Do Presentations Or Public Speaking Terrify You?

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” ~ Mark Twain

I offer communications training, including business writing, presentation skills training, and media relations. The latter two, I’ve found, have much in common in that they force one to stand up and talk to strangers who may or may not be receptive. Over the years, I’ve come up with several teaching points, largely by watching accomplished professionals draw audiences in and make them comfortable, open to new ideas, and eager to share in what becomes a productive conversation.

So it was a pleasure recently to witness a presentation by Tim Ferrell, a comedy coach who has worked with Jon Stewart and Chris Rock and is based in my home state of Maine. What he had to say about not just getting a laugh, but also public speaking in general, reinforced much of what I’ve been discussing with my seminar participants, to wit:

1. Know your audience. Assuming you don’t already know them as coworkers or clients, spend some time in the room where you’ll be talking. If you’re sharing a meal with the audience beforehand, that part takes care of itself, but if not, find a vantage point from which to look around and soak things up.

2. Open strong. Jokes rarely work, and when they’re lame or awkwardly delivered, you’ve elicited the wrong sort of sympathy. What I do is ask each member of the audience — assuming no more than 25 or 30 in an instructional setting — to briefly describe his or her job and business writing problems in, say, a class on effective workplace communications. That way, they get to know each other, and as they hit on key points — “I don’t know how to organize my material” or “My staff doesn’t seem to know what I want in my emails” — I head to the flip chart or whiteboard and make some general points about principles of business writing that works.

3. Work off individuals. Invariably, as the intros and short personal stories roll out, you’ll spot one or two people who relish the chance to speak up and have a sense of humor about their own shortcomings. Now I’ve got partners for the rest of the session, men or women I can return to when I’ve got a point to make, perhaps poking gentle fun as I look at John and ask if that works for him. That will lead to a brief retort, a few chuckles, and maybe another self-deprecating anecdote. It’s a natural because we all thrive on connecting. Tim Ferrell calls it a “bring back.”

4. Be physical. Walk around, approach a questioner to help center the dialogue, and maintain eye contact. Having a flip chart or whiteboard to make your points or record ideas from your audience keeps you moving as they follow you with their eyes (if your handwriting is sketchy, ask for a volunteer to post the comments). The worst professors I had in college would either stand at the podium and look out over our heads, or pace back and forth and stare at the ceiling, as if sharing their thoughts with someone well beyond our intellectual realm. Look at people. They’ll look back.

5. Embrace silence. Chopin and the jazz pianist Bill Evans, among many others, knew how to leave space between notes. I’m no musician, but I do know those breaks keep my attention and add a what’s-next sort of tension to my enjoyment. Tim Ferrell did that when I was in his crowd, walking slowly, both hands to his lips in an almost prayerful attitude as he pondered the next few words while we absorbed what he’d just said. We were patient, even rapt. As Twain also noted, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

6. Converse, don’t lecture. Tim Ferrell did something we’ve all witnessed, but it happened quite early in his talk. He asked for questions. And from that point on, it was all Q&A, with Tim responding in ways that led to other questions and even shared stories. (Remember: adults learn best from stories. They want to know how they end, so they pay attention.) By the end of the session, I guarantee he’d made all the points he’d intended to make. He just counted on the audience to bring them out. And I don’t doubt that we gave him a few tidbits for future dissemination.

7. PowerPoint. Every time I mention it in a class, people groan at what’s been called a “cultural disease” and a “technological crutch” in presentations. Yet it remains virtually omnipresent in all its deadening bullet-point-by-bullet-point density. I could go on and on about PowerPoint — and I have in other issues of my newsletter — but suffice it to say that we should treat it as nothing more than an occasional adjunct to our own personalities and intelligence. Three points worth noting, from my classroom experience:

— It’s a marvelous way to inject humor via a relevant cartoon or quote — but just sparingly.

— If you’re asking for writing samples before a seminar, use PowerPoint to display “before” and “after” (after I’ve rewritten them) examples.

— If you fret that you can’t pass on all the details of your presentation without one slide after the other, just type those points up on handouts, and tell the class they needn’t worry about taking notes. That sets a relaxed tone for conversing — and learning.