Archives For Technical Presentations

Speech coaches and trainers often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about presentations and public speaking.

I begin with the assumption that giving a speech is both an art and a skill.

Public speaking an art in that it requires a certain amount of creativity.

You have to come up with (i.e. create) a good idea to begin with. You have to put it together in a logical and persuasive structure. You have to use words and phrases and, sometimes, stories in a clear and evocative manner. And you have to deliver your speech with at least a modicum of drama.

Public speaking, like any art, is also a skill.

It has its own somewhat complex, somewhat variable set of requirements, rules, guidelines, and principles to learn, practice, and master. To give a speech — a good one, at least — you have to be able to plan and create one, explain your idea clearly in a limited amount of time, connect with an audience, begin and end a speech, overcome fear and project confidence in front of an audience, answer questions, and think on your feet.

Public speaking isn’t as complex or demanding a skill as, say, performing brain surgery or rocket science. But then again it’s not as simple or easy as riding a bike.

Beginning with that assumption — public speaking is both an art and a skill — I’ve developed my list of…

5 Things Speech Coaches and Trainers Won’t Tell You about Public Speaking

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about PowerPointI’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), so you might think I’m always and everywhere opposed to its use.

I’d say I’m critical of it, but not opposed to it. Many of my clients–subject matter experts of all stripes–use PowerPoint, and they should.

But these days it’s assumed, at least in the business world, that everyone should use PowerPoint every time they give a presentation. And that’s a mistake.

I begin with the assumption that PowerPoint is a tool for organizing, formatting, and projecting information visually.

If that’s the case–you can disagree with me–then there are three questions you can and should ask about it.

1. Is PowerPoint a good tool?

Does it make organizing, formatting, and projecting information easy, efficient, and effective?

Opinions vary.

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Worst-ever elevator speechI’ve heard awful elevator pitches over the years, but today I heard the worst-ever elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a brief explanation of 1) an idea, product, service, or person, 2) how people might benefit from it, and 3) what those benefits are.

In networking situations professionals use elevator pitches to introduce themselves in response to the question, “What do you do?”

The whole point of an effective elevator pitch is to start a conversation, hoping people will say something like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Bad elevator pitches are:

  • Long and exhausting: Ten seconds is best. You can, if you must, take 15 to 20 seconds. But the longer your pitch goes on, the less likely anyone is to say, “Tell me more.”
  • Vague or confusing: Technical experts excel in this regard, although they’re not alone. They might say something like, “I’m a UI designer, specializing in requirement gathering, design alternatives, prototyping, and user interfaces.” As if that clarifies anything.
  • Airy fairy: Which I find particularly irritating. Something like, “I set free your inner child so you can dance with success.” Gag me.

Which brings me to today’s example of the worst-ever elevator pitch.

I was at a networking luncheon of government contractors, project managers, and engineers. When I asked the man seated to my left what he did, he said, “Stuff.”

I’m not making this up. He said, “Stuff.” That was it.

I waited for him to say more, thinking he would add something clever. But he didn’t.

So, fool that I am, I asked, “What do you mean?”

In all seriousness he said, “We design and manufacture stuff that people use.”

Can you top that? Have you heard a worst elevator pitch than “Stuff”? I’d love (or hate) to hear it.

Important element of a speechThere are many elements that make a speech powerful, effective, memorable:

A message that has the power to change lives for the better, if only in a small way.

Images and stories, words and phrases that are both evocative and provocative.

A connection with the audience that communicates understanding, respect, and a desire to be of service.

A delivery that brings the message to life.

One of the most important elements of a speech is often missing: the person of the speaker.

Who you are as a person determines the audience’s interpretation of what you say, whether and to what extent they trust your message.

Who you are as a person shapes their response: their willingness to support, endorse, or implement your proposal.

Who you are as a person influences their engagement: their emotional and intellectual investment in your presentation.

Who you are as a person is perhaps the single most important element of a speech. And that element is too often missing.

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Speaking PowerPointThere are two basic approaches to designing PowerPoint slides these days.

1. The traditional approach produces the type of slides we’ve all grown accustomed to…and bored by.

This approach has its own set of rules. It emphasizes clarity and simplicity. It recommends limiting the amount of text on a slide (e.g., no more than 5 lines of 5 words each). It counsels against using animations and fancy fonts.

2. The newer approach creates a most artistic, visually appealing set of slides.

Its rules are simpler. Use images with a few words. Tell stories.

Both approaches to designing PowerPoint Slides have their merits. But a book I recommend (and wrote the foreword for) — Speaking PowerPoint: The New Language of Business — makes me question both approaches.

Bruce Gabrielle, the author of Speaking PowerPoint, distinguishes — rightly and wisely, in my opinion — between two different types of presentations:

  1. BallroomBallroom presentations are given at conferences and to general audiences by keynote speakers or at breakout sessions. The audiences may (or may not) be invested in what the speaker is addressing. They are easily distracted. They generally do not have an in-depth knowledge of the topic being addressed, nor do they want a detailed, in-depth presentation.

    The audiences are at a distance from the slides. They have trouble reading text and most graphics (charts and the like).

    The rules recommended by both the traditional and the newer approach apply, it seems, to ballroom presentations.

  2. BoardroomBoardroom presentations are for business meetings, where attendees do’t expect to be entertained. They don’t want to be bored or confused, mind you, but they want to be informed. They expect details, data, and in-depth analysis. They dislike fluff.

    The audiences are up close. They can see the screen. And, often, they have printed handouts to read. (They may have received and reviewed the “deck” in advance.)

    Boardroom-style PowerPoint decks, according to Bruce, have several uses. They can be used as 1) a stand-alone reading deck that is circulated, almost like a white paper, 2) a discussion deck, to spur a conversation among decision-makers, or 3) a briefing deck.

The slides used for a boardroom presentation — which includes most workplace presentations — require more detail, including text and statistical data. They are, necessarily, complex.

The PowerPoint slides used in business today — the most common type of presentation — require a new set of rules, different from those proposed by both the traditional and the newer approach.

Bruce proposes his own rules, which I find very helpful. (They’re too sophisticated for me to go into here.)

So let me ask you. Do you buy into the distinction? Does it make sense to you? What do you find works?

(By the way, I do not receive any compensation for recommending Bruce’s book.)

 

 

Making the Most of Q&A

Christopher Witt —  December 4, 2014

Encourage audiences to ask questionsQ&A is one of the most engaging, powerful, and effective elements of a presentation.

And yet many presenters (especially technical experts) avoid Q&A, mostly out of fear that they’ll be asked a question they can’t answer.

Addressing your audience’s questions makes them feel like participants, not passive recipients of your wisdom from on high. Their questions let you gauge how well they understand and accept your ideas.

I used to be happy with my presentations when the audience didn’t ask any questions. Their silence, I thought, meant that they understood and agreed with what I had said.

Now I think that an audience’s lack of questions means that they are so confused or so uninterested that they can’t be bothered.

Stirring the audience up and making them want to ask questions is a good thing. Knowing how to respond in a way that feeds their interest and drives home your message is even better.

Guidelines for Handling Q&A Effectively

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Don't set your presenters up to failI often get called in to help individuals improve their public speaking and presentation skills.

And often there is much work to be done with those individuals.

Through inexperience or lack of training, people — even highly-placed, successful professionals — need help:

  • Developing a strategy that identifies their goal (what to accomplish in the time they have available with a particular audience) and ways of accomplishing it.
  • Creating a compelling message that engages the audience’s hearts and minds and moves them to take action.
  • Delivering that message with the right amount of drama to bring it alive.

But quite often the problem isn’t all the individual speaker’s fault.

Often individual speakers are set up to fail — to give a mediocre talk — by the organization, by its systems, culture, or processes.

Even proficient speakers have a hard time giving a winning presentation when:

  • They’re given too little time to prepare.
  • They’re told to present a PowerPoint slide deck that was developed by someone else, and that they don’t understand or — worse — agree with.
  • They’re scheduled to speak to an audience they know nothing about.
  • They’re notified of significant changes in the agenda — the topic to be addressed or the time they’re assigned to speak — at the last moment.
  • They’re interrupted early and often by people in authority who have an agenda of their own, which they haven’t previously communicated.
  • They’re expected to sell an idea, product, or service that is fundamentally flawed.

There are, of course, strategies and techniques that individuals can master in order to cope with such situations. (Which isn’t to say that every situation can be salvaged or that every presentation can be a winner.)

And, at the same time, there are systemic issues that organizations need to address.

How do you think organizations can help their people give better presentations?

3 Common Public Speaking MistakesI’m offering three lessons I learned from mistakes I’ve made giving speeches in the hope that you don’t have to make them yourself.

Public Speaking Mistake #1: Trying to Be Something Other than Who I Am

When I first started out speaking, I tried to be like speakers I admired.

At that time I admired one particular speaker. He was charismatic and dramatic. He had a deep, rich voice. And he could move an audience from laughter to tears in no time at all.

The first time I gave a speech imitating his style, the audience was moved to laughter. Just not in the way I had hoped. They were laughing at me, because my performance was so, well, laughable.

My speech teacher got me back on track. He made it my goal to become the best speaker I could be, not to become someone else.

Lesson Learned: Learn from others, but don’t imitate them. Be yourself – your best self – when giving a speech. Bring all of who you are — your unique personality, interests, values, knowledge, life experience, humor – to your speaking.

Public Speaking Mistake #2: Thinking It’s All about ME

After one of my early speeches, my teacher asked me what I thought of it.

I was pretty pleased with myself and how I had done. I said something like, “My message was good. It was focused, clear, and persuasive. I remembered everything I wanted to say. I delivered it well. I didn’t use a lot of ums and ers.” And I went on.

When I finished, he said, “That’s a lot of I and me and my. What do you think the audience got out of it?”

I hadn’t even though of the audience at the time. I had only thought about what I wanted to accomplish, what I planned to say, how I hoped to come across.

Lesson Learned: Focus on your audience. A speech is about giving them information and insight they can use to their benefit. Be yourself (see above), but be yourself in service of others.

Public Speaking Mistake #3: Over-preparing Can Be as Disastrous as Under-preparing

I used to be so terrified of making a fool of myself in front on an audience that I over-prepared my speeches.

I spent hours and hours, sometimes days, doing research. I spent even more time cramming everything I learned into what was supposed to be a brief speech. Then I practiced it over and over again and memorized it word for word.

As a result, I presented too much information. And I came across as mechanical and aloof.

If you get up in front of an audience without being adequately prepared, you deserve to fail. Big time.

A speech requires research, thought, and planning. You have to understand your audience and their needs, the event itself, and your goals. You have to formulate a message. And you have to practice it.

But if you over-prepare, you risk coming across as packaged, self-contained, unreal.

Lesson Learned: Preparation is key, but don’t overdo it. Depending on your audience and on what’s at stake, prepare just enough – not too little, not too much – to be clear, persuasive, spontaneous, and real.

What have your mistakes taught you about giving a speech?

What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.

I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.

I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.

I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.

I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.

At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).

As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.

One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.

He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.

And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.

He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)

He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.

What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?

Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.

What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.

He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.

Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.

Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me

  1. To present an idea, one piece at a time.
  2. To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
  3. To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
  4. To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.

A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.

Evaluate a speechTo become a better public speaker, become a more discerning, informed, and insightful listener.

After listening to a speech, don’t simply say you liked it or you didn’t like it. Become more critical, not in a negative way but in an inquisitive way.

Ask yourself what the speaker did or did not do that caused you to feel the way you did.

10 Questions to Ask to Evaluate (and to Learn from) a Speech

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