Are Your Lousy Speaking Skills Putting Your Career at Risk?

“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.” – Voltaire

Question: What’s worse than having bad breath on a first date?

Answer: Boring your bosses when you are making a presentation.

Yesterday, I had to sit through a two-hour business meeting run by a bright young executive who has everything going for her – except one thing: her habit of turning a simple sentence into a long, dull march through the monotony of her mind.

She made a PowerPoint presentation about the weaknesses she sees in the business and her plans for correcting them. That is a good topic. And had she done it right, she would have first considered her audience, realized that we know as much (or more) about the business as she does (minus some of the details), and created a 30-minute presentation that highlighted all the essential points.

That is not what she did. What she did was start from the beginning – the very beginning. (“At first, there was chaos…”) Then she walked us through the history of the business, giving us facts and figures that we were well aware of long before we hired her.

As she approached modern history – what the business has done since she became a manager – her chronicle slowed. We were all in some degree of pain. Each of us separately made polite gestures that meant “Can you please hurry it up?” She either didn’t pick up on them or chose to ignore them. She plowed through her presentation line by line, word by word, vocalizing every sentence that was printed on every PowerPoint slide, and then adding several explanatory sentences… as if we needed them.

Not good. This young woman had just been given the opportunity to run a multimillion-dollar business. She earned that job because of how hard she works. But if she doesn’t learn to speak more effectively, her career is likely to glimmer and fade rather than glow brighter as it should.

To make any type of business presentation more effective, make sure you:

  • Consider who your audience will be and ask yourself what they want or need to know.

Had our young executive asked any of us this question (or been able to guess what we’d say), she would have known that we wanted to hear her plans for improving things, not a history of what we already knew.

  • Figure out how the presentation can enhance your ability to achieve your goals.

In this case, our young executive might have thought to herself: “I want these people to provide me with more marketing funds” or “I need them to provide more logistical support.” With that in mind, she could have orchestrated a portion of the presentation to make her case.

  • Think about how you can use the presentation to enhance your image.

Every time you make a presentation, you leave an impression – either positive, negative, or something in between. Rather than leave that impression to chance, why not consider your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker and do your best to make the best impression you can.

And, as long as we’re on the subject, here are two specific hints to help you make better PowerPoint presentations:

  • Don’t construct them as verbal scripts, sequences of sentences that display every thought you intend to convey in a linear order. Instead, use them primarily to display graphic representations of your most important points or to illustrate complex information that begs for visual explication.
  • Don’t read the displayed text to your audience. That text is meant to be read by them. And since it is meant to be read by them while you are speaking, it should be phrased economically – as memorable phrases rather than sentences. Show these catchphrases and then talk around them, filling in details or telling stories to bring them to life.

A minimum improvement in our young executive’s public speaking and presentation skills will dramatically increase her effectiveness in her job. If she were to ask me, I’d recommend starting with Peter “the Humerator” Fogel’s Guide to Effective Public Speaking or Virginia Avery’s Presenting Yourself Professionally workshop. After she’s completed at least one of those, she should join a local public speaking club. (There is one in almost every city in the world.)

Toastmasters is one such club. It allows members to practice leading meetings and giving impromptu and prepared speeches. Here are some suggestions from Toastmasters for making good presentations, formal or informal.

  1. Know the room. Be familiar with the place in which you will speak. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area, and practice using the microphone and any visual aids.
  2. Know the audience. Greet some of the people as they arrive. It’s easier to speak to a group of friends than to a group of strangers.
  3. Know your material. If you’re not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Practice your speech and revise it if necessary.
  4. Visualize yourself giving your speech. Imagine yourself speaking – your voice loud, clear, and assured. When you picture yourself as successful, you will be successful.
  5. Realize that people want you to succeed. Audiences want you to be interesting, stimulating, informative, and entertaining. They don’t want you to fail.
  6. Don’t apologize. If you mention your nervousness or apologize for any problems you think you have with your speech, you may be calling the audience’s attention to something they hadn’t noticed.
  7. Concentrate on the message, not the medium. Focus your attention away from your own anxieties and outwardly toward your message and your audience. Your nervousness will dissipate.

By far the most important piece of advice in the above list is to know your material. Most nervousness comes from the fear of looking like a fool. If you’re totally confident in your mastery of your subject, you’ll never have this problem.

Being a poor presenter is a serious problem for anyone who wants to be successful in business. It will create all sorts of hidden obstacles that will hinder or even stall an otherwise bright career.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]