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A Great Speech Is Like Magic

Imagine you are asked to be a main speaker at an important industry conference. You work hard on the speech and it goes very well. Afterward, and for the remainder of the conference, people recognize you, come up to you and introduce themselves, compliment you, ask for your advice and for your permission to contact you on a whole range of business issues. Overnight you have gone from being unknown to industry stardom, respected and sought after.  It’s like magic. Such is the power of speech.

Other than being the offspring of someone like Donald Trump, there are few things that can catapult you to the top of your profession the way delivering a good speech can.

What follows is some of what it takes to master these essential, professional skills.

Stage Fright Goes With The Territory

Public speaking can shake the confidence of even the most experienced professional. It’s why many turn away from it, which is also what makes it an unsurpassed differentiator. But it’s natural to feel nervous. After all, you’re “on-the-spot.” All eyes are upon you. You are being judged. The stakes are high. Stage Fright is your indication that youcare about the outcome – nothing wrong with that.

Anyone who has ever been on a stage is familiar with the symptoms, ranging from palpitations to dry mouth. But fight or flight, the survival mechanism that causes Stage Fright, has great benefits. Not only does it make us stronger, faster and more agile, but also quicker-witted and better able to think on our feet. Although there is a strong tendency to push back against it, ignore it or even chide ourselves for feeling it, doing so just makes it worse. Instead, do what the pros do: Embrace it knowing it will make you more animated, and, thus, more exciting to watch as well as better able to deal with the inevitable slips and blips.

One caveat: Stage Fright works its wonders only when you are prepared.

Preparation Is The Key To Success

Preparation is the most important – and least utilized – aspect of the process. Only by thoroughly preparing can you deliver your best. Immediately upon receiving an opportunity, begin to gather information — thoughts, facts, figures, stories, statistics, press reports. Jot down everything that comes to mind. Get input from colleagues. Research.

It’s vital to include lighter moments that foster the connection between speaker and audience. Personal stories and self-directed humor are best. Your audience wants to know that you are like them in some small way, that you face the same types of problems. What experiences have you had that your audience might relate to? What lessons have you learned or people have you met who’ve inspired you? What funny things have happened to you? Jot down everything.

Once you’ve got all your material, start to edit and organize it into a beginning, middle and end. Create a rhythm that gets and keeps the audience involved, such as opening with a story, a provocative statistic or a show of hands. Weave similar items throughout the talk.

It’s never too soon to practice saying it out loud. In my long experience, the biggest obstacle my clients face is not rehearsing, so don’t let that be you. There is simply no substitute for this step. Practice more than you think you have to. You cannot practice too much. My ratio (conservatively) is 10:1. That is, if I have a 1-hour speech, I practice saying it out loud at least 10 times. Use a mirror or video. Ask friends or colleagues for feedback.  As you practice, an amazing thing happens – new ideas and ways to say things come to mind, strengthening your talk, your presence and your confidence.

The job of a business speaker is to inform, engage and entertain, not necessarily in that order. Standing up there doing a data dump is not going to engage your audience. But if you deliver your remarks with a high level of energy and passion, there is a much greater chance your audience will hear what you have to say because they willbelieve you.

Energy and passion are transmitted nonverbally:

  • Voice includes tone, expression, volume, rate, pace and accent/dialect. Allow your passion to flow through your voice by using a wide range of pitch and varying it. Avoid the “corporate monotone.” Crisp up your diction and speak at a moderate rate. Work on your tone, which should be warm, rich and round. Audiences perk up at the sound of a great voice.
  • Hands should be in almost constant motion. Gestures help us think! Avoid placing hands in pockets, folding arms, or putting them behind your back. Don’t use a single gesture too much. If you’re having difficulty, it’s a fine idea to choreograph some moves. Often, that’s enough to get you going.
  • Body and Movement must project confidence and authority. As you speak, let your entire body express what you are thinking and feeling. Move about the stage and do it with purpose.
  • Eyes build rapport with your audience, so try to take everyone in.  Small groups allow you to make individual contact. In a larger group, focus on 3-5 people at a time. Aim for a few seconds. Don’t expect them to return your gaze. If they look away, move on and come back to them later.
  • Facial Animation should reflect your feelings. There is a fantastic range of movement in the facial muscles that can communicate a tremendous amount of information. An interesting point might include a raised brow. Smile.
  • Dress and Adornment refers to everything you weren’t born wearing – all the choices we make in clothing, accessories, hairstyle and makeup. Note what the highly regarded people in your workplace wear during their presentations and emulate them. Or ask someone in authority or the organizers of an event.

Nonverbal communication that conveys your feelings will make you a much more interesting speaker, more trusted and more capable of grabbing your audience and holding them until you-not they-are done.

Script, Notes, or Memorized?

I prefer notes and find the most successful, engaging speakers do, too. They know their presentation, yet it is not completely memorized and they don’t read it word-for-word. By opting for notes, the language is somewhat different each time and stays fresher as a result.

Notes can be held in one hand, and can be considered an extension of that hand. A speaker can also put the notes down then grab them again when he or she needs to take a look.

Slides can also serve as notes. Too often, however, there are too many slides that are so poorly executed, benefits are lost. But if you know how to manage your slide design and output, they can be a very good choice.

Reading from a script is almost universally unsuccessful (with the notable exceptions of Obama and Palin). The speaker is glued to the page, looking down, reading in a flat tone, which interferes mightily with their ability to connect with listeners. It also means that a speaker is tied to a podium, another barrier. Unless protocol dictates otherwise, it’s a good idea to step out from behind a podium. That may seem bold, but if you are the main event, boldness is not your problem, so you might as well create your own rules.

Step Up and Stand Out

I cannot think of a better way to elevate your stature in your job, business or industry than becoming a skilled speaker. Look for opportunities. Volunteer. Know that others are not, making it a wide-open field and yours for the taking. You can’t buy this type of advertising. It can change your life.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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