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Public speaking can be nerve-wracking. Here’s some tips on how to do it well

There will be some new people in the Dáil soon, so they might need some advice on speaking to a large crowd.

Eoghan McDermott

PRESENTATIONS AND PUBLIC speaking can be hugely stressful experiences. People stress about what to say and how to say it, how to remember it and use slides, coping with nerves and keeping people listening.

Often people treat a presentation as a thing to survive and get through. Rather than an opportunity to achieve something. Any communication or presentation should be an objective-based-activity. You’re not merely transmitting data, but in fact setting out to create understanding.

Survival isn’t too difficult. Get up, rattle through the slides and sit back down. But that’s rarely, if ever, of value to anybody – your audience will be bored to tears, you’ll look terrible and time will have been wasted. To avoid that, here is a step by step guide to preparation…

shutterstock_134734196 Source: Shutterstock/hxdbzxy

Focus on your audience not on yourself

Most people when they’re told they must deliver a presentation think first about themselves. Every great presentation or speech starts with the audience. Before you go near a laptop, profile your audience so you have an idea of who you’re talking to. For example, their age, gender, department and seniority. You also need to think about what they know – right now – about your topic, and what they feel – right now – about your topic.

Have an objective

Identify what it is you want the audience thinking, feeling, doing and knowing after the presentation.

For example, do you want them to know that your department is doing well? Or what your product and service can do for them? Ask yourself “what am I trying to achieve here?”. Now you have a purpose.

Structure it well

There is a concept in communication called the “Serial Position Effect” or “Primacy and Recency” that says an audience has a tendency to remember the first thing they hear and the last thing. So, when structuring your presentation or talk you need a strong engaging start, and strong reiterative conclusion that leaves your audience in no doubt what you want them remembering or doing it afterwards.

The audience must be quickly engaged. The first minute is the gateway to their continuing attention.

shutterstock_191033642 Source: Shutterstock/Elena11

You must grab it. Pick the single most interesting point you want your audience to remember and put it at the start. Cut to the chase. Don’t waste their time with agendas, contents or lengthy introductions.

Your conclusion should drive home what it is you want your audience to remember, or do.

Be relevant

The biggest single switch-off for an audience is the growing awareness that what you’re saying has no relevance for them. At the very least you must be evoking a response that has people saying, “I haven’t heard that before …”, or “I haven’t heard it put that way before…”.

People will tend to listen for three reasons – if you’re threatening them, benefiting them or being interesting to them.

Don’t overload them

The next biggest boredom-creating factor is data overload.  When planning a presentation you have to decide how many new ideas or propositions a listening audience can absorb, internalise and make their own while listening to you. It is unlikely that listeners can process any more than two or three new ideas. The number does not expand with the length of your presentation.

Use stories, illustrations and anecdotes.

Identify your key points and use specific examples, illustrations, anecdotes and stats, rather than bullet points on a slide, to evidence them and help your audience understand.

Every race, in every country, at every time, since humanity started has relied on stories as a way of understanding the world around them, because stories are interesting, understandable and memorable: the three key qualifications for good communication. The Bible, the Koran and The Torah are all based on stories and examples to create understanding. For example, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to help out their fellow man, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Be wary of PowerPoint

Only after figuring out what you want to say should you think about visual aids. When you consider PowerPoint be sure to ask yourself, “is this slide going to help me exemplify what I’m trying to say?” PowerPoint, or Prezi, or whatever visual aid you use should help your audience understand and remember. If it doesn’t, don’t use it. A good rule of thumb is not to put anything up on a slide until you want your audience to see it.

When preparing, say it out loud

After deciding what you want to say, what visual aids (if any) you’ll use, prepare for the spoken word in the spoken word. Walk around the room, making your points out loud. When you have worked out the key things you want to be remembered, work out the best sequence for them, so they link logically one to another.

Saying your presentation out loud also increases your confidence and helps dispel nerves. Just like telling a joke for the third or fourth time rather than for the first time – practice makes you feel more confident – with timings, punch line, key elements.

The capacity to deliver effective presentations at work can make a huge difference to your career and  your profile within an organisation. The rules to do so are simple. Focus on your audience, identify your objective, make it interesting, understandable and memorable, prepare well, be wary of

PowerPoint and if you can, enjoy it.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of The Communications Clinic and is Head of Training and Careers there. Follow him on Twitter @EoghanMcDermott

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