He ambled up to the lectern and said, “I am not a public speaker, so I didn’t prepare anything. I just want you to know that.” Believe me, that announcement was unnecessary. I was at a meeting of businesspeople working on an expansion proposal for the local airport – and our first speaker had just given us fair warning as to what we could expect to hear from him. I can assure you, after listening to him trying to put together a few coherent sentences – never mind coherent thoughts – it was all we could do to keep from groaning out loud.

Unfortunately, the next three speakers also had nothing prepared. What a wasted afternoon! The presenters had lost an opportunity to inspire and lead – and, of course, the airport expansion never even got started. It always surprises me that people will speak before a group without preparing or practicing. Though we are capable of running, we would not dream of entering a marathon without training. If we play golf, we would not enter a professional tournament without working with a coach.

Yet every day, business and professional people make important presentations without preparation or practice, losing the opportunity to promote themselves and their business (and not even considering the negative effect this has on their image). Learning to present well has many rewards. For those of us in business and professional fields, it can repay itself many times over. In addition to the free lunches and the applause, the self-and-business promotion, there is the growing opportunity for influencing … and truly making a difference. Yet how many times have you heard a speaker who moved you or inspired you to action?

And how many times, instead, have you felt trapped in your seat by a presenter who droned on and on … while all you could do was sit there and wonder what his point was? You don’t want to do that to your audience, do you? And you won’t … if you prepare, plan, and practice. (As any good trial lawyer knows, cases are not won in the courtroom but in the work done beforehand.) The preparation stage involves finding out as much as possible not only about your topic but also about your audience. Why are they attending? What do they know about the topic? What action do you want them to take as a result of listening to you?

Too often, presenters prepare their material without taking the audience into account. This is a major mistake. After you have gathered as much information as possible about both your audience and your topic, the planning begins. Most coaches tell you to prepare an outline for your talk. I don’t think that is very good advice. Outlines are linear, use the left side of the brain, and depend on memorization. That creates problems. If you forget your point, you’re lost. I recommend another approach. By using my approach, even if you forget a point, you will always be able to get back on track … because you will know where your speech is headed.

The first thing to do is decide on the action step you want the audience to take as a result of listening to you. You should be able to clearly state that action in one complete sentence. When you have that sentence – your action step – it’s time to brainstorm. Ask yourself: “What does my audience need to know in order to take this action step?” Answering that question will provide you with a great deal of information. Using that information, come up with three main points that you need to make in order to convince your audience to take the action step. Why three? Because it’s easier for your audience to remember your main points if they are limited to three.

For instance, if you want the audience to contribute to your favorite charity, your three main points might be:

(1) the importance of the organization to the community,

(2) the reason the money is being solicited, and

(3) the increased benefits that will result when the goal is met.

Once that is done, you can add supporting information. Throughout your speech, you will want to involve the audience. Ask questions. Ask for a show of hands. Use humor, illustrations, and stories. These are some of the techniques we use to keep an audience’s attention and interest. The better we involve our listeners, the more attention they pay to our words. Now that you have the main body of your speech, it is time to plan the two most important parts: the opening and closing. The opening sets the stage and gets the audience’s attention. It makes a statement about what your topic will cover, and why it is important for them to listen.

In our example of a speech to solicit contributions for your favorite charity, you might start with something like this: “Each Fourth of July, we in Sonoma hold a great community parade. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, we share free community dinners. Throughout the year, we enjoy theater, music programs, and art events. We enjoy all of these wonderful things because of only one reason: our historic community center.

Today, I want to tell you some things that you may not know about this important organization, and why we all need to support it.” After you have an attention-getting opening, you need to plan a strong closing – the last words your audience will hear. The closing can be a summary of the main points, a repetition of an important phrase, or a reminder of the benefits that will be gained by taking your suggested action. If you use this approach, you will know your presentation fairly well by the time you are finished with the preparation and planning stages. With several practice sessions, you will have constructed a speech that your audience will not only enjoy but also find memorable.

(Ed. Note: Virginia Avery is a communications specialist who trains and coaches businesspeople to make more profitable presentations. Virginia@AveryPresentations.com)

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