Speeches and Presentations: Cringes or Triumphs? Here’s our tips to knock it out of the park.
2023 marks the return for many to full-fledge, in-person activities and events. That means presentations to live audiences are back in full force. Launching into 2023, it is time to refresh and refine your presentation and speech delivery skills for best impression and impact. To fully engage your audience, imagine that you are the Director of Experience for your audience, and you want them to walk away feeling entertained, motivated, informed, or persuaded – so your job is to take them on that journey, curate that experience for them and leave them sated. Here are some expert tips from the Keill team to do just that:
- Know your Audience!
- Create your Story Arc
- Stick the Landing
- Say it Before you Write it
- The Delivery!
- Watch Others and Practice, Practice, Practice
Three critical questions to answer before you write your speech or create your presenation are: who is your audience, what do they want, and why are they here? Do your research. Ask the event organizer for more details. If possible, get a list of the attendees (job titles, organizations, etc), learn, and read recent news about some of the industry ‘goings on’ if it is a different industry than your own. Create an “audience profile” for yourself and imagine having a conversation with someone in that group – what would you share and/or want to know about their reality?
Be curious about who you are speaking to and with for your time in the spotlight. Meeting your audience’s expectations means that you know their interests and backgrounds and satisfy them and their investment of time listening to your thoughts.
Create your Story Arc
Once you’ve done your audience research and aligned it with your presentation or speech topic, consider your speech arc and human behaviour. How will you hook them into your story and keep them with you along the presentation journey. Humans remember emotions and feelings and can tie them to the facts and observations. When considering your speech or presentation framework consider some models to help build your outline:
This is the “Tell them broadly what you will tell them, then tell in detail, then tell them broadly what you told them” model. This model allows you to flag for your audience what is to come, what they need to listen to and then reflections on what they heard. This can work well for some presentations or speeches that may be more lengthy in nature and helps refocus the audience on your core messages and take-aways. BUT, for many audiences this is a plodding, old-school style of presentation that can stifle the imagination and can feel more like a “lecture”. However, it isn’t to be entirely forgotten for some audiences and situations.
Upside Down Pyramid:
This model follows the journalists model of writing a story and getting all the pertinent information out on the table up front. That is the first hit of the presentation might be a great headline – an evocative draw into the story – followed by the core details – the who, what, when, where, why and that is all laid out at the outset. The rest of the story you tell them then draws out the story further in detail and colour, and it may take them on a journey to and end point they didn’t expect but that you walked them through. This model works well for transformative journeys you may want your audience to take and works well for both entertainment-based presentations as well as persuasion-based presentations. While this model works well it does rely on the speaker to be clear about how to get the opening hook right and draw folks into the journey. Don’t be afraid of the headline. Don’t bury your lede! This style can take some getting used to but once mastered it can be exceptionally effective.
With this model of presentation or speech model the points of the presentation can be layered and rolled one on top of the other to build up to a conclusion. It may present more “mystery” at the start of the presentation for the audience on where you may take them on the journey and you can layer elements – that may seem incompatible with one another – into a layered conclusion or termination point. This is a far more complex presentation model that is often best for long-form presentations where each layer can be appropriately positioned. It also requires the audience to work harder to follow the train of logic and thought.
Key considerations, no matter which model you might choose (and these are only a few of several variations on delivery options), is the simple fact that humans have limited attentions spans – and that seems to be shortening in our modern era. Some folks say 7 minutes of focus while other say 20 minutes. What matters from a presenter perspective is the “lift points” in the presentation at critical audience attention intervals – are you weaving in questions, stories, images, music, videos, or other “lift points” into your story arc so you can keep the humans listening along for the ride with you.
Stick the Landing
After all the effort you have gone through to get to know your audience and craft an exceptional journey for your audience through your material, the last thing you want is for your ending to fizzle and fall flat. No matter what your model for your story arc looks like, you want to ensure that you “stick the landing” at the end of your performance. Plan out how to ensure that all the time you and the audience have spent together culminates in the final end result and define clearly what you want that end point to be and how your model will get you there. Do you end with a flourish, an impactful image, silence, or other. Do you want them to be roused to standing ovation or left with contemplative self-reflection, Whatever your end goal is, note it in big letters on the top of your speech pages or in your presentation notes – that is the end you are driving to and nail the landing firmly, and completely.
Did you draw out the desired emotions of the audience? As the adage goes, people will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
Say it Before you Write it
Writing for audiences to read content is very different from writing for an audience to listen. It is a different skill and format. If you are an exceptional writer, speechwriting and presentation scripts can be a challenging pursuit. Considering stage directions, audience engagement points, voice, variations in delivery, emphasis and so on can be a difficult. Without the ability for an audience member to “reread” a thought to better understand it, audiences for presentations need to be able to absorb your material without the ability to “reread” a point. That means clear writing, different “grammar” rules, shorter sentences or variations in sentence length, repetition, auditory punctuation, and other ways for your audience to follow your thoughts. Because speeches and presentations are to be said and heard, a good rule of thumb is to say your speech aloud to eliminate challenging elements from the speech. For some, a very good approach is to either speak, transcribe, refine, practice, OR write, read, and refine several times to make it easy to deliver and understand.
A question we are often asked is how much time should I spend working on my presentation or speech and our answer is “it depends”. Is it a formal speech, an more informal presentation? How well do you know the material? Have you delivered the content before? How long is the time slot you are filling? And so on. For our purposes, we often suggest in our own work planning about an hour for every minute of speech – that includes planning, research, writing, practicing, and rewriting. If you are writing for yourself, you know your “voice”. But, if you are writing for someone else, learning their “voice” can take time as well that may need to be accounted for in the planning. The point is, well crafted experiences for speakers and for audiences is not a “seat of the pants” endeavour – unless you are a well-practiced and well-seasoned presenter.
Once you feel the presentation is ready for public consumption, record yourself delivering it – words and gestures – to identify final modifications before the “big show”. If you want to go an extra measure of assurance, share the final recording with a trusted colleague to see if what you think is being conveyed is landing as you hoped for a listener hearing it for the first time.
The way in which you deliver your speech has an effect on how well it is received. People also have a natural tendency to speed up their language when delivering a presentation or speech. If you are naturally a fast talker, be intentional about slowing down. Our brains process faster when speaking than a listener’s brain processes what we are saying. Also, we know our content so we may speed up due to nerves, content familiarity and time concerns. To counter that plan for and take deliberate pauses in your speech to help the audience better process what you are saying, and to allow yourself a small breath.
Pauses in your speech can also build tension and suspense, allow space for humour to land (though humour can be a very tricky element to master), cement crucial elements of your material, or to highlight the importance of key points.
How long to pause? A good trick for your pause is to simply take a deep breath – that two to three second pause is just what your audience may need.
Using hand gestures is also a way to improve your delivery. It may feel silly but gesturing during a speech can command attention, punctuate points, and make the visual element of your delivery generally more interesting. Subtle hand movements can be enough to keep your audience attentive and entertained.
But, be careful not to get carried away. Too much hand movement can easily distract your audience from your message. And, if you are being broadcast onto a screen in a room while you are presenting, the hand gestures flying in from out of frame can be awkward and distracting in large format.
Lastly, if you don’t have to stand behind a podium, don’t. Stand up straight and have confidence while you speak and if you’re using a stage or have some space to walk around, don’t be afraid to move about! Stepping to face different parts of your audience keeps engagement up, and lets the audience feel like you’re talking to everyone in the room. Make eye contact with different areas of a room to show confidence and relatability with the audience. But, before you make a plan for gestures and movement in your presentation, ensure that you know from the event organizer what the staging is like, what your microphone options are, and if camera operators need to follow you across the stage. Being prepared for a solid delivery makes the content easier to deliver and the connection with the audience stronger.
Watch Others and Practice, Practice, Practice
While you write your speech, watch a few great speeches online. What parts of it made it great to you? What aspects of how they present do you think you can emulate? All seasoned public speakers can learn from watching others giving great speeches.
Once you think you’ve got your speech honed, give the speech in front of no one, give it in front of the mirror, and maybe even in front of one person. Record yourself giving the speech and listen for yourself. What did you like, and what did you not? How can you improve that? Take it all in and think about your words, your gestures, your materials, your arc, your connection, and your desired “landing”. Make a list of what felt good for you, what you want to improve, practice with a friend, and – don’t forget to have some fun through the process.
If you want a little inspiration, one of the better speech examples in recent years – whether you agree with the content or not – was the Barak Obama keynote speech delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. This was the speech that put the then Senator on a national trajectory. What do you see in the delivery? What do you hear in the language? What devices does he use to emphasize or tell the story that draws the audience in to what his key points are? It is a sophisticated speech in form and function – one among many examples.
You are ready to create, practice and delivery to your audience with a few of these tips. You’ve got this! But as always, Keill & Co is here to help you with all facets of communications, such as presentation training, speech writing, media, or advocacy training. We are always happy to help. We’re just an email away if you need us.