“All the great speakers were bad speakers first.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you make a presentation, whether it’s a report to the board of directors, a speech to the Kiwanis Club, or a major talk at a conference, it is vitally important to captivate your audience and make them want to listen to you. Yet when you hear some people speak, you would think their purpose is to bore, frustrate, and alienate. By learning how to avoid the things that will put your audience off, you increase your chances of getting your message across, impressing your boss, being asked to speak again, and/or finding new customers.
Just last month, I attended a conference where I saw a perfect demonstration of how to alienate an audience. The speaker had lots of platform experience, but his presentation was most memorable for the mistakes he made – the kind of mistakes you should avoid at all costs.
Though he didn’t make every mistake in the book, he sticks in my mind as an example of the last person I would ever pay attention to… mainly because of his attitude. It appeared that his main reason for being there was to tell us how wonderful and successful he was.
And that is the first way to lose your audience:
1. Being Self-Centered Rather Than Audience-Centered
This is your speech – so you should be able to brag, boast, cajole, or rant if the mood suits you. Right? After all, if not to learn more about you, your products, your company, and your importance, why did they ask you to speak? So thinks the self-centered speaker.
An audience-centered speaker, by contrast, is concerned with giving value, providing a solution to a problem, or inspiring the group to take a particular action. In addition, the audience-centered speaker involves his audience with less lecturing and more interaction.
Today’s audiences are sophisticated and knowledgeable. Approaching your talk from your listeners’ perspective by asking yourself, “How can I make this clear and helpful to them?” assures they’ll be more receptive to what you have to say. Plus, each group you speak to will be different – so seeing your topic through their eyes will help you keep your material fresh and interesting.
2. Winging It
If there ever was a recipe for presentation failure, failing to prepare is it. No matter how well you know your subject, it is difficult to decide which direction to go in when you are facing a group. In fact, the more you know about your subject, the more difficult it can be to make a coherent presentation on the spot… because your mind will be focused on whether you should make this point or that point.
Watching a presenter who is winging it is painful. I recently watched one who was so obviously unprepared, it was embarrassing. And, of course, since he didn’t know what he was going to say, he took longer to say it, running over his allotted time.
You should always prepare for a presentation. This includes researching your audience, their concerns, and the reason they are attending that particular presentation. Speakers who don’t prepare lack focus, organization, and ultimately lack a compelling message… which wastes everyone’s time.
Do the opposite: Prepare by researching your audience and their stance on your topic. Then think about the main point you want them to remember one week later, and build your presentation around it.
3. Staying Stock Still… or Hiding Behind the Lectern
Many presenters seem to think there’s no point in moving, smiling, or altering their voice. (It might jar the audience awake.) But stiffness, lack of body flexibility, and lack of movement all contribute to a boring presentation. I’ve heard this referred to as the “Dan Rather School of Speaking.”
You see, we are hard-wired to pay attention to movement – especially if it is purposeful. Gestures, vocal inflection, and facial animation help deliver your message. When you fail to use expression, your message falls flat.
No matter how well crafted your words are, it takes energy and “life” to instill interest. The mind tends to reject information it deems boring.
To encourage people to pay attention, come out from behind the lectern.
Move with purpose.
Address different people in your audience.
Most of all, deliver your message with enthusiasm. If you don’t care about what you’re saying, neither will your audience.
4. Using Many Words to Say Very Little
I remember eagerly anticipating a famous author’s presentation. I had read some of his books, and knew I was going to glean gems of wisdom from his talk.
Imagine my disappointment when this author put up 15 Power Points for us to consider, and pretty much just read them to us. No pertinent examples to flesh out each one. Just superficial statements I could have constructed myself.
A list of points is no more a presentation than a grocery list is a meal. It doesn’t nourish the mind. Instead, take three of your most important points, or even one, and elaborate. Tell stories to show your audience some interesting tidbit or background, provide examples of a point in action, explain why you consider that point to be so important.
Today’s audience is looking for enlightenment and entertainment. To give them value in exchange for their time, forget lists and platitudes. Describe the meaningful experiences you’ve had, explain the meaning of the data you are providing.
In other words, give your audience your insights, your thoughtful opinions, and your stories. That’s what they have come to hear.
5. Disregarding Time Limits
You might have heard that when Woodrow Wilson was asked how long it took for him to prepare a one-hour speech, he said “one week.” But when asked how long it took for him to prepare a two-hour speech, he said “I’m ready now!” That’s because it takes more preparation to speak well when you are given less time.
It’s a simple courtesy to end on time – especially if another speaker is waiting in the wings. One way to be sure you finish on time is to prepare only enough to fill 70 percent of your allotted time. (A speech often takes longer when you’re facing an audience than it does in practice.)
You should also decide ahead of time what you will omit if you run out of time. If you must cut something from your presentation, cut an example, a supporting point, or a story. Never cut your introduction or conclusion.
To keep from alienating your audience, beware of repeating these five presentation sins. Stand apart from the majority of speakers by having the courage to do the reverse of what they do. The important points you make will be remembered.[Ed. Note: Virginia Avery is a communications specialist who has trained thousands of individuals to make more dynamic presentations. Become more confident and persuasive in just two days with her Presenting Yourself Professionally workshop.]