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Tips to Improve Your Public Presentations

If you would rather read thousands of pages of tax code, jump out of a moving car that’s going 90 mph, or sing “You Light Up My Life” at the neighborhood karaoke bar than speak to a group in public, you’re not alone.

It’s no surprise that 74% of people suffer from the fear of speaking in public. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this mortal fear even has a name – “Glossophobia.”

I used to be one of those statistics, but about 15 years ago, I set the following goals for myself

  • To find as many opportunities to speak in public as I could to conquer my fear.
  • To improve my presentation skills.
  • To position myself as an authority on public relations, writing, marketing, and, lately, social media.

After all, if you know what you’re talking about, then what’s the problem?

I also got some great advice from a colleague on how to conquer the fear. He told me that as long as I understood that at some point in the presentation I would make a mistake of some kind, I would be able to remain confident.

While I can’t hold your hand and force you to stand up in front of an audience, it seems to me public speaking gives you an invaluable set of tools that will help you not only win more business, but also help you meet your goals as a working professional.

Whether you speak in public to 500 people or in a client presentation where there are only five people in the room, I’m hoping my 15 years’ worth of experience and advice can help you conquer your fears and improve your public presentations.

PowerPoint Presentations (or Not)

I want to spend the most time on this because it’s the bane of annoyance for most audiences, aka “Death by PowerPoint.” Author and social media guru Guy Kawasaki refers to the “10-20-30 Rule.” A PowerPoint presentation should have no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes, and use a font no smaller than 30-points in size. According to an article on Lifehack, Kawasaki says it doesn’t matter whether your idea will revolutionize the world; you need to spell out the important nuggets in a few minutes, on a couple of slides, and with just a few words on each slide.

And, for goodness sake, don’t include any Excel spreadsheets! No one will be able to read them, and you’re only making it worse by saying, “I know most of you can’t see this, but . . .”

Some speakers prefer going a different route, using only images on their slides. One of the most obvious ones is the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Instead of using words to describe a difficult problem, speakers give us a manipulated image of an elephant in a room. A simple Google search renders a list of sites with these types of images, and there’s even a site with cartoons for those of us who want to use humor in our presentations.

If you’re the kind of person who is uneasy about his or her speaking abilities and needs verbal cues on the slides to keep you on track, you can easily rely on the Notes function in PowerPoint and present in the software’s presentation mode. You’ll see the notes and anything you need to refer to, while your audience will only sees the slides. Pretty nifty.

Images and just a few words on a slide are a great start, but what about abandoning PowerPoint altogether? Most presenters use PowerPoint as a crutch instead of an asset to pique the audience’s interest. Not using PowerPoint at all sends a message to your audience that you’re confident and you know what you’re talking about. They’ll be impressed with you instead of your slides.

Of course, if you’re going to do this, you better be prepared. And, while you can certainly have notes to refer to, don’t hide behind the lectern. Stand as close to your audience as possible in order to connect with them on an emotional level.

Becoming a Better Speaker

There are a lot of resources on the Internet about improving one’s speaking skills. I think these are fine to review, but there’s nothing like the old adage: “Practice makes perfect.” Much like an NBA player who practices in the gym, works out, and spends time with peers and teammates leading up to the big game, similarly, you must be prepared and be able to envision yourself competing on a big stage.

Think about joining Toastmasters. Chapters are located everywhere and include members with a range of speaking experience. If you’re a novice, no problem; if you’re more experienced, you’ll pick up something new and be able to learn from the masters. This group offers one of the best opportunities to improve. It doesn’t matter if the group has 10 people or 300. Baby steps and preparation are what will help you improve and present your big speech.

Connecting with the Audience

A good speech also involves making an emotional connection with the audience. You have to show that you care about what you’re saying. By lightening the mood or enlightening the audience, you can create the makings of a great speech. Most of all, you’ll be remembered.

Nervousness and anxiety can cause speakers to go too fast. Don’t rush! It’s important to speak clearly and with a voice that everyone can hear. Just as important is the flow to your speech.

Finally, an audience can appreciate a good story. A story that’s relatable to the material you’re presenting can be a game changer. It’s informative and entertaining, but also shows that you have an agreeable personality. The audience begins to connect with you and care more about what they’re hearing.

Enjoy Yourself!

There’s nothing that says you can’t have a good time while giving a speech. Opening up and being enthusiastic is key. It’s only nerve-racking and too hard if you psych yourself out. Find what it is you know a lot about, and then find a way to present that information.

Don’t stress out; instead, make sure you prepare well, practice often, and get a good night’s sleep prior to the day of your presentation. On the day of the talk, hydrate and eat a small snack about an hour prior to presenting.

The result? You’ll succeed.

Remember what Mark Twain said: “There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”

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