The Least Popular Secret to Public Speaking

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REHEARSE

After many years of leading presentation skills workshops, I’ve found that the number one thing people DON'T do when preparing to speak is rehearse. The majority of presenters spend 95% of their time working on their slide deck and just 5% practicing their actual talk. 

So here are three ways to get started:

  1. Plan rehearsals in advance—put time on your calendar and book a conference room for multiple run throughs well before your talk. This will give you deadlines to meet so you don’t leave it all to the last minute. 

  2. Record your run throughs using the voice memo or video function on your phone. Yes, it’s painful to hear yourself, but you owe it to your audience to give a listen.

  3. Get a test audience. Ask some friends and colleagues to sit in for a run through. Having real people in the room makes a big difference, and gives you a chance to practice making eye contact, as well as get some helpful feedback.

I guarantee if you follow these steps and practice out loud beforehand, you will be better. Steve Jobs was many things, not all great, but he was a great presenter because he rehearsed—A LOT.

Photo by Darius Soodmand on Unsplash


Is this a Slide Deck or an Owner's Manual?

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I was recently leading my 2 Day Comprehensive Presentation Skills Workshop for a group of super smart tech folk on how to organize and effectively present. 

One participant opened up a deck that he planned to deliver to senior management to get buy-in for a global project to fund some very outdated hardware.
 
There were pages and pages of dense 8pt text.

Based on the best practices we’d just reviewed, he felt embarrassed about it and agreed that it needed work.
 
So I asked, “What was the intention of this deck when you created it?
 
He said it was to send out to his engineering team to execute this complex, massive, global hardware upgrade.
 
"Sort of like an owners manual for how this whole global project will be executed?"
 
"Yes."
 
“If your goal is to send this out to engineers as reference material, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. It's important to have detailed documentation that includes everything required to carry out this very complex job.
 
But if you stand up and deliver every detail of this deck to senior managers (or to anyone for that matter), they’re going to be overwhelmed and wonder what you want them to do with all this."
 
So, first, we identified what these senior managers cared about. That was easy - saving time and money.  

Next, we clarified what we're asking of them. That was also easy - to approve funding for this new hardware.
 
Finally, we organized the structure of the deck around three major points that spoke to how they would save time, money & resources. We kept it to one concept per slide. 

The result was clear, to the point, and based on what THEY cared about, not what engineers needed to know about the project roll out.

10x Your Tech Talk

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Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to lead training workshops at many of the top tech firms, and one thing I always tell my groups is that speaking about something technical need not be boring.

No matter how technical your topic, it’s up to you to find a way to keep your audience interested in what you have to say. Here are 10 ways to assure you’ll keep your audience with you.

  1. Think about why you are speaking. As the subject matter expert, you have a gift to give your audience that will help them out. Think about an action that they will take as a result of your presentation. Saying you’re speaking to them to “impart information” is a cop-out. Get more active and think about what they’ll DO with your words of wisdom.

  2. Give your unique perspective and tell personal stories that relate to your material. It is up to you to find stories that connect you to your material. Your audience will remember a good story, especially one about something really stupid you did (and learned from). Bonus points: this will also get them on your side.

  3. Define who your audience will be. What is their background? What are they interested in? How familiar will they be with your topic? This is one of the most important things that people tend to overlook — but finding out what your audience really cares about will help you tailor your presentation to their needs and interest.

  4. Do you care about your topic? If you don’t care and can’t show passion for your subject, you certainly can’t expect your audience to. You’ll be radiating your boredom, and your audience will follow suit.

  5. Keep it Conversational. Sure, you’re the subject matter expert, but that doesn’t mean you have to speak like a robot. Record yourself and listen and/or watch. Does it sound like you’re speaking at gunpoint, or like you’re actually talking to someone? Practice with a friend running through the presentation talking to them as you would about anything. Speaking like a real person having a real conversation makes a huge difference to your audience.

  6. Make Eye Contact. Keeping your face buried in your notes, or staring at the screen behind you disconnects you from your audience. After you make a point at the end of a phrase or sentence, check to see if the audience got what you said. Avoid scanning the audience, choose one person at a time to speak to, and the entire audience will feel as if you’re talking to them.

  7. Breathe and Slow Down. Having lots of pairs of eyes on you is freaky and stressful, and you’ll probably start to breathe in a very shallow way, and speak as fast as you can so you can get this over with. This is a normal reaction, so don’t beat yourself up. Breathing more deeply will send needed oxygen to your brain and nervous system telling them to calm down. Pauses and breaks are great ways to give your audience time to process what you’ve said.

  8. Be Prepared, not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, and straining to be perfect will squeeze the life out of your presentation and squelch your natural ability to carry on a conversation with your audience.

  9. Choose your visual images carefully. Less equals more. Go easy on the bullet points, and please don’t just read exactly what’s on your screen without elaborating. If you have to use bulleted lists — at least reveal them as you speak about them, otherwise everyone will stop listening to you while they are reading what’s on your screen. Use real world examples and talk about real situations.

  10. Practice. A lot. Period. I’ve come across a lot of people who feel that if they practice too much, their presentation will come off as “too rehearsed.” The most calm, relaxed, conversational presenters you’ll see have rehearsed A LOT to look that effortless.

It’s hard work, and takes time, but as long as you rehearse, connect to your words, have passion for your subject, and carry on a conversation with your audience, you’ll come across as genuine and knock it out of the park.


Keep 'Em Engaged - Pitch with Passion

Recently, I was coaching women CEOs seeking to grow their businesses around pitching for funding.

When seeking capital, there’s a lot to prepare. You need to understand your market and be clear about how you’re going to make money—but at the core is your story.

Think about what problem you are solving, and the passion you had to start this business. At the same time, get to the root of what is driving you to act.

Go deep and get personal.

One CEO working on closing a round of funding revealed that she wasn’t comfortable talking about her personal life. But, once she DID open up and talk about the deeply-felt, highly-personal reasons she started her company—the entire room was completely captivated.  You could've heard a pin drop.

The passion was palpable.

But this was a volatile, emotional place, and she expressed understandable concern about “going there.”  I advised that she practice telling the story repeatedly. She would then be able to talk about her core beliefs within the context of her business plan without letting her emotions completely take over.  

This is the same advice given from an acting coach back in school when we reached an emotional place in a scene. “It’s great that you’re feeling emotional, but if the audience can’t hear your words, you’re not getting your message across, so slow down, breathe and keep rehearsing.”

When telling your story, tap into this important personal connection - the drive that moves you, but keep it within your control by practicing your delivery out loud.

You’ll touch the core of your audience’s hearts, and they won’t forget it.

5 Ways to Handle Nerves

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One piece of advice that seems to have made its way into the canon of public speaking tips is “just picture the audience in their underwear.” As seen in this old Brady Bunch episode, this is terrible advice that just won’t die.

As a public speaking coach and corporate trainer, I would like to kill this advice once and for all.

In his excellent radio interview on NPR with Regina Brett, Scott Berkun traces the origins of the underwear advice possibly to Winston Churchill, who while being an excellent speaker, “was also an alcoholic, so a lot of his advice about what he did probably doesn’t apply to most people.”

As I teach in my workshops, there are a lot of things you can do about nerves, but adding the visual of your audience in their underwear most likely will short circuit and distract you from why you’re speaking in the first place.

OK, so what CAN you do about nerves?

  1. Normalize your nerves. Whether they’ll admit it or not, everyone feels nerves or some adrenaline when they get up to present.

  2. Nerves hate laughter. Watch a funny video, or find something to laugh about beforehand.

  3. Practice out loud at least 5 times. Knowing your content will alleviate a lot of your anxiety.

  4. Work out / get physical to expel some of your nervous energy. Even a brisk walk will help.

  5. If possible, chat with your audience beforehand so that you have some friendly faces to connect with.

Ditch the Critic

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We’ve all got it. That critical committee in our head that’s commenting on our delivery WHILE we’re speaking to a group - saying things like:

  • “That was a stupid thing to say”

  • “Wow, you really blew THAT one,”

  • “You are so terrible at this - everyone is bored out of their minds."

In our daily lives, this critical committee can provide valuable information on how we’re doing based on a set of goals we’ve set for ourselves. But when you’re addressing a group in a high stakes situation, they’ll sabotage your confidence - and your delivery.

What can you do about it?

One thing I teach in my workshops is to send the committee out of the room.

When you’re doing run-throughs, practice seeing the committee leave the room and go out the door. When it’s time to deliver your talk, find the closest exit and visualize them leaving.

With the critical committee gone, you’ll be able to worry less, and focus on what’s most important - being present and sharing your ideas with your audience.

Don't Have TED Talk Time to Prep?

TED talks are amazing, and part of what makes them so is that speakers start 6 months in advance, and spend anywhere from 20 - 100 hours preparing. Similar to an actor learning their lines, they know every word they’re going to deliver and have carefully crafted their message over many iterations.

Does that fit into your schedule when you’re pitching an idea or delivering an important message at work?

Thought not.

Follow the rule of 5 when you’re pressed for time. Once you’ve clarified why you’re speaking and what you want your audience to do as a result, speak through your presentation out loud 5 times. Here’s what you’ll get:

  1. You’ll be more concise and to the point.

  2. You’ll have a sense of timing to shorten/lengthen it if needed.

  3. You’ll be more confident because you’ll have had 5 rehearsals under your belt.

So, if you don’t have a spare 100 hours lying around to prep TED talk style, use the 5 times rule.

You’ll be better, no question.

Three Ways to Avoid Monotone Drone

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We all have the ability to hit within three full octaves of notes when we’re speaking, but a lot of times, we use just one or two. This can result in a flat monotone drone which can put your audience to sleep. If you listen to professionals doing voice overs or ads, you’ll notice they’re hitting different pitches which makes it easier to take in what they’re saying.

Do you have monotone drone? Record yourself to find out. If you do, here are 3 ways to improve:

  1. Ride the vocal roller coaster. Speak a few lines of text going vocally up and down like a roller coaster. Then, go back and read the same text out loud without thinking about it. You’ll find you’re hitting new pitches because you just expanded your usual range.  As you get more comfortable with your new range, you’ll start to incorporate different “notes” based on what you’re saying.

  2. Listen to your favorite audiobook. Get a book that you want to read, access the audio version and read along with the voice-over actor for a few sentences, modeling your voice on theirs as they raise and lower their pitch. Then, put the audio on pause and read those sentences on your own, recording yourself. Five minutes practice a day will begin to change your lifelong vocal habits.

  3. Read to kids. If you’re around young kids, practice playing all the parts when you’re reading them stories. They’ll love it, and you’ll get a chance to see all of the places your voice can vocally go.

Use these techniques to avoid the dreaded monotone drone and keep your audience engaged.

Turntable Meditation

A drawing from my art school days of my first record player

A drawing from my art school days of my first record player

Growing up, I was obsessed with record players and records. I have a vivid memory of saying yes to choosing Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten because she had a record player and records that I liked. 

I would sit for hours listening to records completely hypnotized by the spinning label and shiny black grooves. My weekly allowance went towards my joining a record club at age 10. Over the years, I amassed a large record collection, much of which I sold or gave away through subsequent moves and as the digitizing of music evolved. 

The used turntable I bought in 2007 after my move to the east coast mostly gathered dust as it had the bad habit of skipping whenever anyone walked across the room. After it completely conked out a few months ago, I decided to replace it with a new one. 

That’s when everything changed.

I started a new ritual.

At least once a week (but often more if I have the time), I pull out a record, and sit down and just listen. I look at the record cover, watch the record spin, meditate on the lyrics, or just close my eyes to take it in and get away from all of distractions in my life. It’s not just background. I’m not listening while I’m doing 15 other things. It’s 20 minutes where I'm completely present, still and listening to the music.

How often at work, are you truly present? Between the emails, meetings, texts, slack chats, and tweets, how can you? This is a common challenge we address in my communication and leadership workshops.

To get present the next time you have a 1/1 meeting with a client, a direct report, or a colleague, take 30 - 40 seconds beforehand (in a phone booth, office, or even the bathroom)

  1. Close your eyes, breathe in for a count of 3 full seconds

  2. Exhale for a count of 7 full seconds

  3. After 3 rounds, open your eyes - you’re relaxed, focused & ready to engage

You’ll build trust, deepen important relationships, and often hear important things your distracted self might have missed.

Records on my wall in my office

Records on my wall in my office

Get Off On the Right Foot

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I often tell my clients, when the day comes for you to pitch or present, and the stakes are high, there are three things you can do the day of to get off on the right foot:

  1. Exercise - Get a good workout out or take a brisk walk to get your heart rate up to burn off some of your nervous energy.

  2. Arrive Early - There are so many things you can’t control, but getting there early is one thing you can.

  3. Have a backup plan - What happens if your laptop dies? Have your entire deck printed out just in case (3, 6 or 9 slides to a page will keep you on track). Have a copy of your presentation on a thumb drive (in PDF format) so you can easily swap out your laptop if you need to.

Follow these 3 tips. You’ll lower your stress, boost your confidence, and wow your crowd.



Your phone is your friend

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Do you use “um” or “like” a lot when you’re speaking?

Do you speak in a monotone voice, where everything you say is on the same pitch?

Or maybe you have problems with “up-speak” where everything you say is a question? “Today, we’re going to cover communication basics?”

Your phone is your friend.

The next time you’re speaking at a meeting, in front of a group, or maybe on a land line–use your phone to record yourself and listen back afterwards. You can use the voice memo function or start a video with the camera facing down (so you just focus on the audio).

I know, you hate hearing your voice–so do I. But, as I tell my workshop participants,

hearing how you sound to others can be a huge motivator to take steps to improve

Pause = Credibility

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In my leadership and presentation skills workshops, I find people often have a difficult time taking pauses when sharing their expertise before a group. As the person getting the focus of the entire room, taking a pause can initially feel awkward.

Many of us feel that if we’re not speaking every second, the audience will get bored and tune out.

The ironic thing is—taking your time and using pauses will convey that you really ARE the expert—as you’re not worried about trying to prove it.

So, take a breath, pause and truly engage with your audience, making eye contact to see if they’ve received your message. Imagine that there’s a thought bubble that appears after each major thought that asks: “Did you get that?”

This simple concept is one of the biggest takeaways from those attending my sessions. The power of the pause is a simple, yet powerful tool everyone can utilize.

So be wise with how you shape your time with others. Connect authentically. Give them time to process what you’re saying—they’ll be thankful, and you’ll come across as the subject matter expert that you are.

How Perfection Gets in Your Way

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When you’re pitching or presenting in front of a group, you want to do your best.

There are a lot of things you can do to prepare, but, as I always tell the leaders, new managers and subject matter experts in my workshops, remember one thing:

Be Prepared, not perfect

Think about it. When you’re talking to friends, do you focus on being “perfect”? The pressure you put on yourself for perfection can be like a vice grip, and you end up coming across as stiff, impersonal, and dull as dishwater.

So prepare as best you can, do lots of run throughs, and cut yourself some slack. Try to have a sense of humor, and expect a stumble here and there.

You’ll be more relaxed and more of ‘you’ will show up.

Avoid Pitch Panic by Using Intention Verbs

Photo credit:  Campaign Creators

Photo credit: Campaign Creators

You start to pitch your new creative idea, or address a room of your peers, sweat gushing out of every pore, and all you can think is “I better not blow this!”

If you stop and think about what’s going on, your focus is all on you and how you’re doing. We all have a critic that lives in our head that thrives on saying the most negative things it can. And that critic knows exactly what to say to really punch you in the gut when the pressure is on.

What can you do?

Find your intention verb.

Ask yourself beforehand, what do you want your audience to do, think or feel? What verb that captures that? Some good ones are: “inspire, motivate, excite.” Perhaps you need to caution your audience to take a new tactic or shift to a bold new strategy. In that case, you could use: “warn, alarm, or frighten” to shift them to take action, then move on to “inspire” them by sharing your vision for how things will improve after they adopt your recommendation. You might use more than one verb throughout a pitch based on the journey you’re taking your audience on.

By focusing on the effect you’d like to have on your audience with intention verbs, you distract your inner critic by giving full attention to the larger purpose of why you’re speaking in the first place. You don’t have to actually use the word, or let them know your intention verb. It’ll speak for itself in the passion and clarity of your delivery.

If you tend to deliver with low energy or speak in a monotone voice, this tactic does wonders, but you’ve got to commit to going “bigger” than you usually do.

Skeptical? Try it out on video without any intention, and then a 2nd time using your intention verb. You’ll see a massive difference.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

How to make or break your first impression

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In my workshops, attendees often talk about how they'd like to make better first impressions.

Most of us think we subscribe to the concept that we judge people based on knowing them for an extended period of time. The reality is often another story. Back in my acting days, we worked on our monologues for auditions tirelessly. But we ALSO worked on:

  • How we walked into a room (confident, but friendly)

  • How we said our name (declarative, without an up inflection - like a question)

  • Making eye contact with the auditors and smiling when first entering the audition room

  • Rehearsing saying the name of the piece we’d be performing as well as the author and character in a clear, confident way

So why on earth would we focus all this attention on what seems like innocuous behavior? Because first impressions can make or break your ability to get the job. First impressions carry a lot of weight, and whether you’re interviewing for a job, leading a new team, or pitching an idea, the way people perceive you has everything to do with your ability to get what you’re seeking.

But if you’re overbooked, stressed, and running from one to event to another, how do you actually shift gears? You just need 20 - 30 seconds before you’re due to connect or speak. The bathroom is often a great place for this:

  • Breathe in through the nose for 3 full seconds

  • Hold for 1 second

  • Exhale super slowly through the mouth for 7 full seconds

Don’t have that much time? As you grasp the doorknob to go into your meeting. Stop for 3 seconds and take a deep belly breath, exhale, then walk in.

The effort you put into making a positive first impression lays the groundwork that gets results. The thought bubble in the head of your audience says “this is someone I’d like to work with,” and everything from there on out becomes much easier.

So, spend time working on making a positive, friendly connection with potential clients, employers… as many people as you can because you never know how they might be able to help you out.