Public speaking need not be an ordeal

Preparation, organization and the personal touch work. Trying to imitate Steve Jobs? Not so much.

In the Oscar-nominated historical drama The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays the stammering King George VI trying to improve his confidence and, ultimately, deliver an inspirational radio speech to unite the British people at the beginning of the Second World War. That’s public speaking at its toughest.

Few people will find themselves leading a country during wartime, but the growing popularity of YouTube, along with TED talks and Big Think discussions, has made it increasingly necessary for business leaders to stand and deliver. And while stammering is a relatively rare problem, there are plenty of other ways that a presentation can go off the rails by failing to engage the target audience. That’s especially true for talks aimed at scoring a deal, where a pitch needs to grab the client’s attention immediately.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has nailed down one form of presentation, wherein he builds buzz and curiosity about the next Apple product, then unveils it as the climax to his talk. But experts say that’s not the safest way to lure clients or buyers who may be new to a product. Instead, it’s better to grab the audience immediately.

George Torok, a business speaker based in Burlington, Ont., suggests beginning with a brief, attention-grabbing anecdote about the item or service. “Many sales presentations begin with the ‘who are we’ speech, complete with the story of the founder,” he says. “That’s crap that people don’t care about yet. They should start with why the audience should listen. Starting with a success story will cause possible clients to perk up and think, ‘That’s interesting. I wonder if that would work for us?'”

Next, the speaker should lay out a map of where the presentation will go and explain the client needs and concerns that will be addressed. Then, he or she should simply and clearly deliver those points. Sticking to three key messages — or “buckets” of information, as Tanja Parsley, owner of consulting firm Partners in Performance, calls them — will be easiest for the audience.

Parsley has a list of about a dozen power words that she suggests integrating into a presentation to capture clients’ attention. One of them is “easy.” Another is “money.” “What’s powerful is what listeners can relate to. You need to use language that’s compelling,” she says. One word that is sure to connect with the audience is “you.” “When you say ‘you,’ people perk up,” says Torok.

The closing move is the call to action. The best presentation can fall flat if the speaker neglects to ask the client to commit to the product, service or idea. It’s important to be firm, without being pushy. This step is so important that Torok suggests writing down the final message before doing any other planning. That way, there’s a destination for the presentation to move toward, and tangents can be minimized.

After the presentation’s format is set, “it’s extremely important to rehearse,” says Torok. He suggests memorizing the speech in modules to make a presentation adaptable to different audiences and for different lengths. Rehearsing on one’s feet is best if that’s the presentation’s format, and filming a planned delivery can be useful. “If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it will look plastic, it will look unnatural, and the audience won’t trust you,” says Torok. Parsley agrees. “We’re all afraid of silence, and tend to put on our presenter voice and speak too quickly,” she says. “Speakers need to pause to give the client a chance to digest the message.”

And what about the piece of shopworn advice that it is best to open with a joke? Surprisingly, most professionals warn against that gambit. Humour can be a useful tool if it’s used sparingly, but Torok says joke-telling (as in, “Two guys go into a bar …”) is absolutely off limits. The reason? “A joke puts somebody down. It makes fun of another culture, sex or belief. With those, you take the chance you will offend people and push them away.” Instead, Torok recommends self-deprecating humour to build rapport. He likes to tell people about one talk he gave at a bookstore — his only audience member got up and left.

But whether speaking to a boardroom of executives about a new product, or to nations about the threat of a looming war, the focus must always be on the listener. “Too many people have the idea that their job is to present information, and that’s not it,” says Michael Sloopka, president of Selling Solutions. “The job is not just to present sides, but to persuade audience members to arrive at a place in time.”