In the last few years, I have got into the habit of having lots of ‘1-2-1’ meetings with People from all levels of our business. My assistant, Sam, thinks I’ve met with over 1,000 different staff members the past four years. I learn a lot in these sessions about our People and the business. Every discussion is different and I never know what to expect because there is no agenda. I do know what People ask me about the most though. It often comes near the end of the discussion after the intros and development advice. It goes something like this: “I enjoy listening to you speak at the cascades [our annual all-People meetings]. Have you always been able to present like this or did you learn over time? Do you have any tips?"
As a fully out-there introvert I am absolutely not a natural public speaker but I’ve found a way that works for me to get my point across. And there is more science to it than you may think. Here are some of the tips I give when asked that question:
I also find that having a plan gives you that extra bit of confidence that makes it all just a bit easier.
1) Be yourself. I once received some terrific advice from Richard Phillips who is a legendary communications guru. It was about 10 years ago and he was helping me prepare for a speech in my previous life as CMO at mbna. I delivered a presentation in a room to Richard and then we watched a film of it. He said to me that I was trying to be what I thought a CMO should be like, that I was playing the role of ‘an executive’ and that actually “you aren’t really a very good actor”. Richard told me that in getting to know me he knew that I had a mischievous side and that I should show more of that side of me. People think you have to be serious to get across a serious message but the best way to get a message across is to be trustworthy and you can only be trustworthy when you are being authentic. If you normally would crack a joke when getting your point across in conversation then go for it on stage.
2) Don’t ever apologise. If you get up on stage and apologise for being a rubbish speaker the whole audience immediately wonders why you are wasting their time. You then spend the rest of the time digging yourself out of that hole. It is not charming and it is the wrong way to start.
3) Tell a story. Everyone is nervous when they walk up on that stage and I believe that if you are not nervous then you don’t care what the audience thinks and it will show. I tell a story to get going. If it is humorous and on-point then that helps but it definitely needs to be true, that way you don’t have to remember it. You just recall it. I find that about two minutes into the story my heart slows down and my breath comes back. If it is a corporate presentation then this is a great time to build trust by allowing yourself to be intentionally vulnerable. You don’t want to go overboard but a quick story about a moment that has real meaning to you will build trust.
4) Don’t move without a reason. There is a trend (probably from Steve Jobs) to believe that good speakers will pace around the stage with a lot of energy. It is distracting and annoying. You can get away with it if you are a great story teller like Steve Jobs but face it you aren’t so find a space and stay there. Don’t sway either. Stay still. If you want to change stage positions then do it for a reason.
5) Get your hands up early. Whether you believe in the 7%-38%-55% Rule is not really important. What is important to know is that everyone knows body language is important and what you do with your hands is critical to making sure people are listening and not distracted. Good speakers bring their hands up early. This feels awkward but once you get going you forget. In fact you will bring them up at about three minutes subconsciously. The trick is to bring that three minutes forward. If you don’t believe the science then just think about someone presenting with their hands at their side, goon comes to mind and goon is not really ever the image you want to give.
6) Stand in the right place. Where to stand is another thing with a lot of science but to keep this short I'll just mention two. The most obvious place is the middle. If you are going to be in the middle then stand up front as the middle back is no mans land. If it is a corporate event then it is good to save the middle front for the boss. That leaves you with just one place to go. The side of the stage. This is a fine place to go and if there is a lectern then get behind it. There is a reason that leaders like Presidents and Prime Ministers stand behind the lectern. It conveys power. There are a few rules here though, never stand beside the lectern, and never hold onto the lectern. If you are softly spoken like me (okay, really a bit of a mumbler) then the lectern helps to project your voice as it bounces off the top and to the mic.
7) Plan out what you have to say. But don’t write it down with the intention of reading it. It won’t sound right and with the lights and the audience the challenge of reading aloud is harder than you think. It is fine to write down a basic framework of where you want to go but anything else actually makes it harder. Make sure you run through your speech a few times on your own at home and then never walk up on a stage without familiarising yourself with it and the general surroundings.
8) Look at the audience. You don’t have to stare but keep your eyes up and look through the audience. Do not look down at your notes. Do not turn you back on the audience and look at the big screen. Do not stare down at the notes on the floor monitor the whole time. Have a conversation with the audience or it all looks a bit weird.
9) Keep the slides simple. You’ve seen lots of great speakers but have you ever heard anyone say “the bit I really loved were the bar graphs.” They are background noise to what you are saying so keep them simple. There is also a trend where People think complicated slides are okay as long as they are presented as an infographic. Complicated is not okay. Keep it simple. The best speakers need no slides at all.
10) Have a point that resonates. What you have to talk about is often straightforward and not up for debate although unfortunately, People will not always remember what you said. They will, however, remember how you made them feel. Think about what you want this to be and make sure you cover that in your intro and closing.
I’m not the best speaker you will ever hear but I’m better than I ever thought I could be. If I had to pick out one thing above all the others on this list it would be to be yourself. You have been asked to speak for a reason and that reason is not for you to pretend to be someone else. And, above all else have fun with it…and if you do, the audience will appreciate that the most.