Deliver Killer Presentations. Don’t Look Like You Killed The Presenter.

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I can’t put my finger on it, but there was just something very uncomfortable about watching the guy present. He was both too nervous and trying too hard at the same time. I got the creepy feeling he had just murdered the real presenter, and was now up in front of the group trying to hide that he had killed someone, and also deliver the dead guy’s material. 

Victoria G., Boston College grad student reacting to a guest lecturer.

(The lecturer in question was, in fact, the intended speaker. No crime had been committed, except perhaps, giving a very poor speech.)

When we are watching someone share information, we react to both what the person is saying and how he or she is saying it. I wasn’t at the speech Victoria attended, but I have coached enough people on their talks that I have an idea of what may have happened.

Keep in mind that, like Victoria, most people can’t identify clearly what they liked or didn’t like about a speaker’s delivery. They only know whether they reacted positively or negatively to the talk. That’s because a speaker’s overall presence in front of the room is the cumulative effect of dozens of small elements in the speaker’s delivery. It’s a combination of eye contact, hand gestures, facial expressions, vocal inflection, and word choice, among other smaller elements.

In the case of the alleged murderer, I would guess there were two things going on that impacted his delivery.

First, I would guess that he didn’t know his key message. Having a key message is crucial to having impact. If you’re not sure what you want your audience to know, you are far more likely to hem and haw, drift off on tangents, make vague statements, give far too much detail, or all of the above. Always ask yourself before you attend a meeting, jump on a conference call, or deliver a formal presentation, “If my audience only remembers one sentence from this talk, what do I want them to remember?” That one sentence is your key message. You need to say it at least three times during your presentation. The first time you say something, no one hears it. The second time you say the message, it sounds vaguely familiar to your audience, but they still don’t get it. The third time you say it, the audience says, “Oh, that’s what she wants me to know.”

The key message also gives structure to your talk and ties everything together. When you do find yourself mired in the weeds, the message is what brings you – and the audience – back to the essential. When you find yourself neck deep in detail, you remember your main point and say, “And that’s why it’s so important that you:

  • act fast on this opportunity
  • improve your internal controls in this area
  • don’t fire the special prosecutor
  • ignore the dead real-presenter at the back of the room,”

…whatever your key message is.

Your key message is what pulls you back from the abyss that swallows so many presentations.

Second, the nervous-looking but hopefully-completely-innocent presenter at Victoria’s class, probably didn’t use his notes very well. I know it’s a mundane thing to discuss, but it’s likely what happened. Most people prepare thoroughly for a talk, but don’t use notes that are a true delivery vehicle for their information. We’re afraid we’re going to forget what we want to say, so we write out our talk, and then deliver it by reading from the paper, glancing up every once in a while because we know eye contact is important. Eye contact isn’t important; it’s essential. Eye contact is how you show your audience you are comfortable with yourself and your content. If you read your talk while looking at the paper or the slides, you look unprepared and as if you don’t know your material. Everyone in the room can read. You’re the expert. You’re supposed to know your stuff.

Instead of writing out your talk, draft a quick summary of what you want to say – full sentences and paragraphs if you need to. That’s an important step. But then, reduce what you wrote to a simple column of bullet points. You should have just enough on the page to prompt your memory about your content. When delivering your talk, glance down in silence and grab one bullet at a time. Look up in silence and focus on a single pair of eyes. Say the bullet point in a sentence or a phrase, and then add your value, looking at one pair of eyes at a time per sentence. When you’re done, stop talking, look back at your notes and grab the next bullet point. No talking on the way down to the pad, no talking to the pad, no talking on the way up.

Every word gets delivered to a pair of eyes – one thought per person. At Exec|Comm, we call this the “Spot Word” technique.

The presenter in Victoria’s class was probably a very smart guy, who, unfortunately for him and the class, outsmarted himself by putting too much on the paper and tripped himself up by reading his material instead of delivering his material. It’s a common mistake I used to make often early in my legal career in front of high stakes audiences. I work hard to help other budding professionals avoid the same mistakes.

In January, I taught a course on communication skills and innovative thinking at Georgetown Law Center. Among other things, my students worked on this delivery skill. In early March, I received the following note from Asher, one of my students.

My class recently participated in mock court oral arguments and during practices I was having difficulty using my notes when fielding questions from the “bench.” After switching to [the Spot Word] method I was able to easily find the points I wanted to make and in the final presentation the most positive feedback I received was on my ability to respond to questions and simultaneously redirect back to the point I wanted to make, something I would not have been able to do without [the Spot Word] method. It really was a big help.

If this method works well in the high-pressure setting of a law school moot court argument, it will work at your next department meeting or sales presentation.

I can’t say with certainty why Victoria reacted to her presenter the way she did. But assuming he wasn’t wearing a hockey mask and carrying a chain saw, I’m guessing it was the lack of a clear message, and not using his notes well, two things that could have salvaged his talk. Keep both in mind for your next killer presentation.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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