Part One – Before the event.

We recently explored the characteristics of a great Obama speech. Building on this, we now look at three key stages of presenting that when tackled effectively, help us improve our all round speaker capability.

The three stages capture the considerations, actions and reflections that occur before, during and after a pitch or speech. Let’s go through them, oh and let’s assume of course that we know our subject well and are prepared for any questions on our topic area. If we don’t then it might be better to get a handle on that first!

Why are we really talking to people?

Once we have a topic, our first consideration must be why are we speaking in the first place? This might seem obvious, however it’s very easy to get into the planning and preparation of a session without giving this enough thought. Thinking about why we are presenting is critical; it should help drive the style of delivery as well as influencing the emotional content of our story telling.

We might think we’re telling people about something useful. A new product, way of working, or new concept. But why are we really talking to them? To amaze them, to motivate them to do something new or to disrupt their thinking? This basic understanding is vital if we are going to move from merely presenting information, to emotionally firing up people and influencing them. So, why are we really there speaking to people?

If we understand why, we have a better chance of defining the end goal. Working backwards from this allows us to maximise our impact by aligning the purpose of our talk with the reason why our audience might want or need to listen and engage with us.

Think Churchill, Luther-King or Pankhurst. These leaders delivered some of the greatest and most important speeches of the 20th century. In these examples, the why is very apparent and the power of influence over their audience increased as a result.

What do we want to achieve?

Once we define why we are presenting, the style of delivery, content and general preparation becomes much easier as a result of having a core theme on which to anchor everything else around. It’s easy to move to the what. What do we want people to react like? What messages do we want them to go away with?

In the launch of the first iPhone, Jobs wasn’t so interested in talking about the numerous features and benefits of this groundbreaking new gadget. Instead, he wanted people to think about bigger things. Jobs’ why centred on how Apple could permeate lives and become a cultural necessity for millions. His what therefore was focused on covering how the device fitted into daily routines and took the place of three separate devices. In this way he had a sharp focus on the why and subsequently knew exactly what he wanted to achieve from the launch. Apple’s strong focus on both has enabled it to create an aura around every product launch since and is the reason why many people covet gadgets like the iPhone.

Consider what we want to get out of our presentation or talk:

  • Do we want to wow people with our technical know-how or with our passion for a particular direction or idea?
  • Do we want to come across as an authority on a subject or as someone sparking debate and discussion?
  • Do we want to say something controversial and get peoples’ back up, or do we want to summarise a topic so that people feel they have a clearer understanding of it?

Aims don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but jotting these down will help to inform the tone, structure or general approach to the presentation. For example, if the aim is to showcase technical prowess then we will do well to cover benefits or improvements regularly and in depth. If the aim is to spark debate then we need lots of open questions to our audience and time for reflection and discussion built in.

Who are we talking to?

With the foundation in place, it’s essential to think long and hard about who we are speaking to. Knowing our audience requires a combination of analysis and anticipation as well as empathy and understanding.

Thinking ahead, a thorough analysis helps us to predict, as far as possible, how our content and arguments are likely to land. Visualise the audience:

  • What are their backgrounds?
  • Where are they working? What on?
  • Why is our talk relevant to them?
  • What is their context?
  • What keeps people like them awake at night?
  • How will our content play into their day-to-day?
  • Why are they even there?

Empathising with our audience’s needs and wants helps us to define what they stand to gain from our talk. Beyond their job titles and organisations:

  • What are they personally interested in?
  • What do they gain from listening to us?
  • Why should they even bother listening?
  • Are they open to us, closed or on the fence?
  • Where will they resist or challenge what we’re saying?

By thinking about our audience’s perspective and empathising with individual-collective needs, we increase the chances of winning the so-called ‘hearts and minds’. The more we know and understand a group of individuals, the better the chance we have of saying and doing things that fit with their expectations and norms. Importantly, we also increase the likelihood of tapping into specific areas of interest that our audiences really want to engage with.

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

How should we start planning?

Focusing on the why, what and who will set us up to deliver effective and powerful presentations where audiences appreciate our understanding of their needs. There are also some important tips to factor into the initial planning in anticipation of the big event.

  • Get the opening and closing lines absolutely right. Research suggests we have a tendency to remember the first and last elements of interactions, so start strong and ensure the closing remarks hammer home the core theme or direction.
  • Be succinct with slides. Time is the enemy of the presenter and it’s all too easy for time to run away from us. Err on the side of caution when it comes to the number of slides or deck size. Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule is a useful rule of thumb: 10 slides, 20 minutes talking, 30 pt font size.
  • Use the ‘rule of 3’ to increase impact. For reasons unknown, presenting arguments or points in groups of three (not two, not four) tends to be quite effective. It’s a basic but interesting concept. Take a look and see if it can help get key points across.
  • Use visuals only to augment what is said. A picture is worth a thousand words! But try to only including slides and imagery that enhance points, rather than simply repeating words in a visual format.
  • Inject personality and humour. Essential. People are giving their time over to us. It’s important that they get to know us and can enjoy the time.
  • Scope out the joint. Have an understanding of where the talk will take place and know the setup. Don’t get caught out by trivial things like how the screen works or how to connect to the wifi…

In Part two: During the talk, we cover the big moment. For now we hope you’ve enjoyed part one.

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