Congratulations! You've been invited to speak at a professional conference or convention. Consider it an honor and a unique opportunity to win recognition and maybe new business, too. But now you must prepare yourself. We all appreciate presentations that enlighten or entertain us, and we seek out speakers who make their presentations memorable. Likewise, we dread listening to — or giving — a presentation that rambles or falls flat.
So how do you become a more effective and confident speaker? Practice, of course. But whether you are delivering a keynote address or presenting a technical paper to a small group of peers, the following key principles hold true.
Know your audience
Walking in with an off-the-shelf, generic presentation, you risk disappointing or offending an audience and embarrassing yourself. Find out what concerns or interests your audience members have and tailor your talk to their specific needs. What do they already know about your subject? Do they know your position on it, your credentials, the reason you are giving the presentation? What are their expectations and how can you address them? Prepare an "elevator" presentation
Assume you have no more than three minutes in a moving elevator to explain the essence of your presentation. Try thinking of it in terms of a problem for which you are offering a solution or an opportunity you want people to see. Strip it to the essentials: What are your main arguments? What evidence can you offer? What action do you want your audience to take? This exercise forces you to be clear and concise.
Set the stage
Get in the habit of quickly assessing your physical space. Even if others are responsible for technical equipment, such as the sound and lighting systems, you'll want to check out the acoustics and the best viewing angles. You'll also want to make sure you have adequate space for any props you wish to use. Fumbling with these in front of your audience undermines your credibility and certainly won't calm your nerves.
Calm your nerves
It's okay to be a little nervous — it shows you care about doing a good job. And some nervousness can keep your energy level up, much as it does for runners at the starting line. But if your nerves start getting the best of you, calm them using these approaches:
Know exactly how you will begin. People start judging us within the first few seconds of our appearance, so begin in a compelling way — with an interesting story or surprising statistic, for example, something that will draw in the audience.
Look great. Dress appropriately, but wear clothing in which you are comfortable, something that makes you look and feel good.
Meet and greet. There's no rule that says you have to be formally introduced before you talk to others. If you have the opportunity, put yourself at ease by chatting casually with some audience members or fellow panelists before your presentation.
Speak with enthusiasm
Just as we wouldn't become absorbed in a play if the actors merely read their lines in a mono-tone or stood motionless on stage, we can't expect our audiences to become fully engaged unless we as speakers put some physical energy into our work. When presenting, you are in the spotlight, so use vocal inflection and pace that fit the ideas and stories you are telling.
Speak loudly enough to be heard by people in the back row. Inaudibility is probably the single greatest vocal sin. Nothing is more irritating to attendees than having to strain to hear speakers.
Be true to you
Be conscious of your articulation. If you find that you "mush" your words or syllables, slow down a bit and practice hitting those consonants. (Hint: Dr. Seuss books are great for practicing this!) Use pauses to let points sink in. A strong, well-modulated, enthusiastic voice is one of your best selling tools.
Most of all, say what is true for you. Whatever your topic or audience, your presentation conveys as much about you as it does about your product, your theory, your proposal or your platform. You are selling yourself, so make yourself come alive and share with your audience. They will be grateful you did.