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Saturday 3rd August, 2013

No Judgement (OK, maybe a little)

I attend a number of business networking events. It’s customary at these gatherings to give a one-minute pitch about your business. Some people dread this – they’ve never spoken in public before and have all the fears and anxieties that first-time public speakers tend to experience.

So you can imagine how these poor souls feel when I announce that I’m a public speaking coach (one of these days I expect to see someone faint flat out).

In an effort to make everyone feel a bit more comfortable I try to introduce myself last, when everyone else has done their turn. But please allow me to reassure you: if you do speak before me, I’m not judging you. I’m far too busy thinking about how I can help you build your business and vice versa. Honestly.

However, sometimes people do ask me to give them feedback.

A number of months ago I attended a conference as a humble delegate and, having read there was a public speaking coach in the audience, one of the speakers asked me to critique her talk. I was happy to oblige. It was her very first public presentation, and it wasn’t bad at all. However, I did manage to produce two pages of handwritten notes on areas where I felt she could improve and be even more effective.

I’ve reproduced these notes here as I’m sure that many of you have experienced the very same issues.

1. She spent too much time apologising for XYZ.

Oops. One of my hates laid bare. You have a finite number of minutes in which to make an impact, tell a story, engage and share what you know. Don’t eat into that time apologising for your nervousness. You’re only making the matter worse. Start strongly and keep going as per your rehearsals (and you did do a mental rehearsal, didn’t you?).

2. She spent too much time talking about not talking for too long.

Arrgghh!! Actually, THIS is the thing I really can’t stand. It’s a cliché. It isn’t cute. It eats time and gives the audience nothing. We’re here because we want to listen to you and we want to learn. Take the time you’re supposed to take.

3. Her slides were dull and contained too much text.

If you can’t read the slides from the back row without the aid of powerful binoculars then the text is either too small or there’s too much of it, or both. I still have flashbacks thinking about these slides. Here’s a challenge: try to present complex data and complex ideas using no slides AT ALL. You’ll never produce a tedious slide again once you realise that you don’t have to put the entirety of human knowledge onto a slide to make your point.

4. She spoke in monotone.

Yes, a monotone voice is boring. But it’s also difficult to follow. It’s the aural equivalent of reading 40,000 words of text with no paragraph breaks. What’s more, it’s very hard to discern what’s important unless you vary your pitch, speed and emphasis. This presentation was one, tedious drone. It may have been the most important presentation of all time, but it was really difficult to tell.

5. She wasn’t good at storytelling.

Paint a picture with words. Use phrases such as ‘Imagine…’ or ‘Just think…’ or even ‘Picture in your mind…’. Help the audience to ‘see what you mean’. This lady rambled. I never knew where one idea ended and the next began (and nor, apparently, did she). Rehearse your stories and make them exciting and dramatic by varying pitch and tone. Use pausing to create emphasis and punctuate with gestures and movement.

6. She spoke too fast

My poor brain could not keep up with her. Rather than a sensitively structured sequence of ideas this was a stream of consciousness. One sentence seemed to run into the next. It was tortuous to listen to.

7. She was sitting down.

Please. Please, please, please. If you can stand, do stand. When you’re on that stage you’re our leader and we need to be led. Unless you are a wheelchair-user or have a condition that makes standing difficult, you should be on your feet, moving around, using your body to support your communication. The only person I would allow to sit while speaking is Ronnie Corbett. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.

8. She read the presentation from her laptop.

No, no and no. Effective public speakers make every effort to make eye contact with the audience for at least 80% of the time. It’s hard, because sometimes we do need to take a quick glance at notes or at the screen (to make sure it’s still showing our presentation and not our holiday snaps… seriously, I’ve seen it done). You don’t need to learn your presentation off by heart, but you should always speak from the heart and the key to this is rehearsal. Practice, practice, practice. No crutches or safety net on the day.

9. It was difficult to tell what her ‘message’ was.

Public speeches should always have a purpose. No-one wants to sit in a stuffy conference room and listen to you drone on about everything you know. Have a core message and make absolutely sure that if anyone is later asked what your presentation was about they can give a sensible answer. If they don’t know then you’ve failed to tell it effectively.

10. There were some good anecdotes but they were rushed and lost.

Commitment. If you’re going to tell a story, believe in it and commit to it. Tell it well, with drama and tension. Don’t lose faith. Practice until you believe in it.

11. (Unfortunately, this is not a short list) She used some strong words but spoke them weakly.

I was able to pick out some really powerful phrases, but she threw them away by speaking them without passion. When you bring a sense of drama to your speech you help those listening to understand what’s important in what you’re telling them. Also, why make the audience work so hard? It was a real struggle to grasp the main points of her talk. Why did she punish us in this way?

12. The title of her presentation was dull.

You may be wondering why I waited until point 12 in my list of criticisms to mention this. It’s because half-way through the talk it suddenly became very clear to me that she could have come up with a great title based on a theme that was emerging, a thread that (probably by accident) ran through the entire talk. What a wasted opportunity. She is an extremely knowledgeable and affable professional. If only she’d approached putting her presentation together from the listeners’ perspective. It would have been so much better.

13. She used uninspiring examples.

There was some complex technical information in her talk. But she could have brought it to life with inspiring, illustrative examples. Instead, she made something potentially exciting quite boring.

14. She lacked passion.

At no time did she seem to be excited about her subject, so it was difficult for the audience to get excited about it either. When a speaker shows passion it lifts the energy in the room. Personally, I was looking forward to the end of her talk so I could have a little snooze.

15. She didn’t make the most of her clever illustrations.

A couple of times she flashed colourful graphs onto the screen. Personally, I would have liked to have seen her jump to her feet at this point and start swinging her arms around like Peter Snow on election night. Sadly, she stayed put on her chair.

16. She focussed on what she wanted to say, not on what we might like to hear.

This is typical of nervous speakers. They are preoccupied with getting to the end of the talk without dying. The audience, on the other hand, is hungry to learn. The space between the presenter and the audience is where the magic happens so don’t shut down if you’re the one on stage. Open up and give us the experience we were hoping for and more.

17. (We’re nearly done) She used far too many slides.

40-minute presentation? Don’t use 80 slides. As a rule of thumb, use no more than 10 slides per 20 minutes. Yes, that will take discipline, but your presentation will be all the more effective for it. If you need to share lengthy web addresses, give them in the form of a hand-out (it’s very annoying when you hear a collective ‘Oh’ from the audience because you’ve clicked on before they’ve jotted down a URL).

18. She has poor grammar.

This was a talk. Slides should be used to illustrate what you’re saying. They shouldn’t be reams of text, and more fool you if you expose your poor grammar on top of your poor speaking skills! Stick to the medium of speech and avoid putting too much text on your slides, particularly if you’re not entirely sure where an apostrophe should or shouldn’t go.

19. She didn’t illuminate the issue for me.

By the time the session ended I knew little more than I had at the beginning. As a speaker you should push the boundaries. Surprise us with your knowledge and make us feel uncomfortable by telling us something we didn’t know. It’s your job to help us to grow, so turn your light on and shine.

20. She wasted an opportunity to give value.

I know from her credentials that this lady is a smart cookie, but she left me so uninspired that I can’t now remember her name and if her speaking is anything to go by I won’t be seeking out any of her books. She had a fantastic opportunity to be memorable, but she bottled it. Understandable and forgivable on the first go, but I hope my notes helped her to see where and how she can do better next time.

Categories: Article, How to, Preparation

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