10 Tips for a Terrific Talk: Secrets from the Pros

10 Tips for a Terrific Talk: Secrets from the Pros

When speaking to an audience,
it's not about you; it's about them.

By Shawn Doyle, ATMB

So you have to prepare a talk for a big meeting at your office, a presentation for a group of clients, or a rock-‘em sock-‘em presentation at a big industry conference. Your knees are shaking and you get dry mouth just thinking about it. Wouldn’t it be great to meet with a professional speaker to get some tips? Well, step into my office. Don’t trip over the cat on your way in. I’ve been a professional speaker for 19 years, and I’m going to share with you the secrets that the pros know. Listen carefully; this stuff takes years for the professionals to learn!

1.  Prepare like a pro. Yeah, I know you have heard this one before. But I’m not talking about preparing your talk right now. That is expected. I’m talking about the piece that amateurs miss and pros get: Prepare by knowing the audience. If you are speaking to a group, know as much as you can about them before you go there to speak. What are their age ranges? What is the culture like? What do they want or expect from your talk? What do they like and dislike? Do they have a sense of humor? What should you avoid mentioning?

2.  Know your space. This is an often overlooked and sometimes deadly mistake. The layout of the room you are speaking in should never be a surprise to you. Check it out before the big day, if possible, or arrive early. I once spoke in a room that adjoined a train station, and the train came by every 20 minutes. When it did, the room shook violently. Was I surprised? Nope. I expected it, and better yet, I used it as an analogy in my talk. The speaker before me was surprised, (she arrived at the last minute) and you could say she was “all shook up” when the train arrived.

3.  Start out fast and strong. We live in the age of instant everything: fast food, high-speed internet and cell phones. You can get a tan in five minutes. So if you begin with the typical “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me here to speak, and tonight I am going to discuss…,” the audience at that point will hear “blah, blah, blah,” and tune you out. Start with something unexpected, different, original and get the audience’s attention early. I start one of my talks with “People are like golf balls.” (I hold up two golf balls as a prop.) It gets their attention.

4.  Be hands-free. As you know, the hands are an essential tool for effective communication. When speaking, many people hold notes, index cards, pencils, pens or markers in their hands. Please put the notes down. Empty your hands and back away from the notes! You can always refer to them if necessary. Having your hands filled will seriously impact your ability to express yourself. Here is another interesting phenomenon: Anything in your hands will draw the audience’s attention. It’s distracting.

5.  Stop using PowerPoint. Everyone these days uses the ever-so-powerful PowerPoint with its, um, snazzy graphics. Some even use sound effects such as crashing glass and screeching tires (don’t get me started). But very few people know how to use PowerPoint effectively, causing their audiences to stare at the speaker’s three-quarter profile as he or she gazes back at the screen. Raise your right hand and repeat after me: PowerPoint is not my presentation; I am the presentation! 

                    "Story + moral + how it relates to the topic = great story!"

6.  Leave the lectern. Why, oh why, do we insist on standing behind a block of wood? Is it for protection? Who thought it was a good idea or even mildly entertaining? Get out from behind the psychological barrier between you and the audience. Move. Walk. Stroll. Pace. Stand! It makes your presentation much more interesting for the audience if you do. Here is what the pros know: Movement generates a secret weapon which you’ll need as a speaker – it gives you energy!

7.  Tell your own story. I see speakers all the time who tell stories they’ve pulled from the Internet or anthologies. Here’s the problem – the stories aren’t theirs. When the story is not yours, you can’t tell it with heart, passion and energy. Oh, you think you can, but it doesn’t translate as well as your story. Tell your story. You can tell it better because you were there; you lived it. One other advantage: Because it is your original story, the audience has never heard it before. Things happen to you every day, and these are all good source materials for stories. Here is the formula for stories: Story + moral + how it relates to the topic = great story. It’s so much better than “two chickens walk into a bar…”

8.  Never apologize to an audience. Okay, if you spill scalding liquid on them, or you’re 30 minutes late, apologize. But I hear speakers apologize about being unprepared, having blurry handouts, not having enough time, or not being good with presentations. Those are the kinds of apologies you should never give to an audience. If you start downgrading yourself from the start, their perception of you changes. The inherent message you are sending is “I’m not very good.” They will agree!

9.  Believe it or don’t say it. The pros know that audiences have a very sensitive device – an “authenticity radar,” and it’s trained almost as well as a search dog’s nose. If you aren’t being truthful, the audience always knows it. I saw an arena-size audience turn against a speaker who was inauthentic and fake. No one thought he believed a word he was saying. Within minutes, people were milling around, talking to one another and showing the speaker no respect. Speak about what you believe, and believe in what you speak.

                    "Raise your right hand and repeat after me: PowerPoint
                    is not my presentation; I am the presentation."

10.  Be audience-centric, not self-centric. When you speak to a group, it’s not about you, it’s about them. The main thoughts in your mind should be, “What can I give them? What can I do for them?” and “How can I serve them?” The very best professional speakers I know have a low level of ego and a true desire to serve an audience. When you bring the audience-centric attitude or prevailing spirit to the speaking arena, you’ll get respect.

That’s it. Wow, look at the time! Thanks for coming by my office. I have to go catch a plane to speak to a group of corporate managers in Texas. I’ll apply all of these techniques to reach out and connect with an audience who will know I am there to serve them. I hope you use these tips too!

Shawn Doyle, ATMB, a member of Chester County Toastmasters club in Westchester, Pennsylvania, is an author and professional speaker. Reach him at www.sldoyle.com.