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My team and I were recently hired to conduct speaker training at a global meeting. Before participants joined us for breakouts and coaching, we sat through their meeting where experts presented information. Surprisingly, each speaker was worse than the next. Their slides were text heavy, written in sentences, as the presenters read through them while randomly waving laser pointers at no particular place on the slide.
It was a scientific meeting being held to educate attendees on a specific subject. Following, these attendees would work us in breakout sessions to learn how to effectively communicate this information and engage different audiences.
It struck me as unfortunate that the company putting on the event missed a huge opportunity to select presenters who could exemplify how to be great speakers and set the tone for the meeting.
Instead, the meeting chair led off apologizing for the dense slides; as he shoved his hands in his pockets, appearing bored at what he was about to share. He spoke far too quickly, without pausing to give listeners a chance to process what he was saying and spent a good deal of time talking to the slide instead of his audience. It was a global audience where English was not everyone’s first language so it was likely listeners struggled to keep up.
The best way to become a good speaker is to start by watching good speakers. Being captivated by a strong communicator often inspires you to up your game so others want to listen when you talk.
Given we’ve been coaching speakers for more than two decades, I can share the most common reason people, especially scientific and technical experts, say they can’t convey complex information in an interesting way.
“My subject is different than others because I need to present very dry technical information that isn’t exciting.”
Your subject may be different, but it’s up to you to present it passionately and in an interesting way. Instead of blaming your topic for being boring, look for ways to excite your audience. When you change your mindset, you will change the way your audience sees the subject. If you think of your subject as dull, then you will likely come across that way.
CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK
Start by summarizing the key take away of your talk in one sentence as if it is a headline. As an example, if you are speaking about a new therapy, you may start by saying this new therapy can protect your children against future disease. If you’re delivering financial information, you might begin with a startling number or statistic to peak your listener’s curiosity. Always think about your listener when you create content. If you were them, what would you care about?
CONVERSE, NOT PRESENT
When we converse, we are typically animated and have inflection in our voices. We tell stories and share examples that support that story. Your presentation should do the same. Think of your talk as a story and use analogies, examples and case studies to bring the information to life.
CREATE AN INTERESTING OPEN
An oncologist I once worked with was presenting at a medical symposium packed with colleagues. Instead of launching into the new study data right away, he began by talking about problems oncologists face and then discussed how the study results may help them address these problems. He instantly had their attention.
WATCH TED TALKS
While your talk may be longer than ten minutes, Ted Talks are great examples of how to make any topic interesting. There are talks on house painting, making tasty pizzas and even one on doodling. Instead of delivering a 45-minute talk ripe with spreadsheets, text and bullet points, you’ll observe techniques good presenters use to make listeners feel like active participants which keeps them interested. You’ll also notice powerful delivery techniques such as the pause.
As a former reporter, I learned how to breathe life into my stories. The same applies to organizing business talks. Like developing an outline, pick three to five key concepts you want to convey. Look for places to insert the three V’s: vignettes, videos and visuals. The more interactive you make your talk, the more involved your audience will become.
At the speaker training I referred to at the top of this article, the closing speaker, unfortunately, was as dull as the opening speaker. Instead of leaving her audience with a key take away, a call to action or a powerful reminder of why this information is important to them, she ended by presenting a slide that included approximately 200 words in small font, written in sentences.
In what seemed like an eternity later, she said “this is the take home message”, which was highlighted in dull blue at the very bottom of the slide that people in the back of the room struggled to see.
Everyone applauded and at first, I wasn’t sure why. Then I realized they probably weren’t clapping at the take away. They were applauding because her talk was over.
I once had a colleague in the news business who my father called a three-dollar bill. He said that because he thought she was phony. Her eye contact and body language never matched her words. It was as if the corners of her mouth turned up and down on cue.
She was so impressed with herself, that she thought she was down to earth. When I first launched my business, I sent announcement notices out to everyone I knew. Months later, I happened to run into her and she said: “I got your announcement, but my husband and I don’t do that type of thing.”
“What type of thing?” I asked. “Congratulate me?”
“No” she retorted. “We don’t give money to friends.”
At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. When I went onto explain that I wasn’t asking for money, she said well, it sounded like you were and people are always asking us for money. At the time, she was married to a wealthy man. Clearly, she needs to get over herself.
Phonies can be spotted miles away. They talk about themselves and think that others are also impressed with their greatness. The reality is most astute people, like my father, can see right through them.
Today, I coach business leaders to become more powerful communicators. I tell them what my television viewers used to tell me. They said if they met someone in person who they liked on TV, they hoped they were the same as they appeared to be on-screen. When they weren’t, the viewer felt let down.
You don’t’ have to be on TV to strive to be real. In business, if you are speaking at a meeting or conference, listeners want the real you. They want the person they saw walking down the hall or the person who joked with them over a cup of coffee. They don’t want a three-dollar bill.
Contrast my former colleague with superstar Billy Joel. Some years back, I was on a coast guard boat in New York City covering a celebration of the Statue of Liberty for the news organization I worked for. Suddenly, my videographer says “look, there’s Billy Joel.”
Sure enough, on another boat just a few feet away was Billy Joel. So, I did what any adoring fan would do. I started yelling hello to him. While many might have ignored me, he yelled hello back and he took it one step further.
He drove his boat right up to ours, introduced himself and launched into a conversation. Billy Joel wasn’t impressed with Billy Joel. Billy Joel came across as the same guy I had seen in concert many times. Funny. Warm. Personable.
Something similar once happened in a small boutique. My head was buried in a shirt rack when a male voice said: “Excuse me, do you think my wife would like this shirt?”
Looking only at the shirt and not at him, I engaged in conversation, asking him about his wife, the colors she likes and so on.
Then I looked up. The male voice was singer-songwriter James Taylor. He smiled, extended his hand and introduced himself. A few minutes later, he introduced me to his wife and they both thanked me for my help.
Billy Joel and James Taylor are much bigger stars than my former colleague. They don’t act like stars or pretend to be something they’re not.
Some might say people like my former colleague are just over-confident. Others believe them to be narcissists. So what’s the difference?
The dictionary definition of overconfidence is when someone has more confidence than they should have based on the situation and they misjudge their ability or opinion.
The Mayo Clinic research group defines narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration.” They’re conceited and believe they are superior to others.
At work, these people can be very difficult to communicate with as they typically talk about their projects and accomplishments, but show little interest in you. Because they aren’t completely honest with themselves, they may not be authentic with you.
If you have colleagues like this, there are a few things you can do to communicate more effectively with them.
- Don’t get personal. Take the emotion out of your voice when speaking with these people. Approach them as if you are speaking to a child. If you become emotional, the child will sense your discomfort and continue to test you. If you are focused, straightforward and come across as meaning what you say, the child will be more likely to back off.
- Create an action plan. Develop two to three key points about this person’s behavior that are interfering with you doing your job. Then come up with alternatives or solutions to that behavior that will make you more productive and efficient.
- Write it down. Keep a log of problems and conversations should you have to get human resources involved., but make sure to back them up with examples. For example, instead of saying, “My boss yells at me and it’s inappropriate,” help them understand what is happening. For example, I once worked with an editor who screamed obscenities and insulted people in front others. The screaming didn’t get him in trouble, but the use of foul language did.
Finally, be careful about your expectations of others. It’s been nearly two decades since that encounter with my former colleague so when I ran into her recently, I hoped she had truly become the person people see on the evening news.
Unfortunately, not. She asked nothing about my life or what I had been up to in the past twenty years. Like the three-dollar bill which was discontinued more than a century ago, she quickly disappeared letting me know her time to talk was limited.
Stories motivate, inspire and drive business outcomes. Even if you don’t realize it, you already know how to do it. Watch this video to position yourself for greater storytelling success.