questions that you will receive: every presentation you give will likely prompt questions from the audience. It’s your job as the presenter to anticipate the questions in advance. What you have to decide is whether you want to proactively address those questions in the presentation itself or have the answers in your back pocket.
  • Be mindful of the non-verbal aspects of your presentation: this is probably the easiest to overlook. This will be heavily influenced by two of my points above (audience and intended outcome), but you should always keep in mind things such as your energy level, whether you are smiling, and how much you should be moving around.
  • Lastly, pace yourself: take moments to pause, catch your breath and stay organized.

By no means do I see myself as someone that wants to go on the professional speaking circuit, but I have found my comfort zone when it comes to public speaking. Plus, I still want to get better. I know that the tips above aren’t everything that goes into making a strong presentation, but they are definitely the foundation for my checklist. If you have any suggestions on how you tackle public speaking or if you want to call out a presenter whose style you find inspiring, please chime in with a comment.

(Photos courtesy of Southtyroleanel_finco and DaNieLooP via Creative Commons License.)

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