I’ve been slowly increasing the number of presentations I give lately. At this point, my selfish reason for doing them is to increase my reputation as someone who knows something about networking. Of course, in the process, I have to establish myself as someone who provides value to those around him (and has value to provide, for that matter). As a fledgling speaker, when I attend events now, half of my mind is listening to the information the speaker is presenting and the other half is observing how he or she is presenting it.

For those who are in the same boat, there are a number of coaches, like my new friend Eleni Kelakos, who can help you feel more comfortable in front of an audience. You can also consider joining a group like Toastmasters International. That’s a great place to practice speaking in front of a supportive group. In the meantime, here are a few of my observations.

Stories, stories, stories. Everyone loves a good story. Illustrate your points with good stories. Use emotion and imagery to capture your audience’s attention and engage their sympathies. Do you remember the last presentation where all you heard was dry statistics? No? Neither do I.

Engage the senses. Different people have different preferred mechanisms for learning. Some prefer visuals, others do best with auditory, still others need some sort of tactile experience. I know a speaker down in Toledo who passes out “stress balls” to the crowd, actually making a bit of a game about it. He starts a line of balls passing around the room in both directions. The first side to pass out all of its balls wins. Everyone gets engaged and everyone has fun. I’m guessing they’re all a bit more predisposed to listen to him, too.

Don’t throw things. I know another guy who, attempting to do the same thing and engage the crowd, instead of passing the stress balls, actually throws them to people in the room. In general, it’s a bad idea to throw things at your audience. If the person catches it, no problem. If they miss, then you’ve just allowed them to fail in front of the whole room. Or, maybe, they might miss and catch whatever you threw in the middle of their face. That would certainly win them over.

Make eye contact. I’ve noticed some of the best speakers actually make direct eye contact with members of the audience. They maintain that contact for the amount of time it takes them to make a point, then move to the next person. I’ve tried this and it actually makes being in front of a whole room a lot easier for me. I’m no longer speaking to a large crowd, but instead I’m having a conversation with one person at a time.

Don’t read your speech. No matter how good you are at reading out loud, you will never sound as genuine reading your speech as you do if you speak from notes or without notes at all. Remember that the best presentations are essentially a conversation with your audience. Would you read a conversation with a friend?

Have a beginning, middle, and end. Could you imagine listening to a story that just starts, meanders around for a little while without any sort of plot development, and then ends abruptly without any resolution? Most of us would be confused and bored and would probably stop listening after a fairly short amount of time. Why would we think that a presentation should be any different?

Don’t force them to be responsive. I hate it when someone comes up to the podium and says “Good Morning!” (or whatever the appropriate greeting would be) and then when the response from the crowd is tepid tries to generate enthusiasm by saying something to the effect of “Oh, come on! You can do better than that! Good morning!!” Maybe the speaker doesn’t realize it, but it feels forced, it feels fake, and I really don’t enjoy being put into the role of the errant schoolboy who needs to be taken to task for less-than-stellar behavior. If you want me to be enthusiastic, then say something interesting.

Show emotion. If you have passion for your topic, then show it. Get excited. Raise your voice a little (though I would avoid the full “raging against the machine crazy evangelist screaming”, if you can avoid it). Some of the most powerful presentations I’ve ever seen were ones where the speaker became so emotionally involved in what they were saying that you could hear the catch in their voice. You showing emotion and passion is you allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It gives your audience the opportunity to connect with you on a whole different and deeper level.

Never tell them you are nervous. Never ask if they’re bored. The first does really does nothing to help your case. In fact, it’s only likely to increase the level of your nervousness. Most of the time, the audience is going to be sympathetic toward you anyway. We’ve all been there and we remember that feeling. If you are asking the second, then they probably are. Really, if they said they were bored would you change what you were doing? Stick with your speech. Make it interesting and engaging and you will never have to worry if they’re bored.

Know how long you have to speak. If you are preparing a presentation, you must know how long it will be. For most of us, we can talk about our topics of interest for anything from one minute to two hours, but it would be bad to start your two-hour talk only to be cut off after fifteen minutes.

Never use PowerPoint. OK, “never” may be a strong word here, but I’ve seen about two people who really know how to use this presentation tool in such a way that it actually improves their speech. I’ve seen two or three others who do a good job and don’t hurt themselves.

And then there are all the rest of us.

Skillful PowerPoint use involves mostly imagery and very little text which contribute to but don’t duplicate what you are saying. I’ve heard the rule that a slide should never have more than five words on it. If you can’t keep to those rules, then just step back from the computer and keep your hands in plain sight at all times.

Practice, practice, practice. My best presentations were the ones that I spent them most time preparing and rehearsing. Conversely, the least successful ones tended to be the ones that I first practiced in the car on the way to the presentation venue. According to some of the best speakers I’ve met, you want to be so practiced that you sound unpracticed. Only at that point will it flow like a conversation.

Remember, the primary reason we present in a networking context is not to sell. It’s not to inform. It’s not to educate. Rather  our first and foremost goal is simply to get them to like us. If we can get past all of the technical aspects of speaking (and avoid those behaviors that put barriers between us and our audience) then we have the opportunity to make ourselves a little vulnerable and engage their interest. After that, your audience is far more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Photo credit: Vicky S