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?

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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