5 secrets of strong, engaging speakers

Live presentations are hotbeds of mind-numbing bad habits. Here’s how to distinguish yourself from the humdrum herd and leave your audience clamoring for more.

There are many positive ways to wow your audience.

There are also certain taboos to shun if you want to give an enchanting presentation. Below are five bits of advice to avoid common mistakes:

1. Don’t open with ‘thank you.’

There’s nothing wrong with thanking the organization that invited you to speak, the sponsor of the event, the person who introduced you and other dignitaries in your audience. Just don’t lead with the pleasantries and formalities. They are important, but they are a commonplace and lackluster way to open a speech.

Instead, open with a startling fact, a thought-provoking quotation, an interesting anecdote or a relevant joke. Then, take care of the housekeeping. Grabbing the attention of your listeners before you show your gratitude will help you stand out among speakers.

2. Don’t stand behind the lectern.

It takes confidence and thorough preparation to move out from behind the lectern, but the rewards are great. You’ll come across as dynamic and poised, harkening to TED-style presenters who speak on stage without a lectern.

If the prospect of speaking without a lectern is daunting, first work on transitioning from a script or text-heavy notes to a simple outline that you rehearse at least six times.

Then, when you have command of a more extemporaneous delivery style, you can stand next to the lectern, so your notes are just a glance away but the audience can see your body.

With experience and practice, you will be able to stray from the lectern, using the entire stage and even the whole room to engage with your audience members and to distinguish yourself from speakers who hide behind the lectern.

3. Don’t use text-laden slides.

If you’re still putting lots of text on PowerPoint slides and reading to your audience, it’s time to get on Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen bandwagon. He asserts that slides should be simple and visually engaging. They should include text only insofar as it helps the audience follow the structure of the speech and remember key ideas.

If you are already moving in this direction with your slides, consider changing up the format to stand out from other speakers in your industry or at the event where you are presenting.

Is everyone using PowerPoint? Why not try Prezi or opt for a flip chart and no slides at all, a la Simon Sinek’s TEDxPugetSound talk titled, “How great leaders inspire action”?

4. Don’t speak for all of your allotted time.

When asked to speak for 45 minutes or an hour, most speakers prepare 45 minutes or an hour of material. That’s a big mistake. Listeners have a much shorter attention span, which is why TED talks are limited to 18 minutes. (Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” is only 17 minutes long, by the way.)

What should you do? Accept the invitation and plan for the following (based on a 60-minute time slot):

  • 5 minutes for the event to begin (very few start right on time)
  • 2 minutes for your introduction (write one and provide it in advance to the event organizer)
  • 18 minutes for your prepared remarks
  • 20 minutes for Q&A with audience members (ask for a microphone and facilitator ahead of time)
  • 3 minutes for your summary/call to action/clincher
  • 2 minutes for your standing ovation
  • 5 minutes for the event organizer to thank you, make announcements and wrap up

This program is 55 minutes long. You will end five minutes early, which will make you a hero to event organizers and audience members alike. If you have a 30- or 45-minute slot or if the program is running late, you can shorten or eliminate Q&A. You’ll stand out for having compelling and concise content that leaves audience members wanting more.

5. Don’t close with ‘thank you.’

It doesn’t make a good introduction, and it doesn’t make a good conclusion, either.

A speaker who works hard to plan, prepare, rehearse, and deliver a fantastic talk should be thanked by listeners, rather than the other way around.

As is the case with expressing gratitude early on, it is fine to give thanks to the event organizer, host, sponsor, etc., toward the end of your speech, but your final words should be bold and memorable.

Follow the lead of standout speakers: Conclude with a call to action and a “clincher” that creatively and concretely recalls the attention-getting device you opened with.

Christine Clapp is the author of Presenting at Work: A Guide to Public Speaking in Professional Contexts” and the owner of Spoken with Authority, a presentation-skills consultancy that trains professionals to surpass their personal best each time they speak.

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This article first appeared on Ragan.com in Jan. 2016.


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