How to Give a Great Keynote

You don’t have to be giving a keynote presentation or even be a professional speaker to benefit from the advice in this great post. My only quibble? Not being nervous about a big presentation isn’t just douchey, it’s a clear sign that you’re a sociopath.

Using Storytelling to Make Your Presentations Memorable

I’ve mentioned before that storytelling may be the closest thing to a secret weapon when it come to creating a great presentation. Telling your presentation in narrative form gives it a natural structure, makes it more memorable for your audience, and helps you overcome any fear that you might have about not being able to remember your talk.

One example I’ve used is the storytelling techniques that competitors in memory contests employ in order to recall seemingly impossible quantities of information and Joshua Foer’s account in Moonwalking with Einstein of how he used these methods to become a memory champion. Now everything seems to have come full-circle and Foer has a TED talk describing the experience. You should still buy his book, but this is a great introduction.

Be Objectively Engaged with Your Audience

People’s fear of public speaking tends to collapse their awareness into themselves and lose track of what’s going on with their audience during a talk, but it’s important to observe them so you can see how they are reacting to what you say and adjust when necessary.

Make sure that you’re keeping an eye on your audience throughout your presentation (and not just pretending to make eye contact) so you can see if they look like they’re following along, if they seem to be in agreement with you, or are turning actively hostile.

Sticking to a script isn’t what’s important–it’s doing what you need to do to succeed. Sometimes you even need to just throw out your plans and do something else. We’ve given plenty of presentations where we abandoned our plans (and our slides) when they didn’t seem to be working or when a discussion took an unexpected turn in a productive direction.

Monitor your audience so you can gauge their reactions and don’t be afraid to improvise if you sense an opportunity.

Advice for Dealing with Hecklers

It should probably go without saying that comedians, presidential candidates, and other public speakers probably shouldn’t all use the same strategies for dealing with hecklers or difficult audience members. Their objectives are very different, for one thing. Comedians are trying to entertain while public speakers and politician are hoping to persuade and win votes. Still this article from Slate does have some good advice for speakers, despite the fact that the comedians reviewing the performances of the Republican candidates don’t always seem to understand that politicians’ goals are different from their own. The advice that Rick Santorum “should have thrown the mic down and walked off” seems particularly tone-deaf.

Unless it’s a joke, of course.

But I really like Paul F. Tompkins’ analysis of how Mitt Romney deals with a heckler:

“He handles it like a pro,” says Tompkins. “You don’t cut the heckler off. You let her go. Give ’em enough rope. Use the time she’s babbling to craft your comeback. Then BAM. You unleash your zinger with a smile. They come at you again? Same thing. Keep indulging her until the crowd completely turns on the heckler. Which they will—you’ve been smiling the while time, letting her say her piece, right? The crowd can’t be mad at you—you’re just being polite in a funny way! But just insulting enough that they taste a little blood in their mouths! THIS WOMAN MUST BE SILENCED AND THEY WILL GLADLY DO THAT FOR YOU! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”

Most public speakers and politicians (Newt Gingrich excepted) probably aren’t focused on “zinging” their audience members. But letting the difficult audience member or heckler keep talking can be a great strategy. It often lets them dig themselves a hole without you having to do anything and, as Tompkins points out, turns the rest of the audience against them.

Dealing with a difficult audience member is never, well, easy. But it helps if you can remember that most of the audience is probably on your side.

Slate: Let me Finish

Awkward Pauses: The Value of “Um, Er and Uh” in Public Speaking

Last year I did several talks where one of the most important points I wanted to make  is that our desire to be effective public speakers is undermined when we make it our goal to be perfect public speakers. Everyone has something they could do better but focusing on these issues too much can make us anxious and undermine our performance. You want to be aware of the things you can do better and make an effort to implement them whenever you can.  But don’t feel like any little mistake is going to ruin your whole presentation.

The example I always used was my habit of inserting an “um” into pauses while I’m talking. I’m usually not even aware of it while I’m speaking, but I’ve listened to recordings of myself enough to hear that it’s an issue. It’s not something I do a lot, and I probably do it less than most people. But I’d really prefer not to do it at all. Still, I wasn’t going to torture myself over it.

“You don’t want to have a tic that so bad that it’s distracting,” I’d tell my audiences.  “I knew an executive once who said “uh” so often that people would stop listening to what he actually had to say and start counting ‘uh’s for sport. But it’s not the end of the world if you say “um” every now and then.”

And then I’d pause and say “um”. Every time I gave the talk. I have different versions of the presentation on audio and video and I say “um” every time.

The first time I didn’t even realize what had happened, why the audience was laughing. Of course this could have been humiliating, but it was actually a perfect illustration of what I was talking about. I didn’t let it bother me and the audience didn’t think less of me. In fact, they seemed to think it was hilarious.

So, as a frequent “um”-er, I was happy to see my experience validated in this article from Slate. They’ve gathered up research (I love how Slate does these articles that use science to disprove common perceptions) to show that disfluencies like “um” and “ah” won’t really ruin your speech. In fact, they suggest that using filler words or syllables can actually improve your listeners’ ability to recall what you say and help them see you as more genuine. Being too polished, it seems, can make you sound “slick” or scripted.

Much better to sound like yourself than a salesperson.  Even if that includes some, er, awkward pauses.

How To Give a Wedding Toast: It’s All About The Bride

Here’s some good advice from Troy Patterson in Slate (How to Give a Wedding Toast) for an event that people often don’t recognize as presentation– the wedding toast.  Like every other kind of presentation, the wedding toast has a clear goal. The most important thing to remember about making a speech at a wedding is that the whole event revolves around the bride and it’s your job to make her happy.  This is a case where you can almost think of yourself as having two audiences, the larger group of increasingly drunk partygoers and the one person in the crowd who really matters– the bride.  Say something that pleases her and you’ve accomplished your goal.

Events like these go awry all the time because people don’t do them very often and they lose sight of what they really want to achieve.  It’s so common that the inappropriate toast has become a staple in TV shows and movies.  For a particularly awkward example, check out the dueling toasts at the engagement party in Bridesmaids.

Whatever you do, don’t try to steal the spotlight from the bride and turn your speech into an attempt to make yourself look clever, funny or special.  Say something heartfelt and get off the stage.

Great Presentations Require Courage

Far too many presenters are controlled by their fear.  They worry about making a negative impression so they create slides they can hide behind and wind up making no impression on their audience at all.

Creating a presentation that’s truly memorable requires courage;  you have to step out from behind your PowerPoint slides and find a way to really engage your audience.  What I like most about this valedictory speech from high school senior Alaine Caudle is that she manages to be highly effective even though she isn’t perfect.  She gets the beginning or her song wrong and starts over and the whole thing probably goes on a little too long.  But it’s clear that the risks she takes and her enthusiasm have totally won over the crowd.  Maybe it’s not the “Greatest Valedictorian Speech Ever!” but it’s probably the best one most of the people in the audience have seen.

Next time you need to put together a presentation ask yourself what you can do to make your presentation stand out.  Rapping may not be a good idea for most of us, but surely there’s something you can do to make an impression.

Presentations Skills Tips: Be Yourself

There are all kinds of presenters and all of them can be successful. Authoritarian. Motherly. Detail-oriented. Shy. Even Terrified. With enough effort, any of those qualities can be made to work for you in a presentation. The key is to be yourself and create a talk that suits you. If you’re naturally a little goofy don’t try to hide that—use it instead. If you’re a nervous presenter acknowledge as much to your audience. Chances are that they’ll find it charming and you’ll be able to relax a little when you’re not trying to hide your fear.

Just don’t try to be someone you’re not. Even if you’re a professional performer, don’t try to “act” your way through your presentation. Most likely that kind of performance will come off as insincere or even dishonest and there’s little or no chance of winning over and audience that feels you’re deceiving them at a basic level. So it’s critical that you write and perform your presentations in your own voice. Don’t try to be funny if you’re not naturally funny! Not everyone has to be a comedian, and trying to be funny tends to throw people off message. Telling a joke requires precision, which is difficult when you’re nervous and speaking to a lot of people. Presenters who struggle to be funny usually just make their audiences uncomfortable.

As a presenter you should strive to be someone people admire if you hope to be able to persuade them, and if you want to make a strong connection with your audience you really need to be yourself. Your personal experience, your reputation, your personality, are all important factors in your ability to influence others. But for this to work they have to see you as authentic; you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Who you are– your story– should always be a big part of your presentations. If your audience doesn’t believe that you’re authentic they won’t believe your message is either.

Here’s a good reason to turn down an opportunity to present; attempting to give a presentation that was created for someone else can be incredibly difficult, if not disastrous. We’d recommend that you just say no to trying to give someone else’s presentation unless you have enough time to thoroughly revise it so that you can use your own voice, your own examples, your own personal style.

Fear of Public Speaking: Storytelling and Memory Tricks

Almost all of us experience fear of public speaking to one degree or another; and one of the most common things that people are afraid of is that they’ll be talking to an audience and forget what they want to say.  I always try to remind people (and myself) that a presentation isn’t something that you want to memorize any more than you would want to memorize a conversation that you’d have with your husband, your mother, or your best friend.

Instead of trying to deliver a memorized speech– which almost always comes across as boring or phony anyway– you’re much better off creating a presentation that has a natural flow to it where you can easily recall your main ideas and just fill in the details as you’re speaking.  Your talk will seem more natural, conversational, and be much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than something that seems “canned.”

Of course not memorizing your presentation doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be able to recall its broad outlines.  What’s your opening?  What examples are you going to use?  How will you close and send your audience back to the comparatively dull world of their everyday lives?

I always suggest that people create their presentations in a narrative format, that they organize them as stories in order to help make them easier to remember and more engaging for their audiences.  Picking the right narrative format can instantly give your presentations structure.  Are you telling a before and after story?  The history of a project?  A tale of overcoming adversity?  Use any of those forms for your talk and your audience will have a much easier idea understanding what you’re talking about.  Our brains are built to organize information through narrative; stories allow us to make sense of information, help us remember things and, above all,  entertain us.

Just think about the powerful ways that stories are etched on our brains through the nursery rhymes, religious stories and episodes of Gilligan’ Island that we experienced as kids.  These are things that you’ll never forget. Try to take advantage of some of that power any time you can by using storytelling in your presentations.

For more on how creating stories can be used to shape memory, check out Joshua Foer’s story Secrets of a Mind Gamer:  How I Trained My Brain and Became a World-Class Memory Athlete.  It’s fascinating stuff (even if it isn’t directly about presentation skills) about how participants in memory competitions still use ancient techniques to build powers of memory that seem superhuman to “normals” like us.  It’s not a short article, but there is even a longer version available in his book Moonwalking with Einstein if you’re interested.

What kind of presenter are you: The (Real) Enthusiast

In the universe of public speaking the (real) enthusiast is unusual but not actually rare.  They’re sort of like US dollar coins– they’re out there, but they tend to be common in just a few places.  You’re unlikely to receive a Sacajawea dollar from anywhere other than a post office or a vending machine and– while it’s certainly possible– you’re unlikely to find enthusiasts outside of a few roles where they can make use of their daredevil-ish lack of fear.

These are the people who volunteer for everything.  They tend to be leaders, people who are confident (sometimes overconfident) about their abilities.  Performers and people like teachers and trainers tend to be enthusiasts.  They like the attention, the adrenaline rush they get from being onstage.  Glossy pharmaceutical reps are usually enthusiasts, a skill they often made use of building human pyramids before they were recruited from their college cheerleading squads.

Enthusiasts tend to recognize the benefits they can get from being a good speaker, but they can also be sloppy.  They rely too much on their naturals gifts.  Sometimes they think so highly of their own abilities that they don’t see the need to prepare and will waste their audience’s time on a poorly thought-out presentation.

The challenges for enthusiasts are very different than they are for other kinds of speakers.  They aren’t concerned about nerves, but they need to make sure that they actually have something to say and that they aren’t just up on stage enjoying the sound of their own voice.  Enthusiasts who don’t focus on the needs of their audiences can come across as glib, arrogant, and insincere.

Of course, like everything else in the Universe, these four categories of speakers aren’t totally clear-cut.  Some people can have characteristics of more than one type of presenter, or these qualities can change over time.

I’m usually an enthusiastic volunteer, for example, but I always get nervous when it’s time to speak.  Even going around a table and introducing myself makes me nervous.  What if I forget my name?

But I get over it quickly.  And practice really is the key.  I only got comfortable talking in front of a group when I had a job where I had to do it every day.  There just couldn’t have been a class if I didn’t teach it.

The important thing for anyone who does presenting or public speaking is to know what kind of speaker you are, the challenges you face, and to have a plan for overcoming them.  What we don’t want you to do is use a label to justify your excuses, for you to think “well, I’m a refuser and I’m just not going to do it.”  That kind of thinking doesn’t help at all.