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Why You’re Not (Yet) a Great Public Speaker (and 5 Things to Do About It) Essay

Public speaking and the ability to deliver a powerful presentation is a critical skill that all employees today need. Not just leaders and managers. Everyone. Instead, PowerPoint has become the ubiquitous corporate communication tool. People spend hours and hours to create the "perfect deck" (which I believe is impossible). Changes and tweaks are made until well past the last minute; reams of paper are wasted printing copies.

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As a , I continually refine my craft, learning how to weave humor into my talks and engage an audience, whether it be 10 HR professionals or 800 IT leaders. It's an ongoing journey, and one that I love. And, as a result of the hundreds of speeches I have delivered, I often work with leaders looking to improve their own platform skills.

We recently designed an intensive public speaking program for a local professional organization. It was amazing to see the transformation in employees' confidence and skill level, from the first event to the capstone  presentations. 

Meanwhile, I often sit in audiences for presentations and always learn something there, depending on strengths of and mistakes in the presenter's delivery style and approach.

What I have learned is that public speaking is a skill like any other. Pay attention, listen to feedback and practice and you can become an effective public speaker. Here are five ways to ensure you deliver a powerful presentation:

1. Don't be a 'steady Eddie.'

One-of-the-presenters-I-listened-to-last-week-delivered-his-presentation-at-a-consistent-and-steady-speed-unfortunately-without-pausing-to-allow-his-points-to-land-it-became-a-uniform-torrent-of-information-that-became-increasingly-hard-to-follow-and-as-time-went-on-the-speed-of-delivery-increased-like-a-train-leavingthestationuntilitblurredintoonelongmonotone.

Powerful presenter tip: Remember that when it comes to public speaking, inhaling is okay. You. are. allowed. to. breathe. So, pause and count to three as you move between slides and key points, or when you ask a question. That way, your audience has time to hear what you have said, process it and decide how to respond.

2. Don't be so quiet no one can hear.

One event I attended was in a lovely large room with plenty of light and space, but unfortunately not plenty of sound. Most of the speakers used their "inside voice" and made no attempt to project their words. One speaker even uttered the immortal words

"It's okay, I speak loud enough. I don't need a microphone."

Powerful presenter tip:  While you might not think you need a microphone, your audience does. Make it easier for people to hear so they don't strain. If a microphone is available, use it. If not, remember that as the size of the group and room increases, you have to increase your volume, use your "presenting and projecting voice." Consider standing in the middle of you audience (unorthodox to some) rather than the traditional front of room. It will help.

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3. Don't read your script or, worse, your slides.

I don't care how good your hairstyle is; I don't want to see the back of your head, and if you are a quiet speaker (who isn't using a microphone), know that no one will hear you when you turn to read your slides. If we the audience can read the words, we don't need you to, as well. Your slides should be a support mechanism. The same goes for your script; by the time you stand up to present, you shouldn't need to read it.

Powerful presenter tip:  Practice and learn your presentation! While I never speak without having my script nearby, it's there in case my mind goes blank (and it does on occasion). I practice, and make sure I know my presentation before I greet my audience. 

4. Don't have boring slides.

"Death by PowerPoint" is a real issue. Just because you can fit 15 bullet points onto a slide and it automatically adjusts to micro-font doesn't mean you should! So, stop it! You'll have a clue that your slides need work when you say something like,

"You probably can't read this; let me talk you through it."

Don't go, either, with the five-bullets/five-word approach throughout; that too is boring. 

Powerful presenter tip:  Find a happy medium between words and images to communicate your message. Remember: Use visuals judiciously, not viciously. PowerPoint is not always your friend.

5. Don't 'wing it.'

The idea that presenters can "wing it" and everything will be okay seems to be particularly endemic when leaders present to their colleagues. I suggest that presenters practice even more than usual when their audience is the people they know. In any case, they should practice every time they present to a new audience. 

Powerful presenter tip:  Practice out loud. Practice doesn't mean thinking about what you are going to say; it means standing up and saying it. So, recruit a friend to be your trial audience and give you feedback. I'm currently preparing to deliver a keynote at the IT conference  I would estimate that I have invested more than 20 hours preparing and practicing.

Standing in front of more than 800 IT leaders is not the time to "trust the process" and hope I have a compelling message. Practice cannot be underestimated.

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My overall message here? Don't inflict death by PowerPoint on your colleagues. Apply these five steps, and watch the quality of your communications improve.

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