Laura Petrolino

Public Speaking & Presentation Skills: Don’t Be a Robot

By: Laura Petrolino | October 29, 2013 | 
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Public Speaking

By Laura Petrolino

I remember in college taking a public speaking course that was well known to be a GPA ‘buster.’

This professor knew many of the students enrolled were overachieving, perfectionist maniacs (not that any of us here know about that…), and was on a mission to provide each of us with a very public humility check.

Obviously I felt exempt from his mission and my very first speech I got up there absolutely confident I’d hit it out of the ballpark (I even volunteered to go first).

As I spoke I watched him analyze me with what seemed to be a venomous hate, yet as I concluded my monologue on the history of silly putty I remained fairly secure I had just given the best speech he had ever seen.

As you might expect, I was wrong. He chastised me for being too animated, for interacting with the audience, and for providing a tie-in to frat parties (which I felt was genius and he believed was ‘completely unprofessional’).

I was devastated, and through the remainder of the class he proceeded to try and smash every bit of personality or audience connection out of every single one of my presentations.

Public Speaking: Be Human

It wasn’t until several years later that I realized, while this professor had a solid grasp on the technical side of public speaking, he completely ignored the human side. And without that, what’s really the point?

I had flashbacks of the lessons learned from this experience while attending Content Jam a couple of weeks ago. Although all of the presentations were bursting with fantastic and targeted information, the difference in presentation skills and styles was what distinguished a ‘good’ session from one that attendees left bubbling with chatter and excitement.

Unfortunately too few of us have had the benefit of proper training or experience, to be equipped with the tools we need to maximize our power to educate, engage and inspire our audiences. We often try to turn presentations into a science, when the best ones are actually more of an art.

I am definitely not an expert in this area (for someone who is make sure to check out Gini Dietrich’s recent post with tips on crafting an effective presentation), but it is something I work hard to improve upon daily.

Public Speaking Tips

Here are some basic lessons I’ve learned along the way that have helped me do exactly what my professor didn’t want me to do, connect with my audience in a way that makes an impact.

1) Understand your audience and their needs.

When laying out both the content and delivery of your presentation your first step should always be to know who you are presenting to. You need to understand your audience’s needs, their pain points, and overall perspective in order to deliver a presentation that resonates with them.

  • What questions do they need answered?
  • What problems do they need resolved?
  • What barriers prevent them from achieving their goals?
  • What opportunities can you help open for them?

Then format your content to help provide answers to these questions. Without the audience as an anchor even the best presentations will simply be remembered as something similar to Charlie Brown’s teacher’s ‘waa waaaa.’

2) Understand adult learning theory.

Adult learning theory is obviously a huge topic, but when it applies to presentations the following principles are most important:

  • Adults need to understand why something is important and why it is important specifically FOR THEM.
  • Adults have the freedom to learn their own way, therefore you must appeal to all three of the major learning types: Auditory, visual. and kinesthetic. This is especially true if you are presenting at a conference where there is a bigger need for audience endurance. For example, as a kinesthetic learner I struggle with conferences because I learn best by doing vs. observing. Remember this (as well as the fact this also tends to be the learning type of many business owners and entrepreneurs) and adjust your presentation accordingly.
  • Adults need to feel respected for their background, skills and the knowledge. Don’t act like your audience members are dimwitted simpletons.

3) Video yourself.

If you only follow one tip, follow this one. It helps your specific presentation and public speaking skills overall.

By watching yourself you’ll observe your voice quality, tone, and inflection. You’ll catch verbal ticks, perfect delivery, and understand how your body movements/gestures distract from or add to what you are saying.

Then you can use all that knowledge to improve the overall affect of the presentation.

4) Stop practicing already.

There is a fine line when it comes to practice. You need to know your information and be confident in your presentation, but not practice so much that it turns into a rote recitation. I tend to use direct, indirect, and role play practice styles.

  • Direct: Look over your notes, PowerPoint slides, etc. and practice giving the presentation.
  • Indirect: Stay in the mindset of your topic but turn your focus away from the presentation itself and instead on related issues, themes or topics.
  • Role Play: Find an audience and present. Get their feedback and have them ask questions.

And then just stop. STOP! I mean it…STOP! Do something else entirely. Rest your mind and go out there fresh, efficiently prepped, and fully prepared to NOT follow my public speaking teacher’s advice.

What important tips did I miss? What tactics best help you prepare and deliver your best presentations?

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • Love, love, love this, LauraPetrolino!  I know for me and many this is a struggle – though as I get older & grumpier, I find I’m less self-conscious!  Now we have this to help and it’s so much better than the “Marcia Brady Method of Getting Over Stage Fright!” 🙂

    • lizreusswig LauraPetrolino Hi! Tagging on since my browser prevents me from making my own comment (So thanks Liz!). I agree with all of these points! I think this is implied but specifically … be open to feedback from people who know good speaking, even when the feedback is difficult to take. I just started Toastmasters (not because I need something else to do (sigh) but because I listen to so many very bright people in the course of my day job who present great information but do it in such a way as to be …… uncompelling ……. doing a disservice to their topics, etc. it’s a waste. And to kill two birds with one time management stone, it’s a bilingual club so I can work on my Spanish simultaneously. Nothing like speaking in a language that is not your native one to amp up the nerves just a hair!

      • biggreenpen LauraPetrolino Glad to help! 😉  Will be very interested in hearing more about your Toastmasters experience.  Oh, and bilingual?  That’s just plain impressive! 🙂

        • lizreusswig biggreenpen LauraPetrolino I will also be totally interested to hear if you like Toastmasters Paula, I’ve thought about joining many times myself. Keep us posted!

        • LauraPetrolino lizreusswig biggreenpen I’ll definitely be happy to share my Toastmasters experience as it evolves!

    • lizreusswig LauraPetrolino Hahaha…should I even ask what the ‘marcia brady method of getting over stage fright’ is??

      • LauraPetrolino Picture the audience in their underwear! 🙂

        • lizreusswig Liz, I think that is only a ‘safe’ idea in some audiences! There are just some people I don’t want to picture in their underwear 😉

        • LauraPetrolino 🙂

  • Great post Laura! YES YES YES to number 1. To my mind, that is where most presentations flop- I don’t really care about what you WANT me to hear, I care about what matters to ME. To add to number 2, try adding immediate context- try this now or what have you. Immediate applications help retention.

    • RebeccaTodd Ohhh great tip about immediate applications!

      • LauraPetrolino RebeccaTodd It’s all about, how does everyone get value. Creating value is what gives you credibility.

        • JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino RebeccaTodd Very well said sir!

  • Suze Carragher

    I’ve been public speaking for … ever! That’s not nearly as scary as public singing! But, here are some tips that may help:
    *Nervousness and Excitement are read by the body in the same way! Tell yourself you’re excited to go on stage.
    * No one knows your material better than you. Share it.
    * Further… your Visual Aids are just that AIDS! They are not the outline of your speech. I would pull my hair out drafting PowerPoint decks that were speech outlines with a few cool things thrown into the mix.
    * Lastly… Perfect Practice Prevents Poor Performance. If you’re wrapping up your PowerPoint moments before delivering or even the day before, you’re not giving yourself or your audience your very best. You should live with your final presentation for 3-7 days, rehearsing.

  • The tip about video is a really, really good one. We all have those filler phrases/words that we fall back on when our tongues can’t keep up with what’s in our heads. I’ve (slowly) learned to eliminate crutch phrases from my vocabulary. Listen to my podcast archives and listen to how many times I say, “Right on”. 🙂

    • jasonkonopinski Hahaha! Right on Jason!! And yep, the dreaded verbal tick. I say “that’s interesting’ and “so” alot. You just have no idea until you watch/hear yourself!

      • LauraPetrolino jasonkonopinski Verbal ticks are terrifying … especially “like” syndrome. Oh, the horror!

        • DwayneAlicie jasonkonopinski And Dwayne, being in Cali (aka “the ‘like’ capital of the world), I’m sure you get your fill!
          It’s funny the regionally based verbal ticks that develop as well…Florida definitely has some….most too pornographic to post here (sigh…life from a cultural wasteland 🙁 )

  • DallasK

    I don’t believe she is a real Ninja.

    • DallasK That’s part of my strategy Dallas. You never want people to feel confident in the fact you are a ninja. You leave them confused and off guard and then you STRIKE!!!!! Waaaaa!

  • DanielleDeBord2

    At my university, we have to take a public speaking course
    as a freshman. The professor is a graduate student, and is not very strict on
    the grading. Sometimes it is difficult to hear the constructive criticism
    sometimes it helps you to see another perspective. Like stated in your blog,
    how well a presentation is depends on the audience. Maybe the audience wants
    the presenter to be animated and to interact. However, if the topic does not
    permit animation, the presenter has to adjust.
    In my public speaking course, we were presented with a video
    of our presentation. Actually seeing yourself present is much different than
    seeing the presentation live. I wish I would have recorded myself previously to
    edit my presentation. These tips can help any type of presenter at any level. I
    especially like the first tip to focus on the audience because that is who the
    presentation is for, right?

    • DanielleDeBord2 Yep, exactly! If you don’t care about the audience then what the heck are you doing there! And I so wish I had learned the video tip sooner. I think the more you can practice that way the better your skills become all around!

  • Laura Petrolino

    Great tips Suze, thanks for sharing these!!

  • Suze Carragher

    My pleasure!

  • Yes, yes, yes. Too often these conferences invite people for their subject matter expertise without regard to their presentation skills. But the most valuable information on the planet will fail if it’s not presented well.
    I agree that starting with the audience and their needs and concerns is essential. Something else I would add is to focus and structure your presentation. People do these data dumps and they’re awful. There are tons of ways to convey information (handouts, leave-behinds, links), so what is that must be communicated right here and right now in this specific format? And what can be left for another time and another vehicle?
    I’ve got lots more to say on the subject, but I’ll save the rest for my book!

    • RobBiesenbach Sign me up for pre-order of the book Rob! But yes, you nailed it. It takes a certain skill to be a good speaker and although being a subject matter expert is nice, it is by no means the top priority if you want to guarantee a great presentation. In fact, I think sometimes people that have a solid knowledge base on the subject, but aren’t the ‘phenoms’ make better presenters since they themselves can relate to where the audience is on the issue. 
      Great tips all around!

      • LauraPetrolino RobBiesenbach Hey yeah, Rob do you have a new book coming out? When?

        • JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino I do indeed. In the new year, titled 11 Deadly Presentation Sins and the almost comically long but SEO-friendly subhead of: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers, PowerPoint Users and Anybody Who Has to Get Up and Talk in Front of An Aud>ience. <exhale>
          All written and in production as we speak!

        • RobBiesenbach JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino  Cool, looking forward to it

        • RobBiesenbach JoeCardillo Nice! I look forward to it!

  • Isn’t that the job of most college professors? They focus on technique and theory and less on practice and execution. The idea that a speaker would not attempt to make a connection with their audience is banana pants crazy town.

    • briantudor I can focus on nothing else in this post other than the fact that ‘banana pant crazy town’ might be my new favorite phrase!

      • LauraPetrolino briantudor hold that thought…back in 24 hrs.

        • JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino briantudor oh dear….preparing myself 😉

        • LauraPetrolino JoeCardillo briantudor Scratch, looks like it might take a couple of days….but it involves an illustration of a certain aforementioned phrase…

        • JoeCardillo briantudor We wait in eager anticipation Joe! 🙂

  • These are all solid tips, I’ve used ’em. I will say, for me it all starts from being engaged and giving a darn about the content myself. If you aren’t excited about a presentation, it’s a sign you shouldn’t be giving it. Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. And audiences will forgive you pretty much anything, except not caring about your own presentation.

    • JoeCardillo I think you could extend that to anything in life, right? But yes…so true, it is very hard to make an audience care, if you don’t give a rat’s gluteus yourself.

  • That professor sounds like he was a nightmare. 
    I’ve used quite a few of these, but never the video one. And it seems so logical, too. I’ve had to do a few where I wasn’t able to get a very good read on the audience from the organizer and I will often do a poll at the beginning so I can get a better sense of the needs in the room and make adjustments on the fly.

    • Karen_C_Wilson The poll is an absolutely fantastic idea! Not only does it give you a better feel for the audience, but it engages them from the very beginning.

  • Aimee West

    Public speaking was made easier for me when I looked at as a conversation. Plus I get nervous after over thinking it all. Although that has gotten better over time too.

  • Laura Petrolino

    I love that Aimee, such a great perspective to bring to a presentation! If you see it as just that, a conversation, you make the audience the center point and you will naturally focus on how to best communicate with them to help what you are saying resonate. Great tip!

  • So now ginidietrich  feels she can make you blog for her? Don’t do it LauraPetrolino it’s a trap! 8)
    Great post with these tips. Two other tips….don’t have a lot of caffeine or wear anything constricting your neck to ensure you don’t go all Albert Brooks from Broadcast News. Never happened to me I swear. You never know when you might have to lug a laptop/business case up a long hill….only to find the place you are to speak/present hot with no A/C or air circulation. You just never know! 8)

    • Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich She is a slave driver Howie. You have no idea the horrors!
      These are great tips! Being comfortable is such an important part of delivering a great presentation, so clothing is definitely an important thing to think about. 
      I like to think of it a lot like competing in sports, test out what you are going to wear, what you are going to eat before hand, etc. prior to taking the stage. That way you know that you’ll be comfortable come ‘game day’

  • Aimee West

    Thank you.

  • One of the best presentations I’ve ever given was one I was totally unprepared for. I had planned to get up, go to the office, grab my notes and go to present. 
    Well, I completely overslept. I woke up about 15 minutes before I was supposed to be there (luckily this was a small local favor type deal). 
    I did the quick change, hauled ass up there and knocked it out of the park. Why? Because I knew the topic and knew what my stuff. I asked the audience to each tell me one concern or question they had related to the topic and then proceeded to address each one. 
    I even ended up with a sale the next week which never happens. I don’t recommend this but I think it speaks to your piece on not practicing. 🙂 Great post!

    • jonmikelbailey I agree! I tend to go in to any meeting/presentation knowing clearly the three take aways that I want my customers/audience to learn. The rest is usually off the cuff. I find this allows allows me to personalize- I like to learn more about my audience, and then share with them what they want to know. Nothing worse than feeling you are trapped in someone’s canned sales presentation with no escape.

      • RebeccaTodd jonmikelbailey That’s interesting Rebecca, tell me more.

        • jonmikelbailey I can’t even tell if you are teasing me.

        • RebeccaTodd jonmikelbailey He shoots, he scores! 
          I know what you mean about the bad sales pitch. Sometimes I will cut people off and tell them to just get to the damn point!

        • jonmikelbailey RebeccaTodd Oh my! Sorry to interrupt this little date you all are having, but I’ll just quickly add in that I totally agree with both of you. I think the reason why you will often get great results from being slightly (or in your case JM, totally unprepared) is because it forces you to rely more on the audience, the feedback you get from them, etc….then a premade presentation.
          It’s like AimeelWest mentioned on Facebook, it becomes a ‘conversation’ vs. a one way communication.

  • aimeelwest

    Really great ideas I love/hate the idea of filming your self. I know that would be a great way to see yourself in action but I so hate watching myself.

    • aimeelwest And that’s why you should do it!! 🙂

      • aimeelwest

        LauraPetrolino I know! I know! 🙂 Actually I have done some online shows for my old job and I was surprised that I actually didn’t look like a total dork 🙂 So sometimes that filming thing can be good to.

        • aimeelwest I’m surprised you didn’t look like a total dork as well Aimee! 😉

  • susancellura

    I definitely agree with your observation of the teacher, LauraPetrolino. As you did, over time I discovered that it is extremely important to know your audience – as you listed in #1 – but also research ways that you can connect with them as a human.

  • Great post by Sasha Dichter today on this (especially #1)
    http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/to-whom-am-i-speaking/

  • Had the same thing happen in college. I thought I gave a great presentation, and my technical writing professor got me on two things.
    1. Bring up your hands to make a point, and then let them naturally go back by your side.
    2. If you speak like a Texan, they will laugh you out of the room in the Northeast.
    I spent years cleaning up my diction; however, I’ve circled back around to embracing the storyteller side. I also still use my hands, and people seem to appreciate the energy and enthusiasm.
    Great points.I’m not one for practicing my presentation. I make sure I know the content, and I’m willing to ad-lib or go down a tangent if allowing questions during the presentation. Of course, I have to keep an eye to the clock to respect the audience’s time as well as leave time for Q&A.

    • dbvickery Haha! Great tips! I’m Italian, so I also use my hands ferociously…on the other side of the coin it’s something I’ve actually had to work to tone down. Both that and my facial expressions. Naturally and in casual conversation I’m super expressive and active, and if I get the slight bit nervous this just increases. That’s where video comes in most for me, is helping me be better aware of how all that activity translates in context of the presentation being given. 
      What has helped you the most in trying to streamline and improve  your diction?

      • It was a more conscious effort to speak “through” the Texan drawl. I focused on speaking more quickly and enunciating.

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