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High Stakes Presenting for the Senior Executive

Senior executives and top managers have always needed to deliver important presentations. These presentations range from keynote addresses to road shows to major sales pitches to media contact. In addition, there has been an explosion in the past five years of industry conferences that recruit business leaders to speak on various topics. These powerful executives know that speaking in these types of venues are wonderful opportunities to sell, demonstrate expertise and network with peers, coworkers and customers. Often, there is media coverage at these events with further chances to generate publicity for the executives and their businesses.

The first thing a speaker needs to do is to get answers to the following questions:

  • What time of day will you be speaking? During a meal? Breakfast, lunch or dinner? Will people be drinking alcohol?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Is the speech part of a larger gathering, i.e., a convention, conference?
  • What kind of speech: motivational, informative, educational?
  • What’s the topic?
  • Do you want to include slides or other visual aids?
  • What is the occasion?
  • Are you the featured presenter, the keynoter?
  • How much time do you have?
  • Who is your audience and what do they have in common?
  • What is the gender make-up of your audience?
  • What is the background of your audience: education, religion, politics, professional level?
  • What is the average age?
  • How many people will be attending?

Once these questions are answered, it’s time to start putting something together and you cannot begin too soon! Writing a speech or presentation at this level is very time consuming. A good, 20-minute speech can easily take 40 hours to write. If you need to hire a speechwriter, now’s the time to start looking This can pose quite a challenge. Good speechwriters are in great demand, therefore, careful planning is essential. Speechwriters should be very experienced and have a good track record. Ask for copies of speeches and see if you like them. Look for flow and tasteful humor. It is also important that the writer be able to understand the business you are in or are speaking about. Perhaps most importantly, the writer and speaker need to have chemistry. A good writer will ask many detailed questions and come back repeatedly during the writing process to tweak and bounce ideas off of the speaker. Be sure to check references before signing on with a speechwriter.

During the time the speech is being written, the speaker should be checking out the venue. Often, these types of speeches take place in large rooms. There is usually a stage or dais and audiences are seated theatre style or at tables. One thing I always do is to contact the facility’s audio-visual staff. These folks are usually very helpful and can really save the day if you get in a bind at the last minute. So start building a relationship as soon as possible. They can answer all sorts of questions regarding set up, microphone access and technology. Try to get a diagram or schematic of the room, with exits marked so you know how things are likely to look. Decide whether you want to use a podium. (I recommend against them if at all possible; they place a barrier between you and your audience.)

Another thing to consider is whether you’re going to read your speech word-for-word or use notes. If you are planning to read verbatim, consider using a teleprompter. Again, most facilities will be able to provide this. Questions regarding such equipment can be referred to the booker for the event. Teleprompters allow you to create the illusion that you are not reading from the page. This device provides two reflectors (screens) that are transparent to the audience but are seen by the speaker with text that scrolls up. The reflectors are placed on either side of a speaker so the speaker is looking up while reading and seems to be scanning the audience. There are a few downsides: 1) the speaker must stand in one place since the reflectors are stationary and 2) equipment can break down, relegating the speaker to reading from the printed page. In any event, bring your written speech and have it at your fingertips just in case. Notes, an alternative to a scripted speech, allows you to move around the stage, which is very effective. You can have notes in hand, leave them on a nearby table or podium and make strategic pit stops to keep yourself on track. Another strategy is to use visual technology (slides) as prompts in place of notes. Again, be warned that if the technology goes down for some reason, you must have your hard copies available to continue.

Visuals can be extremely effective at hammering home your message. Slides can add an exciting element to your presentation. With today’s technology you can add music, film, animation and presentations can even be voice activated. Strategically used, this can make for an exciting show. If you decide to use visuals, have them professionally done. And don’t use too many. The audience should be focused on you, the speaker, not the slides.

Be sure to use a body microphone. This is the type of microphone that clips to a lapel or collar and has a small transmitter hooked to your waistband. Even if you plan to speak from a podium, a body mic is a great tool that keeps you from having to adjust a stationary mic and allows you to move freely.

Appearance is extremely important and can range from black tie to something less formal but still elegant. And elegance is what you should strive for. Men should wear suits that are tailored and fit very well. Dark colors with an appropriate shirt and bright tie are good starting points. Women should choose dresses, pant or skirt suits that are dressy and in bright colors. Red, royal blue, purples, bright pinks – choose what works best with your coloring. Accessories including jewelry and scarves should be carefully planned. Get some help here. Personal shoppers can be your best friends. Makeup should be heavier than usual. Hair (for women and men) should be styled, neat and sprayed well to stay put.

Rehearsal is mandatory. Rehearsing helps you to become comfortable with your material, allows you to appear more poised and confident. Be sure to rehearse with your visuals (see my article “Practice Pointers for Polished Presentations”). Finally, plan to arrive at the location with enough time to be rested. The night before is a good benchmark. As soon as possible after your arrival, contact the facility’s audio-visual staff and ask them to meet you in the room you’ll be speaking in. Have your checklist and a note pad. Arrange to do a sound check before anyone else is in the room. Find out who the representative is assigned to your speech so if something goes wrong someone is there to help. Write that person’s name and pager and/or phone number on the front of your speech. At this time, you can double-check the setup and make sure everything will be in place.

As you can see, delivering a formal speech is a complex task requiring the participation of several professionals. Done correctly, your speech will go off without a hitch and you’ll be receiving compliments – and business – for weeks and months to come!

(c) 2001 Ruth Sherman

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