In my several years of work with executives on their communications, I have seen some myths come up over and over again about how best to succeed at speaking in public. In this article, I will shed light on each one to save executives and their audiences from future mishap.
There is nothing wrong with humour. In fact, it is a great thing when done correctly. The problem is that most executives lack both the skill and the practice to put a good joke across, although they have plenty of inclination to try. Add to that the initial nerves that afflict most speakers at the beginning of a talk, and you have a guaranteed failure. What happens is that the executive delivers the joke feeling tense, then the audience responds to the tension and not to the joke. The executive thinks, Oh no! I am going down in flames, radiating even more apprehension. The audience begins to smell disaster and reacts accordingly. It is a vicious communications cycle, and it is quite hard to stop.
My advice: Do not put that kind of pressure on yourself, at least, not initially. One-liners are very hard to deliver well. Just ask any stand-up comic. Instead, allow yourself to have fun with the material, if the topic seems appropriate.
People often try to avoid rehearsing. They are busy and they have hundreds of tasks to take care of. Rehearsal takes time and they put it off, using the excuse of ‘not wanting to go stale’. Then, when it comes time to deliver the speech, they look like they are learning as they go, an appearance incommensurate with authority. Their body unconsciously reveals their unease, and the audience is very quick to pick up that unconscious behavior. Worst of all, the audience interprets the unease as inauthenticity.
My advice: The truth is you cannot go stale even with copious rehearsal, as long as you show up for the presentation with energy and focus. That is the key. You cannot be completely energized and focused if you do not know what you are doing.
In many different articles and courses, I have come across Communication Experts who recommend looking over the heads of audience members.
My Advice: Look directly at key individuals. In the words of William Shakespeare, our eyes are the window to our souls, and so, it is no surprise that we connect with each other through our eyes. It also helps you establish trust with your audience. Effective speakers look at a few people, one at a time. This creates a relationship, and it is less intimidating to share your message with each person than it is to a large crowd.
Most presenters think, “If my PowerPoint is great, my presentation will amaze them.” Preparation means more than putting in countless hours on an enticing slide show. What you say and how you say it are more important than your slides. For example, in his famous speech, I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King Jr. won the hearts of his audience with his passion and authenticity. Do you believe the same impact can be achieved with the use of clichéd stock photos?
My Advice: Forget about the slides. Instead, outline your own unique and powerful ideas; then rehearse! Practice is the single most important thing you can do to become a better speaker. Leave the PowerPoint at home.
The public speaking world adopted this principle from advertising. Advertisers face the challenge of distracting us from our busy lives so that we will read their ads. But in the public speaking arena, people are sitting in the audience waiting for you to start. They may be talking to the person next to them or checking their phone, but as soon as you begin, they will listen to you. The challenge in public speaking is not to grab attention, but to retain it.
My Advice: You have already got the audience’s attention. In those first key moments, the imperative objective is to establish rapport with your audience.