How I got my speaking mojo on (and you can too)

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My presentation at PCMA was successful, in that it generated a lot of positive feedback (thank you, kind souls) and several more speaking invites. So I thought I’d capture the things, large and small, that helped me get there. Tips for other would-be presenters, so to…ahem…speak.

Of all the advice I got from friends and colleagues while preparing, none was more clarifying than this: The two keys to a great presentation are love your topic, and love your audience. The first I would have guessed. The second, though, was revelatory, and it changed my entire approach. You’re not the hero, the audience is. Your job is to help them grow—to genuinely want them to grow—as a result of what you’ve shared. If you love your topic and your audience, it shows, and people will overlook a lack of polish in your speaking skills. If you don’t, that also shows, and no amount of polish will compensate for it.

Your presentation should include three elements: ha ha, aha, and ahh. For the “ha ha,” use humor, but only in a way that’s natural to you. Forced humor will do more harm than good. For the “aha,” make sure you’re sharing new ideas, information or perspectives that the audience hasn’t considered before. (Otherwise they should be on the stage, not you.) For the “ahh,” synthesize and summarize your big ideas into a single, elegant, easy-to-remember takeaway. If you don’t have that, you haven’t communicated. Keep working on it until you do.

Read this book for organizing your talk. Read this article for organizing your slides. These should be required reading for all presenters.

You know those deadlines that conference organizers impose for your handouts and slides, the ones that seem unnecessarily early and so you’re tempted to blow them off? Meet them. Not only will it make the organizers’ lives easier (and put you in their good graces), it’s a form of imposed discipline that helps you avoid the frenzied rush of pulling them together at the last minute. Which ramps up your stress, which keeps you awake at night, which leads me to …

Get plenty of sleep in the days leading up to your presentation. I know that sounds simple and motherly, but it’s the sort of commonsense thing we tend to ignore when we’re feeling stressed—like staying up all night cramming for finals in college. Being well rested will do more for your presentation than any late-night, frantic prepping. The night (or two) before you speak, take a sleeping pill if your mind is too amped to relax. (But not alcohol, which can have a delayed stimulant effect and wake you up after the initial drowsiness wears off.)

When your session room has been assigned and finalized (usually about a month before the event), ask the organizers to send you a diagram of the size and setup. Even though it’s just on paper, this is the first step in beginning to visualize the environment you’ll be in. How many attendees are they anticipating? How will the chairs be arranged? What’s the orientation of the room? How is this setup similar to other events you’ve attended, and can therefore call to mind? All of these things will help you begin to imagine the experience—even though it’s brand new to you—which makes it feel less unknown and scary.

The day before your session, go to the room where you’ll be speaking and spend some time walking around it. Stand on the stage and get a feel for the space. Again, this will help you imagine—now in more vivid detail—what the presentation itself will feel like.

The day of your session, arrive at the room early (an hour ahead of time, if the schedule permits) to get your AV squared away, make sure everything’s set the way you want it, etc. The most stressful aspect of speaking (for me, anyway) are the many things that you don’t have control over. By arriving early and confirming they’re taken care of, your nervousness will lessen with each item checked off.

When you get to the room, befriend the AV guy (or gal) who will be running your session. Introduce yourself, talk a bit, and develop a rapport with him or her. That sense of connection, with that particular person who controls so much of your presentation, is comforting.

About 30 minutes before you speak, drink hot tea (or water) with lots of honey. A friend of mine who’s a singer taught me that. It loosens your vocal cords and makes you sound more relaxed, which boosts your confidence, which helps you be more relaxed.

Don’t begin the substance of your remarks until at least five minutes past the posted start time, because late arrivers will still be trickling in. Use that preamble time for welcoming the audience, introductions, reminders to silence cell phones, that sort of thing.

If a confidence monitor (the small screen that displays your slides at the foot of the stage) isn’t standard equipment in your room, request one. You want to face your audience the entire time, not have to keep turning away to make sure the right slide is on the screen.

While you’re speaking, look around the room and make eye contact. Some people will be smiling and friendly, others will be texting or yawning or looking bored. Focus on the friendlies and keep going back to them. They’ll energize you.

When it comes to humor, some of the remarks you think are funny won’t be. Just move on. When you do elicit laughter, intentionally or sometimes not, pause and let it linger. Don’t rush the audience too quickly out of that warm glow.

When you have a particularly important point that you want to emphasize, don’t raise your voice. Lower it. The contrast is dramatic, and it makes people want to lean in to absorb what you’re saying.

If you’re going to have Q&A in your session, try to anticipate what some of those questions might be and prepare responses ahead of time. I’m not saying to be scripted and robotic, but it helps to have thought about this in advance. (The most common questions center around, “Can you tell us more about how to do X?” So have additional examples of X, beyond what’s in your speech, readily at your fingertips.) If you get a question that you’re not sure how to answer, turn it back to the questioner and ask for more context so that you can better address his or her particular situation. It reframes the question and buys you a few more seconds to organize a response.

Finally, remember that the audience wants you to succeed. Think of every presentation you’ve attended. Have you ever wanted the speaker to flop? They’re rooting for you—all the more so if your love of the topic and your love of the audience are apparent. You’re there to talk about issues you’re excited about, with a group of people you care about. Jitters aside (they’re natural), how could this not be a positive experience?

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4 responses to “How I got my speaking mojo on (and you can too)

  1. EXCELLENT advice! As someone who was in your audience for your PCMA “home run” presentation, it was very easy to see and feel the love you had for your topic & for all of us in the room! I remember saying to someone at my table how “real and authentic” you were which if the real key to winning over any audience. Thanks Greg!

    • As Seth Godin (I think) says, if you can fake authenticity, everything else is easy. Joking, of course. Thank you for the compliment. Authentic is definitely what I was striving for. I’m glad it came through.

  2. Great advice! I’ll have to try the honey thing. And I completely agree with befriending the AV guy/gal. That has helped me a lot in some of my presentations. Something else I’ll add that I’ve always appreciated in other speakers (when it’s a multiple speaking event) is when they refer to someone who spoke before them. It shows that the speaker is really engaged in the event and paying attention to all of the content that is being shared. Kind of like when comedians reference the opening act.

    • Yes! I always appreciate that too. Helps you see and synthesize the common threads running through the various presentations. Plus it’s a generous thing to do, giving a nod to someone else’s insights, not acting like you’re the only one with something to contribute. (And now I’ll make sure I’m practicing this at future talks.)

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