By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP
If I had to boil my two decades of experience as a professional speaker down to two pieces of advice, I think it would be this:
You may find this statement a bit puzzling, expecting instead that I’d choose to emphasize professionalism, connecting with the audience, research and preparation, rehearsal, breaking the ice, or any of the various technical details that go into a good presentation. But while all these factors are, indeed, important, none of them matter if your audience thinks you don’t have a clue. Why should they believe a word you say if you come across as unprepared, uneducated, thoughtless, or simply less knowledgeable than they are on the topic you’re supposed to be the expert on?
So take the high ground immediately and hold on throughout the speech. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare for and make your presentation:
1. Filter out the fillers. Let’s suppose I got up on stage and said to my eager audience, “Er, my name is, uh, yeah, Laura Stack, and I, um, specialize in, like, productivity, you know?” I guarantee you that as soon as those words sank in, my credibility would be dead. Not long after, people would start heading for the door. That kind of intro sounds tentative and stupid—as if I have no idea who I am or what I do. That’s not the case, but how can the audience tell?
We all use filler words in everyday speech; they serve as opportunities for our brains to catch up with our mouths. No harm, no foul—under those circumstances. But they have no place in professional presentations. Your audience wants to hear confident ideas that solve their problems and make them think, not what sounds like doubt or uncertainty. Only careful preparation, repeated rehearsal, and coaching from others can drive these “fluency disruptions” from your speech patterns. If you have no one to listen to your presentation to help you catch the fillers, record a practice session and work through it, noting each occurrence so you can eliminate it.
2. Can the qualifiers. Using words such as “hopefully,” “ideally,” “kind of,” “sort of,” and “perhaps” won’t win you any points with your audience. Like the disfluencies outlined above, they damage your credibility, because no one wants a solution that will “ideally” or “sort of” solve their problem. Be confident, declarative, and informative. Never appear uncertain or cast doubt on your own credibility.
3. Don’t overexaggerate. People have good reason to be cynical these days, because they’ve heard it all before. So avoid hyperbole about your strategy, product, philosophy, or the behavior change you’re selling in your presentation. Don’t make any “silver bullet” assertions. If a trustworthy third party has said you really are the best thing since sliced bread, then say so; if that’s just your opinion, then don’t.
4. Swat the buzzwords. Tired old clichés, technobabble, and overuse of business buzzwords will obscure your point and waste the audience’s time. Make your speech concise, precise, and clear. If you finish early, so be it; your audience won’t complain.
5. Eliminate errors and typos. Be rigorous with fact-checking and proofreading. In fact, hire a professional to handle them if possible. Furthermore, make a concerted effort to stay current in your field. Nothing turns off a technical audience quicker than old, outdated information or obvious inaccuracies. Typos and other goofs in your graphics, charts, and slides can prove just as embarrassing, because they look amateurish. Even tiny mistakes can negatively affect an audience member’s willingness to listen to and trust you.
6. Do your homework. Gauge the knowledge level of your audience well in advance and tailor your presentation to it. While you don’t want everything you say sailing right over their heads, you also don’t want them muttering, “Thanks for the update, Captain Obvious,” as they head for the door.While your primary role may not be that of teacher (unless you’re running a seminar or workshop), nothing says “poor planning” and kills credibility like shoddy research.
Whether you’re pitching to a new group of buyers or linchpinning a convention with a keynote speech, your presentation must be professional, persuasive, and clear. Self-sabotage—whether through carelessness; sloppy speaking habits; or overblown, buzzword-laden discourse—shouldn’t even be a possibility. Put in the extra hours necessary to perfect your presentation. Your audience may allow you a flub or two—especially if your content otherwise wows them—but even the smallest errors can undermine your credibility.
Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack is theauthor of many books, most recently “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.” Connect with her at http://www.TheProductivityPro.com; http://www.facebook.com/productivitypro; or twitter.com/laurastack.