Better Presentations From A-Z

Excellent speakers blend the essentials of public speaking to deliver memorable talks that inform, persuade and motivate their audiences. Not sure what all those elements are? Having trouble remembering them when it counts? Here’s a handy way for you to recall the key aspects of public speaking, just by reciting the alphabet.

AAttention-Getting Opener – When we speak, we have about 60 seconds to capture our audience’s attention, establish credibility, orient them to our topic and motivate them to listen. Use a relevant and appropriate quotation, startling fact, statistic, rhetorical question or humorous anecdote to capture your audience’s attention. Select an opener that provides a smooth transition into the body of your presentation.

BBody – Compare the body of your speech to the human body as a way to check the health of your speech. Let the backbone remind you that you need a clear purpose. Use the bones to review your major points, the joints to add smooth transitions, the flesh to streamline the message, and the muscles to include facts to persuade the listener. And the heart? It’s been said that “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” The heart should remind you to show your passion for the topic.

CCostume – Dress the part for your speech. Are you informing your audience about the Japanese Tea Ceremony? Wear a kimono. Are you entertaining with stories about the great explorers? Wear a captain’s hat. At least, bring in some props to illustrate your points. Your audience will appreciate the visual aids.

DDescriptive Language – Use words and phrases that bring your message to life. Active verbs, for example amble, run, skip, and scuttle say a lot more than a vague word, such as go. A sentence like, “I go to the store once a week,” is much more interesting when it becomes, “I jog through the store once a week.” Now the audience will want to know why you’re in such a hurry. Give them bright, active details with judicious and colorful use of strong verbs, adjectives and a sprinkling of adverbs.

EEye Contact – As “the windows of the soul,” eyes connect speakers to audiences; they build credibility and persuade, entertain or motivate listeners. For more effective eye contact, shift your gaze from one side of the room to the other, looking at individuals instead of at the group. Let your eyes move from one listener to the next, smoothly, effortlessly and softly. Lure the listeners into your presentation.

FFacial Expression – Facial expression, used effectively, can attract and maintain your audience’s attention and provide positive visual support for your message. Raise your eyebrows to show surprise, smile to confirm appreciation, frown to show disagreement.

GGestures – Deciding what to do with your hands can provide important results for the ultimate success of your message. Use natural gestures and finger movements to introduce main points, hands and arms to illustrate size, and the entire body to demonstrate passion. Varied gestures will retain the audience’s attention, appropriate gestures will reinforce your message, and bold gestures will communicate confidence.

H, I, JHumor, Innovation and Jokes – Chosen wisely, humor, innovation and jokes can add spark to your presentation. They can unify the audience and give it a welcome break during lengthy or technical presentations. If you’ve discovered something new on the Internet that you know will appeal to a wide-ranging audience, share the URL and give your listeners something to take home and enjoy. The best jokes are humorous stories that cross cultural boundaries and come from the heart. Avoid quick, easy punchlines or complicated wordplay, unless you know your particular audience will understand and appreciate them. A warm-hearted anecdote from your own life – one that shares a chuckle of recognition – is the safest way to make people laugh.

KKnowledge – Since public speaking involves persuasion, speakers who are most knowledgeable about their topics – those we perceive as subject-matter experts – are most in demand. Because they’re well- prepared, knowledgeable speakers are more credible than speakers who speak off the top of their heads. They’re believable, authentic, convincing – and invited back. So do your homework!

LListen – Giving an effective presentation isn’t just about speaking, it’s also about listening. Listen to your audience’s reaction to your presentation by reading their facial expressions and body language. Can they see and hear you, and are they able to understand your message? Are they alert, nodding in agreement, and laughing in the right places? Gauging your audience’s mood and making calculated changes based on what you see and hear will boost your responsiveness as a speaker.

MMove Around – Many speakers stand in one place when they deliver a presentation, making them appear more like statues than living, breathing human beings. Natural movement makes us appear more interesting to an audience. When you move, move with a purpose. For example, to highlight a special point, walk from one side of the speaking area to another to deliver that new point. To illustrate contrast, move left to discuss one idea, then move right to discuss an opposing idea. To captivate your audience, avoid repetitious and nervous movement, pacing or swaying.

NNaughty or Nice? – If you’re speaking to a group of preschool teachers, you wouldn’t want to present your hip new comedy act for the “open mike” night at the local comedy club. Save the adult humor for its appropriate place. Know your audiences and gear your speeches to match their needs and expectations. Avoid inappropriate humor, off-color jokes and words that could hurt or offend others. Wondering whether something is appropriate? When in doubt, leave it out!

OOrganization – Making it easy for your audience to follow your ideas can pay big dividends when it comes to soliciting their support. Common approaches to organization include chronology, location, problem/ solution, and cause/effect. Pick the method of organization that is the best match for your message and your audience.

PPractice – Rehearse your speech aloud, preferably in front of a mirror or a friend, or into a recording device. As you speak, practice all elements of your speech, not just the words. After you speak, evaluate how well you accomplished the purpose. It’s not enough to recite your speech in your head – practice the nonverbal elements, too.

Q, R, S – Quote References And Sources – Information is everywhere and it’s easy to find, easy to capture and easy to copy. Boost your credibility by giving credit where credit is due – always cite your sources. Your reputation depends on it.

TTechnology – Choosing and using technology wisely can enrich your presentation messages. Practice speaking with your technical resources until you are able to use them without losing rapport with the audience. Make sure to check out hardware, software and electrical tools well before show time – just in case something isn’t working, and you need time to get it repaired.

UUndo The Ums – Learn to hear the distracting filler words you use – “um,” “uh,” “okay,” “actually,” “you know,” and others – analyze why you use them, and develop a plan to rid yourself of this conversation killer.

VVoice – If you’ve videotaped your presentation, listen to the tape with your eyes closed. Listen for how you use volume, rate, pitch and pace – are they appropriate for the environment, topic and audience? Do you hear enthusiasm in your voice, or is it flat and without inflection or emotion?

WWii-Fm – While speakers are working hard delivering their messages, most listeners are tuned into WII-FM (What’s In It For Me). Successful speakers try to understand their audiences’ emotional and informational needs and they develop their speeches to meet those needs.

X – X-tra – Transform an ordinary presentation into an extraordinary one by adding that little extra. Use metaphors and analogies that can make your message easier to understand. Use meaningful acronyms or rhyming words to increase audience recall. Choose a template for your slide presentation to reinforce your message. Such extras can make a big difference in the quality and value of your speech.

YYes, You Can! – Twenty-six letters can be daunting. Don’t worry! The best tip of all is to remember to have faith in yourself. If you’re one of those speakers who took the time to read this article, then you’re no doubt a person who is willing to put in the time and effort to present great speeches. Believe in yourself and repeat, “Yes, I can!”

ZZap Em! – While the end of a speech is the time to provide closure to our remarks, it’s also the time to make a memorable final impression. Deliver a close that matches your mission and makes your audience think, react, take action, laugh, applaud or stand to show their unwavering support.

Need a quick way to remember the elements of public speaking and polish your skills? Remembering the essential elements is as E-Z as A-B-C. 


Dr. Carol White, ATMS, is the founder and faculty advisor for GSU Campus Talkers, a college club at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Dr. White is on the faculty of the Department of Marketing in the Robinson College of Business.

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