By Steve Kelman

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Practical advice on how to give a better presentation

microphones in a server room

Long-time blog readers know that I check out a Harvard Business Review link called The Daily Alert that presents articles with management advice written by a mixture of academics and consultants, and that sometimes has been a source for my blog posts.

I just saw an interesting post that is about as practical as you can get. It was called How to look and sound confident during a presentation, by Camine Gallo, an author and consultant.

Gallo starts off by pointing out that “research shows that people form impressions about a leader’s competence in as little as half a minute. This means, within seconds, listeners will decide whether you are trustworthy, and they will do it based on your body language and vocal attributes. What you say and how you say it are equally important.”

As a fairly frequent public speaker – though I now do considerably less of this than in years past, particularly when I was in government – many of the points Gallo made were familiar to me, and I had used them.

His first piece of practical advice? Make eye contact. “Eyes play a key role in human social encounters. “When humans observe others’ faces, eyes are typically the first features that are scanned for information.”

There’s a simple way to get better at this, Gallo continues. “Record yourself practicing your presentation in front of a small audience. Watch the recording, noting all of the times you look at your slides instead of at your audience. Practice, and record again. Every time you do, try to spend less time talking to the slides and more time making eye contact with your listeners.”

I did this while in government. I was very conscious about looking at some listeners when I started to speak, then to move where my eyes were looking. When I testified before Congress, I was very deliberate about making eye contact with members to whom I was trying to say something. It was amazing how regularly and quickly they responded to my eye contact. Frequently, the member I was looking at was not focusing on me, but as soon as I mentioned their name and looked towards them, they came out of whatever reverie they were in, woke up, and looked back at me.

Gallo’s second point is to keep an open posture, which he describes in a less-aggressive way than the so-called “power pose” I discussed in a recent post, involving removing barriers between you and the audience. “A lectern is a barrier,” he writes. “Stand away from it. A laptop between you and your listener is a barrier. Set it to the side.”

Again, this is something I have been very conscious about doing. I feel that if you stand behind a lectern, you are psychologically distancing yourself from your audience (despite the name of this blog!). I will go away from the lectern, physically somewhat closer to the audience, to get myself closer to those I am speaking to.

His third point: Use gestures. Find areas of your presentation where gestures will come across as natural, and use them to highlight key points or emphasize a concept. “Your gestures will reflect your feeling toward the topic you’re discussing.” Gallo suggests, “If you’re listing a number of items, use your fingers to count them off.” One analysis of popular TED speakers found they tend to bring their hands to their heart when sharing personal stories.

As a New York Jew, gesturing while I talk comes naturally to me – it’s the way I automatically behave. Speakers coming from different cultures should decide whether this is too foreign or off-putting in your culture to come across as unnatural.

A fourth piece of advice: Eliminate filler words. “Avoid words that serve no purpose except to fill the space between sentences – “words such as umahlike, and the dreaded you know. Excessive filler words can be irritating to listeners, and make speakers sound unsure of themselves.”

I agree with Gallo 100%. He suggests that you “record yourself presenting,” then play it back. “Your goal is to gain awareness around the filler words you use most. Write them down, and practice again. When you catch yourself about to use one, err on silence instead”.

However, I disagree with his suggestion that eliminating filler words is “one of the simplest habits to fix.” In my own experience, these words are very deeply embedded in the way we naturally talk. I have made a bit of progress on this, but frankly I think I have a long way to go.

Fifth tip: Take time to pause. “We recognize the pregnant pause, the stunned silence, the expectant hush,” according to a recent story in The New York Times. “Pauses are interpreted as eloquence -- in music and in public speech.” A simple way, Gallo suggests, “is to choose one or two phrases in your next presentation that express the key message you want to leave your audience with. Pause before you deliver those lines. For example, “The most important thing I’d like you to remember is this…” Then “pause for two beats before you complete the sentence. Whatever you say next will be instantly memorable.”

The last piece of advice is a related one: Vary your pace. “Confident speakers vary the pace of their verbal delivery. They slow down and speed up to accentuate their most important points.”

This again was something I did consciously and deliberately while in government. In my written speech notes, I would indicate with the word “SLOW” in capital letters where I wanted to slow down. Sometimes I added an exclamation point. I didn’t have a separate setting for talking unusually fast, though: my two speeds were normal and slow. Again, as a New Yorker, my tendency was to speak too fast, so I paid attention to this.

One thing that amazed me about this article was that I found literally all of the author’s six points to be worthwhile and helpful – and I personally have used (or at least tried) to use all of them. I read a lot of short advice pieces like this one, and this is the first about which I am willing to say that every point was helpful. A great hit rate. Give it a read!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 29, 2019 at 1:19 PM


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