Whether you’re presenting to clients, leading team meetings or speaking at industry events, mastering the art of public speaking can give your professional standing a boost. But in the era of smart phones, tablets and webinars, holding an audience’s attention is harder than ever since distraction is just a click away.
“I can check my email and order a pizza while someone is presenting,” says Laura Mathis, executive communication coach at The Speech Improvement Company. “It’s never been more important to capture people’s attention.”
Luckily, Mathis has some simple tips and tricks to keep your audience engaged. Here are some of them.
- Don't wing it
You may be tempted to go with an “off-the-cuff” talk, but Mathis strongly advises against this.
Many people think they can improvise on the spot because they know the topic so well,” says Mathis. “But when people start speaking, they’ll often get off track or go into too much detail.”
Start by jotting down a framework that outlines what you plan to say. What are your main points or takeaways? Why is the topic of interest to the audience? How will you wrap it up?
Even spending five or 10 minutes thinking about that in advance will set you up for success as opposed to saying whatever pops into your mind,” says Mathis.
Still, Mathis warns not to go bananas overpreparing.
“Creating a full-blown script—hemming and hawing over the words and then memorizing it—can lead to a robotic delivery,” says Mathis. “It’s especially hard when you get asked a question because you are stuck on the script.”
- Practice makes perfect
Once you’ve done the groundwork, practise your speech or presentation out loud. A “test run” of your talk allows you to hear how your words sound to the audience. Are there any awkward or unclear phrases? Will eyes glaze over during that “information overload” in the middle section?
“Sometimes people think it will sound good, but you have to practice out loud to know for sure,” says Mathis.
You could even ask a trusted family member, friend or colleague to listen in and give feedback.
Then, tweak your talk to improve the overall clarity of the main messages, as well as fine-tune the flow and rhythm. Keep practicing until you’ve got it right!
- Connect with the crowd
Before you hit the stage, podium or Zoom room, strategize some ways to make your presentation more interactive. For instance, you could ask for feedback from attendees in advance of the event. A poll on a relevant topic of discussion can help intrigue the audience and get them curious about the results.
Try to get a temperature feel of what people think about the topic,” says Mathis. “You can reference the poll results during your content. Or you could say, ‘I've talked to many of you and it seems like about 80 per cent of you struggle with this issue.’ If you can create a common interest in advance, you’ll have more buy-in.”
- Present the facts – but add your two cents
Including technical information, research or data can help prove a point—but presenting it can also be one of the hardest things to do well.
“If you just read the slide out loud, that is not a presentation—that’s a reading party,” says Mathis. “Your ability to make sense of data is what brings value.”
Too often, professionals make the mistake of diving into data and skipping over the real-life implications.
“Anyone can stand up and read a spreadsheet,” says Mathis. “What the listener wants to know is: What does this mean and why does it matter? Your insight is something that people want to hear.”
- Sync your visuals
Incorporating multimedia, visual aids and other technologies can reel in listeners. But on the flip side, these tools can also be overwhelming if used inappropriately.
“If you’re going to use visual aids to captivate an audience, it does need to be an aid,” says Mathis.
One way to avoid listeners from tuning out is to “build up” to the visuals. That means not cramming everything onto one slide.
“As soon as you click on a slide filled with information, bullet points, graphs and charts, people start reading and stop listening,” says Mathis. “Instead, use what we call synchronization—a fancy way of saying ‘they don’t see it until you say it.’ ”
For instance, if you have two charts, only display the first chart when you’re talking about it. Then, build up to sharing the second chart.
“Any way to synchronize visual aids with what you’re talking about—that adds immediate impact,” says Mathis.
- Make it meaningful
While facts and figures help hammer a message home, don’t doubt the power of using relevant stories and multimedia to add punch to your presentation.
“People remember stories, images, videos,” says Mathis. “You’ve probably got a lot of great stories up your sleeve!”
Sharing real-life experiences can also be a great way to engage with the audience, says Mathis.
“I worked with a pharmaceutical company selling a drug to help manage itch,” says Mathis. “The doctors always said, ‘Oh, my patients don’t need that.’ But one day, a representative told a story about a patient who uses a toilet scrubber brush to manage her itch during kidney dialysis. The doctor said, ‘That’s awful. Tell me more.’ Until that person used a story, the doctor couldn’t hear the message.”
- Pay attention to non-verbal communication
Words matter, but gestures can also convey emotions, intentions and concepts, making your message more accessible.
“Gestures are an extremely effective way to reinforce your message,” says Mathis.
However, randomly flailing your arms during a talk isn’t going to cut it. Rather, focus on what Mathis calls “the two P’s:” purpose and placement.
“For the purpose, match the gestures with your words,” says Mathis. “If you’re talking about timelines, move your hands to show length.”
For appropriate placement, consider where all participants are located in the room. For instance, if you’re speaking on stage, Mathis recommends adding “a little bit of air under your arms and bigger gestures” so that everyone can see them.
Webinars will also command a different approach to non-verbal cues.
“If you’re on Zoom or Teams, remember that you’re in a little two-by-two square,” says Mathis. “Your gestures must appear within the frame. Practise so it feels and looks natural, but still gets your point across.”
No matter what form your presentation may take, it’s always important to remember that not everyone is born for the stage. Most of us need to work at perfecting our public speaking skills. Following these expert tips will help set you up for success and keep your audience riveted.
“Public speaking can be very stressful for many people,” says Mathis. “Just remember—people want you to succeed.”