Power of Speech

Friday, May 1, 2009 - 09:37

Many of us go weak-kneed at the thought of public speaking. But it is a vital executive skill if you want to lead, change behaviour and communicate. By Karalyn Brown.

President Barack Obama has everyone talking. Not just about how an African American has won the presidency, but how he won it with the pure power of speech.

Public speaking, however, isn't easy. Presentation skills expert Michelle Bowden, Director of Michelle Bowden Enterprises, has one client who, for the past 20 years, has changed her job each time she was asked to present in front of an audience.

So why is it so hard to talk in front of others? Milton Cujes delivers up to 240 presentations a year as Headmaster of Sydney's Trinity Grammar School. He says being physically isolated in front of an audience confronts our most basic instincts. "Human beings are herd people," he says. "There's the aspect of standing apart, the uncertainty of how people will react and the potential exposure of your private self."

Darren Fleming is a public speaking coach and founder of Executive Speaking. He believes presenting makes us question why people would listen to us. "People struggle with presentations because they do not give themselves permission to be the leader," he says. "When you stand up in front of a group, you are saying you are the leader of the group."

How do you become a leader when presenting? Some rules do apply no matter what the audience size. Charismatic presenters never take their skills for granted and spend time refining their craft. Cujes says three words can guide you: "hook, book and took".

The hook

Cujes, Fleming and Bowden are unanimous. Start your presentation with a clear purpose. "When you stand up, have one objective. If you have more than one reason for talking both messages become confused," says Fleming. "Obama only ever had one objective during the campaign and that was to get people to vote for him."

Both Cujes and Bowden stress the need to understand the audience. But to truly influence a group you need to form a strong connection. "Give love!" says Bowden. "When it's time to deliver, essentially you remember it's not about me, it's about my audience. Look into the whites of people's eyes, don't skim their heads or read from your PowerPoint."

Sincere engagement comes from reaching deep, claims Cujes. "If you are trying to win hearts and minds, be prepared to share a little of yourself, showing your weakness as well as your strengths." Cujes acknowledges there are risks. "As a teacher, students can choose to ridicule you. But if you don't do this, you will not engage."

Fleming says compelling presenters break up their presentations with questions, including rhetorical questions and other forms of audience engagement. Think of how Obama did this so effectively with 'yes we can', he says. Fleming believes a nonstop talker will fail to impress for another basic reason. "If you talk for 45 minutes then say 'any questions?', all of a sudden you are calling upon someone's greatest fear and that is to speak publicly."

The book

Tell the story, says Fleming. "Nobody buys on facts and figures. Telling a story puts audiences into the flight simulator, and something to hang information upon."

The book's author also needs to understand how the audience processes information. Bowden identifies 70 different personality filters that people use to make sense of the world. For example, two listeners may each have a 'matching filter' and 'mismatching filter', where each find ways to agree or disagree with the message being presented. To win over an audience, you need to fulfil the needs of most personality types.

The took

Go back to the hook for the took. What is the question you want the audience to answer? For all the thought that goes into the content and structure of a presentation, Fleming finds it ironic how many people forget to close.

"Lots of people will let the audience make the leap," he says. " But don't forget to ask for what you want."

Bowden suggests you finish a presentation with back-up information, a clear summary of your three key points and a strong call to action. Close with charisma, she says.

Tips on fear factors

Too nervous?
Michelle Bowden: Nerves come from not preparing well and a lack of confidence. There is no short answer to overcoming nerves. Remember that the presentation is not about you. It's about the audience.

Going blank
Darren Fleming: This happens to all of us. Drink lots of water the day before. If you go blank ask the question to be restated or admit you've gone blank.
Michelle Bowden: Give yourself a break. Go to the lectern at the side of the room. Have a cough or check your notes.

Poker faces
Darren Fleming: If you believe you are being stonewalled, break the state. Call it. Say 'I get the feeling you're not impressed with the company's position, can you tell me why?'. This will either engage the audience or bring up the issues to address to win them over.

Death by PowerPoint
Darren Fleming: PowerPoint can be great when used correctly. Aim for no more than six words per slide. Studies suggest we suffer from cognitive overload if what is on the screen is being read to us.