Public Speaking: A Critical Success Skill

by Judy Kaplan Baron, Ph.D.
San Diego's Speech Coach and 
Presentation Skills Trainer

Leaders in every field share one key ability – they know how to present themselves and their ideas effectively. Presentation skills play a key role in opening doors, influencing others, and in career advancement. Clearly presentation skills may be critical to your overall success. The purpose of this article is to provide you with information and insight to help you improve your presentations.

Given their importance, why don’t more people work on developing their presentation skills? In the Book of Lists, public speaking is cited as the #1 fear in most people’s minds. Death is ranked # 7. To keep this in perspective, comedian Jerry Seinfeld suggests it means that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the box than giving the eulogy! What’s the big deal about giving presentations? You’re in the spotlight and you’re being judged. That weighs heavily even on people with strong self-esteem. Mark Twain described it this way, "There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars." Realize that being nervous about public speaking is normal.

How can you manage your nervousness and deliver a great presentation? Start by understanding that public speaking is a skill. It’s no different than learning to drive a car, operate a computer, or develop a budget. If your motivation is strong enough, there are techniques to learn and implement that enable your butterflies to fly in formation. For example, make sure to practice the presentation. Do so in the posture, either standing or sitting, in which you intend to deliver it. The first time you deliver a presentation will likely be the worst. Don’t allow that first time to be the actual presentation.

Pay attention to what you do physically prior to the presentation. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and milk products prior to speaking. Ingesting caffeine and sugar is equivalent to squirting lighter fluid on a nervousness fire. Milk products coat your throat and increase the likelihood that you’ll have to clear it frequently. Another technique to reduce nervousness is to exercise prior to the presentation. Whether you do isometric exercises (trying to push your feet through the floor or pushing your hands together) or walk up a few flights of stairs, exercise will dissipate the adrenaline in your system that makes you feel so jumpy. When waiting for your turn to speak, try looking down at the ground and simply listening to yourself breathe. Focusing on your breathing tends to regulate it back to normal and helps calm you down. Finally, keep perspective.

Odds are that you know more about the subject matter than your audience. Let go of striving for perfection. Even if by some miracle you come across perfectly, it actually works against you. People that seem perfect have little credibility; they seem overly planned and rehearsed, and not very real.

Besides managing your nervousness, what does it take to deliver an excellent presentation? Lee Iococca said, "You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere." While most people focus primarily on their content, it’s actually the delivery that impacts your effectiveness most. Few people realize that your presentation begins the moment people in your audience have an opportunity to see you. That could be in the parking lot, in the hallway, or while waiting for your turn to speak. Imagine people watching as you, the next speaker, sift through your notes during the presentation being given just prior to yours. The impression created is that either you’re not prepared or are nervous, neither of which creates a positive first impression. And we all know how important those first impressions are! Research studies suggest that as much as 90% of your effectiveness has to do with the non-verbal impression you make.

How do you non-verbally convey an air of confidence and poise? Start by dressing appropriately; underestimating the importance of your appearance is a major mistake. The first rule of thumb is that a speaker should be at least as well dressed as the best dressed person in the audience. John Malloy, author of Dress for Success, says that there are basic "uniforms" for men and for women. For the look that provides the highest level of authority, men should wear either navy blue or dark gray suits, complemented with a long-sleeve white shirt, a tie with some shade of red in it, socks at least as dark as the hem of your pants, and black shoes. Women have more choices in their success attire. The order in which outfits create a sense of power are (1) a skirted suite, (2) a skirt with a non-matching jacket, (3) a dress with a jacket over it, (4) a pant suit, and (5) slacks with a non-matching jacket. Women have lots more color choices than men. They can wear black, navy, royal blue, gray, tan, white, red, or turquoise. For psychological reasons, women should not wear greens, browns, or pastels when giving presentations. Shoes need to be closed in front an in the back, no open toes or sling backs. In addition, women should wear some makeup. Why? The vast majority of women in our culture wear make-up. As a speaker, you definitely want to look normal! If you’re ever in doubt regarding what to wear, pay attention to what the executive management team members in your organization wear for important presentations.

Beyond clothing, there are lots of strategies to help you deliver your presentation with confidence and authority. Start by standing with both feet flat on the floor, approximately shoulder width apart. Keep your weight evenly distributed. Avoid shifting weight up and back or side-to-side. Keep your chin parallel to the ground. If your chin is tilted up, you tend to look arrogant. When tilted down, you look timid. Hold eye contact with an individual person for at least 3-5 seconds. Talk to one person for a phrase or a sentence, before moving on to someone else; it helps develop rapport and creates a personal connection. Make sure to have eye contact with people in all areas of the audience. Physically move, taking one or more steps, to emphasize a point.

People pay more attention to a speaker who uses gestures. The most effective gestures are specific and consistent with your words, and delivered at face level. If people are paying attention to you, they’re looking at your face. If you gesture elsewhere, it distracts them from having eye contact with you. Finally, keep your hands visible. Unconsciously, the impression of trustworthiness is increased when people can see your hands.

In addition to effective body language, use your voice, to connect

with the audience and convey your message. The easiest way to be understood is to use short sentences. They’re easy to deliver and easy for the audience to understand. Avoid annoying speech habits like using words and non-words to connect sentences. Too many "um, uh, you know, okay, well, basically, so, now" words connecting sentences simply complicate the audience’s ability to understand what you really mean. Avoid using the word "and" to connect sentences. Some people connect almost all of their sentences this way, making their presentation full of long, run-on sentences, which are difficult for the audience to understand as well. One of the biggest mistakes presenter’s make with their voice is to not have enough animation or energy. Your voice is crucial in conveying a wide variety of emotions. Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins points out, "You don’t have to be perfect to speak; it’s your passion and energy that your audience will remember."

What else will your audience likely remember? That depends on what you put on your visual aids. Years ago, the directions for emergency procedures found in the seat pockets of commercial airplanes were 90% words. Today, they're 95% pictures. Why? Research shows that people very quickly understand and retain messages which are delivered via pictures. What makes for quality visuals? A good visual aid is similar to a good billboard on a highway that people read while traveling at 65 miles an hour. The main point is expressed in the picture. There are few words. Notice how the economic, financial, and statistical data are displayed in USA Today. Oil import figures are displayed as a bar chart made up of oil rigs of different sizes. It’s these "pictograph" slides that increase retention.

For effective visuals, abide by the 7/7 rule, i.e. no more than 7 words per line and no more than 7 lines per slide. Use bullets to identify main points. They’re easier to read and to understand. Finally, be imaginative; use illustrations, cartoons, graphs, maps and charts whenever possible. A great way to really understand how to create effective visuals is to watch those displayed on the front pages of every section in USA Today. The person who creates them is a master. Check them out for a couple of weeks and you’ll understand completely.

How can you understand completely how to be effective as a presenter? Be observant of others and accept activities that will require you to practice public speaking. Learn from other speakers by paying attention to what they do that works well. Say yes when invited to participate on a panel discussion. Participate actively in professional meetings. Find and join a Toastmasters Group to practice. Toastmasters offers a laboratory environment where it’s safe to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them. Charles Luce, former Chairman of the Board for Consolidated Edison said, "My five-year membership in Toastmasters was the most valuable club membership that I ever had. It gave me the unique opportunity to learn how to preside at meetings, to speak in public, and to think on my feet – and to do so in a setting where mistakes were not costly." Finally, consider taking a course or hiring a professional speech coach. Remember that effective public speaking is a skill.

With practice and experience, you can improve your public-speaking skills, and fear will no longer block your way. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson had public speaking in mind when he said, "Knowledge is the antidote to fear."


For more information, call Judy Kaplan Baron at (858) 558-7400.



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