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Speaker's Digest | Fundamentals of Public Speaking | EMS Glossary of Terms

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Speaker's Digest

April 2017
Volume 16, Number 4

In this issue:

There's a very memorable scene in the 1991 movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal's city-dwelling character, Mitch, is alone with Curly, a wise old cowboy-for-hire, played by Jack Palance. (Palance won an Oscar® for that role and famously did push-ups on the stage when he accepted his award.) Curly is giving Mitch, who is on a quest for meaning in his life, some advice:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean s***.
Mitch: That's great, but what's the "one thing?"
Curly: That's what you've got to figure out.

Our readers, friends, clients and workshop participants know that we love to quote movies. But there's a reason we're bringing up this particular quote from a movie that came out 25+ years ago. (Damn, where did that time go??) It's because people often ask us a similar question about public speaking. Read on for our answer, as well as some insight into virtual presenting, a topic we've been addressing more and more with our clients.


People ask the EMS team many questions about public speaking. And one of the most common ones we get is this: What's the one thing I can do to become a better presenter?

Of course, that's like asking, "What's the one thing I can do for my golf swing that will help me break 90?" There is no one thing that will make everyone a more effective presenter. If there were, we probably wouldn't have jobs doing what we do. And, as Curly teaches us, each of us has our own "one thing" that we need to figure out.

We do, however, have a few general thoughts on this topic. After all, while a golfer might need to do eight different things to improve their golf swing, sometimes remembering just one or two (stick your butt out, keep your elbow straight, for example) will help to remind the rest of your body to do what it's supposed to do.

Based on our work with countless speakers over more than 19 years (happy anniversary to EMS this month), we do have some all-encompassing coaching tips that will help any speaker improve their style and effectiveness. What are they?

Be Yourself. Most people aren't good enough actors to try to pull off a new personality in front of a crowd. The best approach is simply to be yourself. This means to relax into a conversational tone that you would use when talking with a group of friends or family. If you usually are funny, be funny. If you usually like to tell stories, tell stories. If you usually are formal, be formal.

Presenters get in trouble when they THINK they should act a certain way. For example, we often note that people try to sound so freakin' professional that their voice becomes monotonic or their expressions look angry. We encourage them to lighten up, and to trust that their real personality will connect better with their audiences.

The best way to demonstrate this is to compare how people sound when they are presenting from notes or slides, to how they sound when answering questions. Almost always, the unrehearsed answers sound much more interesting and powerful than the notes, because speakers tend to respond using their own voices, allowing their true selves to shine through. Try it!

Be Energetic. Energy is a great mask, meaning that it helps to cover up other speaking distractions. A presenter who brings energy to the podium will seem more enthusiastic, more engaging, and more convincing. Audiences appreciate speakers who bring energy, and they'll be less likely to notice tendencies and mannerisms which might otherwise get in the way.

Remembering to show energy is like a golfer remembering to keep her elbow straight-it keeps the rest of the body in line. In the same way, speakers who crank up the energy tend to make bigger gestures. They tend to use fewer non-words, make better eye contact, vary their volume, and hold the audience's attention longer. We have seen many presenters over the years who have become dramatically better speakers by adding a dose of energy to their delivery. Try this one, too!

Remember the Fundamentals. It's always a good idea to review our eight Fundamentals of Public Speaking, all of which can make a huge difference for any one presenter. Here they are, quickly. (You might imagine saying them in rapid succession, almost as fast as George Carlin once gave the seven words you can't say on TV):

Eye Contact, Gestures, Movement, Speaking Pace, Pauses, Eliminating Non-Words, Facial Expression, Energy.

When you're feeling nervous about a presentation, concerned about how you're going to reach your audience, or just want to be at your best when your name is called, focus on at least one of these coaching tips. When you do, you'll see the impact they make in helping you communicate your message. Go for it!


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Training Virtual presenters

We've created customized workshops for clients in recent months that focus specifically on virtual presentations: presenting via a conference call, video conference or webinar. In these situations, there are often slides on a computer screen, or more simply a group of people dialed in to a call where there aren't any visual aids.

Like a radio announcer, the speaker isn't in any way visible to the audience. They must rely solely on their voice to communicate. And in most cases, people do a poor job-a VERY poor job-of virtually presenting.

One of the biggest problems, from our perspective, is that people don't seem to realize they are presenting when there aren't people in front of them. They don't prepare, they don't show any energy, and they don't act as if their words are important. This is ironic, because we recognize that virtual presentations can affect many critical business or project issues: budgets, timelines, approvals, buy-in, sales, and even jobs!

Why don't people bring their A-game to virtual presentations?

Think about this from a listener's perspective. When you see someone giving an in-person presentation, you are with a group of people, in the same physical space, watching the speaker. You're more-or-less committed to watching their facial expressions, their gestures and their eye contact. But in a virtual presentation, there are so many more distractions, especially if you are listening in your office: you can read emails, check your Twitter feed, look out the window, eat your lunch, prepare for your next meeting, or say hi to a colleague walking by your office, all while having the presentation playing in the ‘background.'

As a virtual presenter, that's the situation you face. It's a real-world challenge, and when you're addressing a critical topic, this is no time for a dry, monotone presentation that blends into the rest of your listener's day and makes your message easy to tune out.

With no visual connection, you must rely on making a big impact using the sound of your voice. You need to focus on the same Fundamentals that make you an effective speaker in person. We encourage people in our workshops to bring the same levels of preparation and energy to their virtual presentations.

Here are some coaching tips to get you started:

Emphasize movement. Believe it or not, by using big gestures when you talk, your voice will sound more animated and energetic. You'll feel more engaged and your listeners will notice more vocal variety, which will help them stay connected to you. Standing up also helps some people, as does pushing yourself to use a wide variety of facial expressions.

Avoid vocal pitfalls. Vocal issues such as a monotone delivery, trailing off at the end of thoughts, or the ever-horrible UPSPEAK? are problems that many speakers face. But when all you have is your voice for presenting, they can kill your credibility and your presentation. Your listeners will tune you out when every sentence follows the same vocal pattern. To counteract this, vary your volume, make it clear which points you are emphasizing, and finish your thoughts with strength and conviction!

Guide the listener through visuals. When referring to slides on a computer screen, particularly slides that you've spent hours putting together, don't expect that everyone will see what you want them to see. We use the term Directional Language-use your voice as a tool to let them know what's important in a graph or table. For example: "If you'll take a look at the upper right hand side of the graph, you'll see how our ad campaign dramatically impacted sales for the two weeks we ran it, but then dropped off below previous levels, which you can see on the lower part of this curve." Use Directional Language to tell people where they should be looking, and explain what you want them to understand.

Final thought-in virtual presentations, it's hard to tell whether people are actually paying attention. Check in with them throughout your message, help them understand your main point, and increase the odds that they'll pay close attention by letting them hear the energy in your voice. No guarantees, but we expect that you'll make a stronger impact, win over more of your colleagues, and get people to pay better attention by following these suggestions.

See you next month, and pass it on!


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