March 07, 2008
How To

Handy Guide to Speaking Like a Pro: 15 Tips on Behavior, Visuals & Rehearsing

SUMMARY: SUMMARY: Few of us are lucky enough to be great speakers. But that doesn't mean you can't speak eloquently and persuasively at summits and conferences, a skill that can position you as an industry expert.

Here's an easy-to-use guide on becoming a much better public speaker. Includes 15 tips on behavior and practicing what you preach. Plus, how to avoid PowerPoint abuse.
You’ve been invited to speak at a conference. You’re flattered. Speaking can give more exposure to you or your business, position you as a subject matter expert and, perhaps, put a few more dollars in your pocket.

But you don’t think of yourself as a great speaker. And you certainly don’t want to give a boring lecture in a monotone voice reading from a batch of slides or cards. Bad presentations frequently are “data driven and they suffer from PowerPoint abuse,” says Bert Decker, CEO, Decker Communications Inc. Decker has coached people from business executives to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on speaking for almost 30 years.

“As people just try to get data across, they totally ignore the fact that the spoken medium is different from the written medium. When you’re speaking, you want to influence people. When you’re writing, you want to inform.”

We gathered a panel of experts to discuss how to improve your presentations, whether you’re standing before a room of 5 or 500. Here are their top strategies.

Speaking Tips
Content is not king on stage. The level of audience engagement depends more on your behavior than on your data. “Our content is like the software in the files, but our body, our behavior, is like the computer that delivers the [software],” Decker says. “Well, if you have a clunky old computer that’s slow or crashes, it doesn’t matter how good those files are, they’re not going to get out there.”

Since the average attention span is about eight seconds, you don’t have much time to seize attention. But there are ways to grab your audience.

->Tip #1. Make eye contact

This, Decker says, is the most important tip he has to offer. The key is to look at individuals in the audience for about five seconds while you speak. This is harder than it sounds.

“Most people look at the screens of their PowerPoints, read speeches, look down, look up to God for help … and look everywhere else but at individuals in the audience. But you really want to keep your mind set on talking to individuals so you are looking at them one at a time. Five seconds seems like a long time when you’re speaking because we don’t tend to do that, because of eye dart. We’re just scanning all over very quickly, usually due to nervous tension.”

-> Tip #2. Lean forward and move around

This relates to how you hold your lower body. Decker recommends a forward lean, also known as a “ready position.” This will encourage you to move around and it will also give you a psychological forward lean that you want to get out there.

“You want to talk to that audience. A lot of people go back on one hip because psychologically they don’t want to be there. Psychologically their body is going backward rather than forward.”

->Tip #3. Use gestures and facial expressions

Movement catches the eye. The more you move, the more you will be watched. Your gestures and facial expressions also convey your level of excitement about the content. If the audience doesn’t think you’re excited about your presentation, you can’t expect them to be excited.

“I’m not saying that you can be a jump-up-and-down motivational speaker saying nothing. But the content isn’t going to get there unless it has your energy and enthusiasm driving it.”

-> Tip #4. Vary your voice

Don’t let your voice drop into a monotone -- as if you are reading an announcement from a sheet of paper. It’s hard to concentrate when a person speaks flatly.

“Your voice, you want it more like a roller coaster. The energy and excitement about the subject should communicate through your voice,” says Decker.

->Tip #5. Drop non-words

Many people unconsciously pepper their speech with “ums” and “ahs” to maintain verbal rhythm. In a presentation, these sounds chop up your message and make it harder to understand. More importantly, they make you sound unprofessional.

“Slide, um, number, ah, three, conveys this, ah, data, in a very great, um … you know … way …”

The best way to stop using these words is to pause for a few seconds to gather your thoughts.

“The pause will get rid of ums, ahs, you-knows, OKs, whatevers and will also, once somebody gets used to leaving a 3-second pause, they’ll be able to begin using it for a dramatic effect,” says Decker. “Speaking at a conference, I could leave a 5-second pause, because no one is going to interrupt. You have control over the situation. The problem is a 3-second pause feels like 30 seconds if we’re not used to doing it.”

->Tip #6. Dress for success

Your appearance can vary from presentation to presentation. Dress up for some talks. Dress down for others. Overdress when in doubt.

“When you’re in front of people at any time, people judge quickly. And even before you open your mouth they’ve made a judgment about you, even if they’ve never seen you before, by what you wear, how you wear it, your facial hair, your jewelry. Anything they immediately see, has such a powerful impact.”

Using Slides & Visuals
Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote are widely used at conferences. But many speakers’ dependence on them has made for many boring presentations. Here are some tips to use your slides as an aid to your message -- not as a crutch:

-> Tip #1. Go light on text and heavy on images

Slides loaded with text and data draw attention away from you because “people really can’t read and listen to you at the same time,” says Garr Reynolds, Author of ‘Presentation Zen.’

When people try to read a slide while you’re talking, part of your message is lost, so use as little text as possible. Instead, try to use images to illustrate and support your point. Images communicate much faster than letters and numbers.

-> Tip #2. Keep graphs simple

Charts are a great way to illustrate a point. But to hold the audience’s attention, keep them simple enough to be understood quickly.

Graphs should always be two-dimensional if the data is simple enough to allow it. Using a three-dimensional graph can make simple data harder to understand than necessary, says Reynolds.

-> Tip #3. Use black blank slides

After you use a slide or two to make a point, go to a black blank slide. This will shift attention back to you and what you’re saying. It also prevents your presentation from being only a series of slides with some commentary.

You can also use black slides to break up the major portions of your presentation to communicate closure of a section, says Reynolds.

-> Tip #4. Go easy on transitions

Most presentation software allows for fancy slide transitions, but they can be a distraction. Reynolds suggests using no more than two or three different transitions, and not for every slide. The audience should hardly notice your transitions.

-> Tip #5. Follow 10-20-30 Rule

A good presentation should have about 10 slides, Reynolds says. It should last no more than about 20 minutes. The size of the type on the slides should be 30 point or larger.

Of course, circumstances might require you to use more time and slides. You may need to fill a 90-minute block in a conference. A 70-minute Q&A after a 20-minute presentation won’t please anyone.

-> Tip #6: Create a handout

If your presentation needs to be data-heavy, create a handout that highlights the key findings. Give it to everyone to take with them. You can use your slides as your sole visual aids while speaking.

Remember, you’re speaking to inspire people. “The written medium is far better for information itself,” says Decker.

Practice & Rehearse
You should practice first, but you don’t want to practice so much that your words lose meaning. Don’t give a speech without at least reading your notes.

“Rehearse three to four times. Don’t rehearse so it’s memorized, but be well-prepared so you’re rehearsed,” says Decker.

Tips for rehearsing:

-> Tip #1. Practice in front of colleagues

Your co-workers can give you tips on your presentation and can help you practice eye contact. It’s more difficult to practice the behavioral aspects of a presentation without help.

-> Tip #2. Record your presentation

Record yourself giving your speech. You’ll get some key insights on how to improve your behavior. A video recording is preferable, but audio is better than nothing.

“Most of us run around, giving a speech or talking to people at a meeting, we don’t really have a clue at how we are coming across behaviorally,” Decker says. “That’s why video feedback and audio feedback is critically important to know how we come across to get conscious of how we’re looking at people, whether we leave pauses, how we hear our voice, whether we are using our hands, whether we’re going back on one hip or leaning forward or not.”

-> Tip #3. Keep rehearsal shorter

Your rehearsal time will always be shorter than your actual presentation time -- so factor that in. On stage, you add content, interact with the audience, field questions, etc. Your rehearsal should be about 75% as long as your presentation, says Decker.

Watch the Pros
Watch good speakers to see how they do it. One of the best presenters in the business is Apple CEO Steve Jobs, says Decker (see hotlinks to video of a speech by Jobs below).

“One of the greatest communicators in person using PowerPoint and visuals as they should be used is Steve Jobs, particularly in his MacWorld presentations that have become rock star events, because he’s just so effective in using just pictures and visuals and talking to them.”

Jobs also talks in a conversational manner, which relaxes the audience, says Reynolds.

Useful links related to this article

Past Sherpa article: How to Become a Star by Landing Coveted Speaking Gigs & Gaining New Business

Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007:

Apple iWork: Keynote

Steve Jobs: MacWorld 2007 Keynote Part 1:
Part 2:

Decker Communications Inc.:

Bert Decker’s blog:

Garr Reynolds’ site:

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