BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 06 JUN 2013


Next time a speaker opens by asking if everyone can hear at the back, stick your hand up and say, "Yes, but I'm willing to change places with someone who can't." Such openings usually precede a plodding, slide-laden listening experience that marches well past it's allotted finish. You are watching an amateur and will be checking your emails inside five minutes.

I've had a run of coaching in public speaking. I like to call it oratory. It's my thing, my favourite thing save actually delivering to the big audience. Lecturers, trainers, researchers, directors and partners have all had some tough love of late. In every case I ask them, "How good do you want to be?" Because it seems that, when one in front of many, plenty of otherwise ambitious people think average is good enough.

I don't believe it is. And if you are of similar bent the tips from each of my recent sessions will improve your technique.

Lecturers need to speak regularly for an hour or two. I used to be a lecturer and a three-figure bunch of bored young adults is not a pretty sight. That hour lecture, though, is really 50 minutes- starting at five past and finishing at five to- and you need an introduction and conclusion. Now you have 45 minutes, which is three 15 minutes chunks or five of just under 10 minutes each: Structure your material and it will have clarity, focus and power. It will also be less terrifying.

The trainer I worked with delivers very technical stuff on commodities. We had already worked on structure and stories and this follow-up session revolved around a conference presentation he delivered. It was okay and he got applause at the end, but it needed to be more dynamic: it needed movement. He had a lectern and two interactive white boards and by the end of the day he was triangulating the three points, scribbling on his graphs, moving from left to right and back, and even walking into the audience to look back at his screens: Use movement to create interest and energy; if nothing else a moving target is harder to hit with a piece of shortbread at 4.15pm on a hot Friday.

Researchers work for years on their material, are often shy and introverted and have little interest in or technique when presenting. But they have to present, often in front of time-poor, impatient, senior groups. Using metaphors, analogies and the emotional connection to effectively and quickly get points across is key. You have a short window and the audience have to be able to see through it, immediately: Kill lots of your material, deliver only the important bits and use stories to explain them and make them memorable.

The two directors were delivering a technical presentation to 600 on the second day of an international conference. The technical term for how they were feeling is bricking it. There were too many cooks in the run up to this big gig but we got there. I wielded my red pen to delete most of the diagrams, graphs and words from the slides. With little success during a late night conference call I suggested they could, should, must cut further and deeper. I felt like George Osbourne talking to his cabinet after a couple of pre-prandial sherries. One of the presenters got to the the conference opening and emailed immediately, saying they had too many slides and too much information on the ones they had. And that no one would be able to read them: who knew?

It's always rewarding working with senior people, since they come in busy, expecting to leave early and that they've heard it all before. Not the six ways to open they haven't, Nor the very direct, tough love feedback that tells them just how to get better. Pushing good presenters to consider how they will grab the audience at the outset, rather than give them name, rank and serial number is a buzz. Seeing them deliver new and memorable material that can transform their opening few minutes is terrific, since that's when you need to get them with you.

So don't be asking if the people up the back can hear you, tell them you'll be brief or apologising that they will not be able to read your slides: open with a bang, not a whimper. And definitely not with that daft joke, despite what many others will tell you.


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about the author

Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.

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