10/16/2014 07:45 EDT | Updated 12/16/2014 05:59 EST

5 Ways To Nail Your Next Speaking Engagement


After years of attending and giving presentations, I believe few speakers are able to really get through to their audience using a "presentation" approach. This involves simply imparting information and expecting the audience to listen and retain it -- not very dynamic.

I prefer to view presentations as speaking engagements.

Here are five tips to consider as you prepare for your next speaking engagement.

#1) Engage your audience from start to finish

If you are there to merely impart information, the audience may take notes and absorb what they believe is useful. Chances are, they won't even remember you when it's over.

The key is to engage them quickly with a story or fact that they can relate to -- it doesn't have to be funny.

Engagement rests on a less-is-more theory.

Lorraine Behnan, a skilled speaker, author and former Second City performer summarizes the cornerstones of audience engagement this way:

  • Less slides -- more anecdotes
  • Less lecturing -- more conversation
  • Less bullets -- more images
  • Less topics -- more elaboration
  • Less effects -- more concise personal delivery

#2) Organize your content

I used to make the mistake of throwing random (and I thought clever) phrases and ideas onto the page when preparing. What I thought was fun came across as difficult to piece together for my audience.

If you cannot organize your content properly, you will quickly lose your audience, and you will more than likely run overtime.

Consider these guidelines:

  • Ask yourself, "Who is my audience? What is the call to action?"
  • Maintain a logical flow, each thought following the other building your story or argument
  • Choose content on a "need to know" versus a "nice to know" basis
  • Tie everything together at the end with a couple of key messages

#3) Manage your nerves

This is an ongoing pursuit for many speakers, and I am no exception.

I use these strategies to calm myself before I speak, and start 30 minutes before my engagement.

  • Breathing and stretching exercises to get my oxygen flowing
  • Positive thoughts about the outcome and the audience's complete engagement
  • I think, "I will enjoy every minute. This is not just something to get through."

During the presentation:

  • Stay on track with your opening lines you have memorized
  • Keep notes available but not in your hand
  • Smile naturally and make eye contact around the room
  • Stand tall, legs slightly apart, knees relaxed, and your heels firmly on the ground
  • Be aware of nervous gestures like clenched fists, rocking and sleeve tugging
  • Remember the power of the pause -- avoid nervous, staccato deliveries
  • Animate your body to emphasize your words -- within reason
  • Roll with the punches with humour and grace -- technical issues can emerge or a persistent attendee may try to throw you off (fire drills, activated alarms and sprinkler systems can also kill the mood).

#4) Use visuals sparingly

John Schwartz once asked in the New York Times, "Is there anything so deadening to the soul as a PowerPoint presentation."

My thought: Use PowerPoint only when you are explaining concepts that are more easily visualized than articulated. Strip the data down to its simplest form and focus on two or three key messages (one per slide) versus pages of bulleted data. If you are unsure about an image or message, take it out.

Also remember that sometimes it's more effective to have a "lean-in" conversation rather than just engage them from the front of the room or at the end of the table.

#5) Rehearse and rehearse again

I never try to stage every gesture and memorize each word, which can create an impersonal, robotic feel. But locking in my content gives me the freedom to be spontaneous, relax and have fun, which is infectious and easily "read" by any audience.

Take a rehearsal walk. This has never failed me. I carry my phone, time myself, and speak through my comments from start to finish as if I were in a real conversation. Passersby will not know the difference, and it's much more natural than standing in front of the mirror or family pet. And walking and talking helps you ignore distractions.

If I don't have the time for a walk, I create acronyms out of my main points by writing them down and forming words starting with the first letter of each thought. For example, if I am discussing advanced business networking skills, I would use RALA.

Research the event, and who will be there;

Arrive on time with everyone else;

Listen carefully and engage others and;

Alcohol (handle with care).

The most important lesson I have learned is to be passionate about my topic and not be afraid to share personal experiences as they relate to it. Being a little vulnerable (while remaining in control and focused) is the fastest way to gain the trust -- and hold the attention of -- an audience.


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