On Public Speaking

The first time I spoke to a group, I made a lot of mistakes. I did not make eye contact, and “er” and “uh” were frequent refrains — but, somehow, I got some ideas across. After the talk, several people actually thanked me for the information. I did make several valid points, I just did it poorly. So I decided I would get better.

Fortunately for me, I heard Maggie Bedrosian (author of “Speak Like a Pro”) speak at an event that I attended within a month of that first attempt at a professional speech. She and I struck up a friendship that has lasted for over 14 years, and during that time I have occasionally been lucky enough to have the benefit of her very talented coaching. As a result, I have become a much better speaker.

One of the best ideas I got from her is to tape your practice sessions before going public. Using a simple hand-held recorder, tape all your speeches and presentations well in advance of the first performance. Then, listen to the tape several times: during drive time; while you’re in the office (playing in the background, instead of the radio); and, finally, focusing all your attention on it, with no distractions, so you can do a serious critique and re-write.

This allows you to hear yourself the way your audience will hear you. It lets you make certain the material is sequential and coherent. (I read my articles aloud for the same reason.) And it helps you find areas where you need to bolster a position or look for better examples. Listening to the tape also helps you identify annoying idiosyncrasies that tend to pop up. It could be a phrase that you use too often, overdoing the dramatic pause, or anything else that might be annoying to your audience.

Communicating effectively at receptions or any other informal networking events has another set of rules. First, eat before you go. Don’t overload a plate and then attempt to have a conversation while eating. Get one drink, preferably non-alcoholic, that you can nurse for a long time. Meet, greet, and listen. Do not look over the shoulder of the person you are speaking with to see who else is there. (I’m sure you’ve been at the receiving end of this kind of behavior, so you know how it feels.)

If you’re speaking in a boardroom or at a small business meeting, work from a pre-determined agenda (your own or one that someone else has set) so those involved will not feel as though they are adrift in yet another meaningless time-waster. Keep the meeting moving, covering all points on the agenda and making certain that anyone who wishes to share has the opportunity to do so.

No matter where you will be speaking — no matter how large or small, how formal or informal the venue — the key to successfully selling yourself or your ideas is to know in advance what you want to say and how you want to say it.

I make it a point to seek out speaking engagements that give me the opportunity to advance my reputation as an expert in my field — and I urge you to do the same. Here again, planning ahead is key, especially in regard to conferences where the directors select speakers 8-10 months in advance. If I really want to speak at a particular event, I contact the conference director and offer to be part of a panel or fill in for someone who is unable to speak at the last minute. I do the same for smaller events, offering to speak at seminars produced by publications or associations.

If you can’t find a venue — create one. Since 1991, I have produced over 50 seminars and three conferences, most of them to promote my expertise as a consultant to businesses that market their products or services to the government. My “Government Marketing Best Practices” seminar has been presented in more than 15 cities around the country. I limit the seminar to three hours, so attendance is usually pretty good. Spending more than three hours listening to one speaker is a little much, unless the speaker is excellent and the presentation is chock-full of information. I am a pretty good speaker, but I wouldn’t listen to myself for more than three hours — so why would I ask anyone else to?

Bottom line: Communication is king. If you speak well and present useful information about your subject, you will be very well received. If you do not communicate well, you will not be invited to speak at events that are critical to your success. Someone else will get those important speaking engagements — even if he is not as knowledgeable as you.

(Ed. Note: Mark Amtower is widely regarded as a leading expert in marketing to the federal government. He has worked with hundreds of businesses and regularly advises senior management on matters related to marketing, positioning, branding, press relations, and customer development and retention.)