Some studies say people fear public speaking more than death. Making a presentation does not have to be daunting if you prepare ahead of time.
by Ellen Schweppe
You've been asked to give a speech. Or you are making a presentation on the value of title insurance as part of ALTA®'s public awareness campaign. Once you confirm the time, date, and place, what else do you need to do before you step up to the podium?
Here are the key questions to ask those organizing the event to make sure you know what to expect and can meet the audience's expectations, as well as important questions to ask yourself as you plan your presentation.
Once you have a plan, use the tips below to write and deliver a speech that—whether your goal is to educate or motivate—stays with the audience long after the event is over.
You can use these tips in conjunction with ALTA®'s Title Industry Marketing Kit. The kit includes video and PowerPoint presentations about the value of title insurance that are appropriate for consumer, industry, and employee audiences.
Questions to Ask Event Organizers
What is the topic? The organization may have a general or specific topic in mind, or leave it up to you. While you should try to accommodate the group's wishes, make sure the topic is appropriate for getting your message across to the audience (which, of course, is why you should give a speech in the first place). If the group doesn't have a topic in mind, ask if the event has a theme you can weave into your remarks.
What is the occasion? Awards dinner? Networking luncheon? Annual business meeting? Informational or educational seminar? Knowing why the audience is there will help you tailor your remarks to their needs and expectations.
What time of day is the speech? Speaking to a post-breakfast crowd full of caffeine can be quite a different experience from making after-dinner remarks to an audience full of good food and spirits. If it is a multi day event, find out if you will speak on day one when audience members are fresh or day three when they may be focused on catching their flights home.
How long should the speech be? Ask for guidance on how long the organizers would like you to speak, but don't feel compelled to fill every minute assigned to you. Say what you need to say and stop. On the other hand, don't go over your allotted time. You don't want to overstay your welcome with the audience or throw the event schedule off. If your time slot is the typical 45 minutes, a good guideline is to speak for about 20 minutes. That leaves five minutes for your introduction, 15 minutes for a question-and-answer session, and five minutes to get the event back on schedule if earlier speakers went over.
Who will be in the audience? And how well do they know your topic? Audiences unfamiliar with your subject or issues may appreciate more explanation, while audiences who took the same college classes you did may expect a greater level of technical detail. Be prepared to adjust your remarks accordingly.
It's also helpful to know the audience's attitude, whether it's supportive, neutral, or even hostile. Some audience members may not agree with your point of view, but they are more likely to respect you if you give a thoughtful, balanced presentation that acknowledges their concerns.
Who else is speaking? And what do they plan to talk about? This is particularly important if you are participating in a panel discussion in which speakers will express a variety of perspectives and opinions. You'll want to be prepared with your strongest arguments so you can effectively counter what those who hold the opposite view may say. Even if you're giving a solo speech, it's good to know what the audience will hear from other speakers during the event.
Questions to Ask Yourself
What do you want the audience to do or think after hearing your speech? Support your organization's position? Use your company's services? Vote for you? Donate money? Volunteer for your cause? Be better employees, citizens, students? This is the most important question because everything in your speech should lead the audience to this conclusion.
What are the three-to-five key points you want to make? Limit your messages to the most important so your audience will actually remember them—and act on them. It's tempting to pack as much information as you can into your remarks, but if you try to tell your audience everything, they may come away with nothing.
What's the best way to organize your remarks? Remember that audience members are listening to your remarks, not reading them, so organize the speech in a way that is easy for them to follow. One tried-and-true method is to tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them. That means starting with an introductory statement on the key points you plan to make, going into detail on each point, and ending with a summary of the points that leads the audience to the inevitable conclusion of what you want them to do or think.
What examples, statistics, anecdotes, case studies, personal experiences, etc., do you have to back up and expand on your key points? Connect with the audience by offering striking evidence for each of your points, whether it is strong statistics, compelling arguments, or interesting stories. Again, audience members are listening, not reading, so resist the temptation to overload them with every detail you have. Choose the best.
Are audiovisuals or props necessary for your presentation? If they are, make sure they are high quality and add value to your spoken message. And keep in mind that less is more. You want the audience to remain focused on you, not nodding off in the dark while you cycle through a series of complicated slides. An alternative is to distribute a handout after your remarks (again, you want the audience's attention on you—not your written materials—while you speak) that outlines or expands on your message.
If your presentation involves audiovisuals, have a plan for what to do if something goes wrong. Instead of spending several awkward minutes fumbling with a computer or slide projector that stops working, have a paper copy of your presentation handy so you can pull it out and keep going.
Tips for Writing Your Speech
Put it on paper. Resist the temptation to wing it, even if you believe you know your subject well. Whether you prefer to speak from talking points or a complete script, putting your remarks on paper will help keep you on track with your message. It also will free you to focus on engaging your audience and delivering your message with enthusiasm.
Keep it simple. You're writing for the ear, so audience members can't reread a section of your remarks if they don't understand it the first time. Structure your talk so it is easy to follow (remember the “tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them” adage). Choose short words over long ones, and simple sentences instead of complex ones. Use familiar words, and avoid unnecessary jargon that could confuse listeners.
Make it interesting. Once you've determined your message and key points, figure out how you can make them meaningful to the audience. Relate your message to their perspective by talking about audience benefits—by answering the “what's in it for me?” question.
Use the anecdotes, statistics, quotations, and observations you've gathered to make your message concrete: “When you buy a home, what you don't know can cost you. Too many homebuyers without owners' title insurance find that out. That includes the couple who bought a home from a widow, not knowing a long-lost son would come back to make a claim on his father's estate. In fact, one in four property transactions has a title problem.”
Write a strong conclusion. This is what you've been building toward, so make it count. Repeat your main message. Summarize your key points. And make it clear what you want the audience to take away from your talk. Tell them what they can do with the information you've presented, and how they can take that action. You can use a variety of techniques to make your conclusion memorable, such as telling a story, sharing your personal philosophy, asking a rhetorical question, or issuing a challenge.
Write the way you talk. And use language that's right for you. A good way to test whether you're using a natural, conversational style is to read what you've written out loud. If you stumble over words or phrases, change them to words that come out of your mouth more easily.
Tips for Giving Your Presentation
Practice, practice, practice. Audiences can tell whether a speaker is prepared or just read the speech in the taxi on the way over. Practice while standing up, in front of a mirror or a trusted colleague or two. Go through the entire presentation several times to work out any kinks. This also will increase your familiarity with the material and raise your confidence level for when it comes time to really deliver.
Hone your delivery. How you deliver your speech is as important as what you say. Project your natural confidence by keeping in mind that you are an expert. That's why you were invited to speak. Position your body so that you can move comfortably, and move away from the podium if you can. Use natural gestures, but make them bold enough to be seen throughout the room.
Vary the loudness of your voice and the rate at which you speak to create emphasis and enthusiasm. Let your passion for what you are talking about shine through, and don't be afraid to show some emotion if the topic calls for it.
At the same time, use eye contact to connect with the audience and convey your sincerity. Don't sweep the room with your eyes or spend the entire speech looking at one spot. Instead, look at one person until you finish a complete thought and then move on to someone else, just as you would in a natural conversation with a group of people.
Scope out the room in advance. Make sure everything is set up the way you want it. Adjust the lighting, temperature, or window coverings, if necessary. Check the microphone and audiovisual equipment. Make sure you have a glass of water and handkerchief within easy reach. Plan to carry your presentation to the podium to avoid having another speaker pick it up by mistake and walk away with it. Have it in a folder or portfolio that opens flat, with each page numbered.
Set the stage for your presentation. Walk confidently to the front of the room and shake hands with the person who introduced you. Open your folder on the podium or table. If you're using a microphone, check its position in case another speaker has moved it. Stand up straight with your weight evenly distributed on both feet. Look at the audience for a few seconds to connect with them and allow them to get settled. Now it's show time!
Conduct the Q&A session skillfully. If your presentation includes audience questions at the end, figure out the most likely ones in advance and prepare short, pithy answers. If nobody asks a question at first, be prepared with some of your own.
Be ready to handle tough questions without becoming defensive or angry. If a questioner gets out of hand, you can cut him off politely but definitively and move on to another person. If that doesn't work, step aside and look to the event organizer to handle the situation.
If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Offer to take the questioner's business card and get back to him or her with the information requested. End the session with a positive question, or wrap it up on a high note with a summary statement that leaves your message in the minds of the audience members.
Ellen Schweppe is president of Ellen Schweppe Company, LLC, an editorial services firm serving the financial services and other industries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 435-5621.