Working with a variety of clients, we’ve been reminded of a couple of things about public speaking. First, that great speakers are made, not born (it takes hard work). Also, that public speaking comes in many forms, from updating internal stakeholders in a presentation to the three minutes you’re given as the sponsor of a webinar, to formal presentations at conferences, whether virtual or live.
Here’s our tried-and-true list of things to check off before every presentation to give you the best chance for success.
Be strategic: What are your goals with this presentation?
Put in some time thinking about your presentation well in advance. Don’t depend on the adrenaline rush that comes from working on it the night before. You might pull that off, but is it really your best work? Here are a few questions to help home in on your goals:
- In terms of strategy, what do you hope to accomplish beyond an educational presentation? Do you want to make a good impression? Create goodwill with audience members who might someday become customers?
- Know your audience. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it gets missed. Talk to the folks who invited you to better understand their group’s interests and expectations. How much do they already know about your topic, if anything?
- How will you be introduced? Are you doing it yourself? The intro is critical to how you and your organization are positioned. If the inviting group is making the introduction, provide them with bullet points that speak to your positioning.
- What are the two or three things you absolutely want the audience to be sure to remember when it comes to your content? And what do you want them to recall about you and your organization?
Understand that different presentation formats bring different challenges.
Make sure you know the basics you need to stick to (typically meaning format and length) and don’t forget that three minutes means three minutes! There’s no better way to put off a host than to go over the limit. If you need to, record your presentation for practice on Zoom and time it.
Also important: Know your role. While panels are popular in public safety conferences, they can be difficult to pull off well. If asked to be part of one, press the facilitator for multiple prep meetings well in advance to make sure everyone knows who’s talking about what and when. Being introduced to other panelists can turn into a great networking opportunity; take advantage of it by showing another key opinion leader what a good collaborator you can be.
If it’s a Q&A format, insist on getting the questions (or at least the topics) ahead of time, and reach out to the facilitator to make a connection.
Make sure your presentation content is actually engaging.
A highly-regarded young paramedic and columnist for a public safety trade magazine was once asked by a national association to be their closing dinner speaker. He’d never spoken publicly in such a large setting and was visibly nervous. But he delivered a touching, heartfelt 20-minute speech that he read to the audience almost at a whisper. Because his words were so meaningful and his delivery so genuine, he received a standing ovation.
You don’t have to be the best public speaker at your conference, but you do have to be authentic. Here are some more tips to creating content that resonates with your audience (as well as a few things not to do):
- Start your presentation with the why, not the what. With everything else going on in the world, why is this topic important? Think about using an attention-getting statistic: “In the hour you’re listening to me, 42 people will die from sudden cardiac arrest. Half of those could have been saved.”
- Use data and statistics to drive your conclusions when possible, but use stories to make them compelling: “There are more than 11,000 serious ambulance crashes each year. The one pictured here took place last winter on a snowy road in rural Wisconsin. The driver of the car died and the lives of two paramedics were changed forever.”
- If you represent a for-profit company, don’t ever turn your presentation into a sales job. Enough said.
- Outlines aren’t just for college papers. For a more formal presentation, creating one is the ideal way to get started without the stress of thinking how every thought will come together—that comes later.
- Do you dare to be funny? Using quotes or cartoons is a (mostly) risk-free way to introduce humor. (Here’s one of my favorites: “There are liars, damned liars and statistics.” — Mark Twain) Caution: If you’re using a cartoon in a big room, make sure the caption is big enough (or reproduce it) so everyone can see what the people in the first three rows are laughing about.
- Practice makes perfect. If it’s a live presentation that’s especially important, take the time to give it to a few trusted friends or colleagues who will give you genuine feedback.
Ensure the actual presentation is a home run.
Relying on content-heavy slides is a well-documented way to lose your audience. Here’s a favorite resource for how to get the most out of visuals. Some nuts and bolts advice on getting the most out of your talk:
- Here’s a seemingly boring but actually really important detail to pay attention to: Who’s in charge if there’s a technical problem? For live conferences, there’s typically an AV tech assigned to a variety of rooms. Webinars and virtual events also usually have a tech person on point. Connect with him or her ahead of time.
- If you’re presenting live, use the space appropriately—don’t stand at the podium if you don’t have to. If virtual, lean slightly forward for a more energetic pose and use your hands as you talk.
- Whatever the setting, to get the best engagement with your audience, display conviction, enthusiasm and confidence. Smile to let them know you’re enjoying the experience. Use eye contact, voice inflection and body language to best effect.
- Understand how the Q&A is going to work, whether live or virtual. And do your best not to end without any questions, even if you have prime the pump yourself. And if you don’t know an answer, don’t fake it. Just ask the questioner to send you an email and say you’ll find out.
- Is there a hand-out or reference materials to support the presentation? (Your slides should never be your fallback.) If not, think about creating a brief document that summarizes your key messages, provides a list of resources and allows you to subtly position your organization.
Tailor your virtual presentation.
Virtual presentations are here to stay, even when in-person events return. Consider recording your presentation and then attending the event live for the Q&A portion of the event. Technical problems such as poor internet connections have derailed too many good presentations. Consider doing the following to make your virtual presentations more memorable:
- Use a good-quality webcam with your laptop or phone clipped into a tripod holder for stability in a horizontal position.
- Position the camera at eye level or slightly above. Test the positioning to ensure your whole head, neck and the tops of your shoulders are in view. Take a critical look at what your audience will see.
- Think about your Zoom room (or virtual background) and how participants will perceive it. Make sure your background doesn’t show a bright window or anything else that’s too shiny or bright, as that will make you appear dark in the video. Ideally, your light source is behind your computer at the 10 o’clock and 2’o’clock positions; this also helps prevent glare if you wear glasses.
- If you’re using a virtual background, think about creating one that subtly positions your company (some organizations use small logos repeated in a pattern). Choose a green backdrop; this ensures your hands and the top of your head won’t disappear when you move.
- Try to avoid using the computer’s microphone and speakers. Either wired or wireless earbuds will make the audio sound better and help fend off echo issues.
- Approximate eye contact (as best you can) with the viewer by looking at the camera instead of at your screen. If you’re reading text, try to make sure the copy is in line with your camera on the screen or as high up as you can get it. When you’re live and reading a scripted presentation, a best practice is to glance away from what you’re reading periodically to make eye contact with the audience. The same is true with a virtual presentation.
- Send a few questions to the facilitator ahead of time to get the Q&A started.
Most important, remember that everything speaks. People watch their leaders and presenters for verbal and physical cues, from what you wear and your “Zoom room,” to the words you use to convey your message. So choose wisely. And remember that if you’re having fun, your audience probably is, too.