Preparing for a speaking opportunity

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speaking opportunityYou’ve been invited to present at an upcoming conference or join a panel at an industry seminar. You’re excited to represent your company and speak to others in your field about a topic that’s important and interesting to you. But if this is your first time taking part in a speaking opportunity at an event, seminar or conference, you may be a little apprehensive. Even if you’re a good public speaker and you’ve had practice presenting at company or client meetings, doing something at this big a scale can be daunting.

Here to help are experts who have tips for preparing for a speaking opportunity – whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned veteran:

Get to know the audience
“To get a clear picture of the audience, visualize someone you know in the audience who is typical of the group,” says communications strategist Laura Mecoy. “Or if you don’t know anyone who fits that description, create that person by asking yourself questions such as: How old is this person? What does this person do for a living? If you were sitting across the dinner table from this person, how would you communicate the messages you wish to convey?”

Deborah Wipf, president and founder of business coaching services company Velocity Management Group often participates in public speaking events in her role. She suggests speaking with the organizer and asking him about successful presentations in the past, the likes and dislikes of their audience and approximate demographics, as well as the outcomes the organizer would like to see from your presentation. “I also recommend checking out the organization’s website and social media channels to see what they’ve been talking about with their followers recently.”

Set a goal for the presentation
Once you have a better picture of the audience, set goals for what you want to achieve in your presentation. “Have a specific goal for each presentation, being clear in measurable terms what result you intend to achieve by giving this talk,” says Ronald Kaufman, who, for more than 15 years has been giving workshops on topics such as “Presentation Skills” and “Goal Setting/Motivation.” “Is it to change behaviors, sell something, inform, entertain, etc.? Why is it important for you to make this presentation?”

Make the presentation digestible
Likely one of the biggest fears people have about doing speaking opportunities is that they won’t be engaging and they’ll bore their audience. To avoid a dry, awkward presentation, ensure that what you’re presenting is digestible and organized in a way that’s most natural to you.

“Do not write out your presentation word for word and then plan on reading it,” says speaker, facilitator and consultant Roz Turner. “Participants like presenters who are authentic, genuine, know their topic and relate to them. Prepare by creating an outline and then take the time to practice what you will say out loud to give yourself confidence and an idea of whether or not you have too much information for the time available. If you are going to use a PowerPoint presentation, do not write everything you are saying on the slides. Use photos, use humor, use bullets to tell a ‘story.’ But use the PowerPoint presentation to guide your presentation — not to be your presentation.”

Practice in front of a mirror
“Oftentimes, particularly for newer speakers, people are not self-aware of the funny faces, robotic movements or hand gestures we make while speaking,” says Suzanne Garber, member of the National Speaker’s Association and Chief Networking Officer at International SOS.Some ‘speak with their hands,’ which can be distracting, while others are frozen in their place — neither of which are appealing to audiences. Similarly, with practice comes perfection and you can become of aware of the ‘ums,’ ‘like,’ or ‘you know’ that pervades many beginners’ speeches.”

Make the timing and location work
While it may not always be a choice, Mecoy suggests doing what you can to control when and where you’ll be delivering your presentation. “Try to avoid the after-lunch and end-of-the-day slots when the audience is ready for a nap. Check the room ahead of time to be sure the sound system works. Eschew the podium, if possible, to actively engage the audience.”

Mecoy says that if you don’t have a choice on your timing and location, look for ways to liven things up. “At an end-of-the-day presentation at an association’s annual conference [that I was presenting at], the state lottery was among the topics to be discussed. So I distributed scratch-off lottery tickets to members of the audience who asked questions. No one won, but we had fun seeing if they did.”

Have fun
“This is easier said than done, and while it’s important to take your topic and your audience seriously, you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously,” Garber says. “Yes, you will make flubs at times, but make light of the moment or move past it quickly. Audiences want to be engaged with you, and the more fun you have, they will pick up on your vibe and follow your lead.”

  1. Debra,
    I find it hard to believe that we can read articles about public speaking and have no mention of Toastmasters – a non-profit organization that helps people become better speakers and leaders. We all get better at just about anything we want to primarily by doing it, practicing that thing over and over. We can get better even faster if we have someone watching us when we practice to tell us what we are doing right and what we could improve on. This is exactly how Toastmasters operates and it does so cost effectively because all members are volunteers that help coach, mentor and evaluate others and receive the same in return. Because they are non-profit, you don’t hear much from them and many people do not even know what Toastmasters is about even if they have heard the name; this is why they should be mentioned any time someone who knows writes about the topic of improving ones public speaking ability.

  2. kellerbl 
    I saw this article in the Tennessean in Nashville, TN. I agree with you. I closed a company in 2007 and decided that I wanted to do positive things in the interim between jobs to build my skill set. I joined a Toastmasters club and I can tell you unequivocally that it was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Toastmasters has been excellent for all sorts of things: overcoming fear, learning to be succinct in presentations, learning to write speeches as well as letters, memo’s etc., leadership development and connections. The people in these groups are forward thinking, upwardly mobile people that understand the value of vocal delivery, whether it be as a keynote speech, a sales presentation, or a conversation with another person. Elevator speeches, impromptu training, etc. AND THE INVESTMENT: less than $10.00 per month. We have a company sent us 8 of their employees to guide in learning how to present, as well as to practice speaking on an impromptu basis. We meet every Saturday morning at 7:30 till 9 and we have a membership of 36 people with a regular turn out of between 20-25 people. Debra, this would be a huge benefit to the people you address. Might consider visiting a Toastmasters group to get a feel for the value provided. Thanks!

  3. Mikitaylor 
    I read a similar, but different article in my local Binghamton Press paper, titled “Overcome the fear of speaking up – Tame the jitters to shine in public”, also written by Debra. This is what made me look up these articles and want to suggest they mention Toastmasters for those who want to improve their ability speak up. My own club meets 7-8:30am on odd Fridays. This club had 40 members when I joined 10 years ago. I have seen people with complete fear join and become very good speakers. I’ve seen good speakers join and become better speakers. Because clubs are run by volunteers, there is a fairly wide spectrum of abilities within clubs, but it is true that all clubs can help people improve, some more than others. Those who are after rapid improvement often join multiple clubs to get more speaking and evaluation opportunities.Speech contests are also popular.

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