Public Speaking Skills in the Digital Age
This week I read an interesting article on Inc.com talking about how terrible webinars have become. (Why It Is Time to Kill the Webinar) Reading this article highlighted to me that it’s not necessarily the technology to blame here, but that great public speaking skills are even more critical today in the digital age. Effective leaders need to be able to communicate their message and vision through any medium or forum. Here are some tips for public speaking that are just as applicable in an online forum as in an auditorium:
Don’t read your slides!
Nothing will get your audience to tune out faster than reading your slides. Using your slides to remind you of the points you need to make on each topic is okay when you’re just starting out in public speaking, but to truly get the impact of your message across, your slides should be complimentary to the points you’re making, not a duplicate or substitute for them. Effective use of visual aids in public speaking begins when you start to put together the presentation. Each slide should be designed to complement your points and add something of value to the words that you are speaking. As a general rule, I try to only have one slide for every 3-4 minutes of my talk. Sometimes I’ll use more depending on how technical the topic is and if I need to be able to present data or graphs.
Know your material
Another factor that results in poor presentations is that the speaker isn’t as familiar with the material as they should be. This often results in “reading the slides” as described above. If you are giving a presentation, become as knowledgeable as you can on the topic and the material as you can in the time you have available. You may need to do more than just review the slides you are presenting. It’s often beneficial to dig into the source material that was used to build the presentation or position you are advocating for. Interview subject matter experts on the topic and continue to ask “why?”, “what?” and “how?” until you can’t think of any more questions to ask. To really hone your public speaking skills, apply your critical thinking skills (see our post on Critical Thinking) and understand the alternate and opposing viewpoints that others might have on your position.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This is the best thing you can do to improve your public speaking skills and build your confidence as a speaker. Stand up in the room you’ll be presenting in (or sit at the terminal you’ll use for a webinar) and give your presentation. Go through the whole presentation out loud (I can’t emphasize this enough) and make all of your points, paying close attention to your transitions. Fully sound out long, complicated words to ensure they are coming out clearly to the audience. Do this several times and if you have problem areas, go back and try expressing the message a different way. Try to bring some colleagues in to watch your practice session and give you candid feedback what helped make your points effectively and what areas you can improve upon.
Pre-flight your equipment
If possible, do your practice sessions in the actual room you will be speaking in and get familiar with the equipment you’ll be using, whether that’s projector and microphone or computer or VTC equipment for a video conference. If you’re not going to be operating the equipment yourself, talk with the person who will and make sure they understand the flow of your presentation and any transitions from slides, to video, etc. as well as the timing that goes along with them. Dry run together a day or two ahead of time if you can and make adjustments based on what you learn in the dry run. Show up early to the presentation room and ensure all the hardware and software is configured properly for your presentation. I know all of this may sound obvious, but I’ve watched many presenters get derailed and lose their audience by forgetting to do these simple things.
Be aware of tone and body language
I realize for brand new speakers this is the furthest thing from your mind when you’re up in front of the crowd speaking. This another way that asking colleagues to watch you practice can really help out. Ask them to pay close attention to your volume, tone and body language as you speak and just give you their broad impressions. Keep this feedback in mind as you practice more and give your actual presentation. Don’t worry if you don’t notice a lot of specifics about this at first, if you keep it in your mind even a little bit as you speak, you’ll find yourself noticing it more and more as you get more experienced. Also, keep this in mind as you watch others speak and see if you recognize similar or different traits in your own presentations. Incidentally, this is just as important for a webinar or video teleconference. If your tone or posture comes across as bored or disinterested, you’ll lose your remote audience just like you would lose one that’s in the same room.
Speak with your own voice and engage with your audience
The steps above are practical things you can do to prepare well for giving your next presentation. Another important item to remember is to speak as yourself and not try to speak as someone else might. Speaking at a pace that works for you as well as using language that you are comfortable with will help you come across as genuine and create a better connection with your audience. Finding ways to relate the material of your presentation to the audience in a personal way will help keep them engaged on what you are saying. Pay attention to how the audience is reacting to you and adjust accordingly. Making eye contact, changing up your tone and repeating points for emphasis are effective ways to bring back audience members that may have tuned out.
Hopefully these tips will help make your next presentation a success, whether that’s in a huge auditorium or with a small audience tuning in to your webinar. It can take a while to find your voice and a style that works well, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different techniques to see how they can improve your public speaking skills. Good luck on your next talk and let me know how it goes!
Photo credit: “Ronald Wright Edmonton 2007 cropped” by Nick Wiebe – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ronald_Wright_Edmonton_2007_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ronald_Wright_Edmonton_2007_cropped.jpg