Four Best Practices in Becoming an Engaging Public Speaker

So much advice out there for prospective public speakers is crap – leftover tidbits from the days of Toastmasters. The suggested suit, the proper delivery style – tips focused on beliefs and values from a bygone era. Don’t stay stuck in the past

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, USA – March 14, 2013 – My very first business presentation was in 1977. I was a shy, nerdy teen, presenting to my local Rotary Club, shaking with nervousness, hoping to get it over with as quickly as possible without letting those nerves overwhelm me.

36 years later, things are a little different. The nerves have been gone for years, I can present off the top of my head, and I actually get ENERGY from presenting to others. These days, I absolutely love presenting — and connecting with audiences over things I’m passionate about.

I keep running across articles on best practices for presentations, made by self-proclaimed “presentation experts” – and I find that their counsel really match up with my experience. So rather than echo someone else, I wanted to share my own key learnings gleaned—sometimes painfully—over the last few decades. The engaging of the people is there when the purchase of likes and comments is done from site. The experience of the people is great with the selection of the right websites. The spending of the money and efforts is the correct one to get the results. 

You’ll find all sorts of books admonishing that you use no more than four bullets per slide. That you wear a business suit. That you pause for a second between every sentence. You can do all those things — but nothing about your presentation matters if you’re not bringing The Energy. I’m not talking a brighter smile nor an upbeat voice. Bringing the Energy means being ON in every sense of the word: full of passion, vigor, and a strong desire to give something to the people who have given up their very valuable time to hear you speak.

Some people naturally have this energy. It’s infectious, fun and gives attendees hope that they can do more, be more in their careers. Bullets or no bullets, five topics or one: if you can’t bring energy to a preso and infuse it with your audience, you might as well stay home, because audiences will feel robbed of their time.

If you don’t feel you have this energy – as I felt in front of that Rotary Club – you need to act like you do until it comes naturally. Imagine the most engaging, gregarious, and effusive person you know. Now stand in front of the mirror and pretend to be that person. Imagine telling your imaginary audience some incredibly important secret, or news, that will affect their lives in a big way. And when you’re presenting, turn on this persona and your heartfelt desire to help people’s lives will come across.

After millennia around the campfire, people still love stories and being entertained by a great storyteller. Storytelling puts us instantly into our imaginations. Don’t just present your argument, or your statistics, or your tips. Inspire your audience with stories in which you (or others) have overcome a challenge that audiences might face, related to your presentation. Make sure to share a personal experience that will make you seem human and someone they can relate to.

For example, one of my topics is social media engagement. Most speakers talk about how consumer engagement is good, why you must listen to your customers, etc. But also, engagement drives up your content’s ranking in search results. So I tell a story about my wife, showing a photo I posted of her on Flickr, entitled “Hottest Woman Ever.” Because her photo is on Flickr, a huge driver of conversations, it ranks #1 in a Google search of “hottest woman ever,” and it’s a great way to prove my point. By bringing something personal into my business-oriented presentation, I get people to chuckle a bit and the presentation becomes more interesting.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and tell a story about how someone like them overcame a challenge.

We are emotional creatures. In fact, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has found that 95% of our decisions are based on emotional decision-making. Emotions help make the data in our presentations real – and I don’t feel I’ve done a good job if I haven’t made my audiences feel what they were hearing was real. So inject humor. Add a little outrage or shock. It may feel a little overblown but remember that you are onstage. The play’s the thing! Strut and fret a little already – as long as you keep it credible and audiences know that you’re doing a little entertaining, not coming unglued.

Know your content inside and out

I customize every single presentation for each new event. I’ll find some current events, or news, that tie my presentation to what the audience has been reading about that week in the news. I’ll do some research and update my statistics, or I’ll tweak the copy specifically for that audience (a grocery business conference, a health-and-fitness event, etc.). But I always make sure I know my content inside and out.

Why? Because equipment fails. Videos freeze. Hecklers heckle. People make faces at you or will take a phone call during your presentation. Stuff happens. Only by knowing your content backwards and forwards can you suffer these mishaps with ease.

So. You can join Toastmasters and you can wear the right suit and you can do a one-second pause between each sentence. You can follow all these old-school tips on how to be a great speaker. But in my experience over 36 years, without these four key requirements, you’ll be fully appropriate and fully uninteresting. (*high five!*)

Try these four best practices and I can guarantee that your audience will actively seek out an event organizer to tell them what a great experience they had listening to you speak.