How to Speak So People Will Listen: Tips for better verbal presentations.

By Pauline Gravier From Planning, December 1992 Joe, a conscientious, informed planner, always gets his reports in before they’re due. His presentations sound like commodities futures reports, and his audience looks half asleep. Frank, also a planner, hands in reports at the last minute, and they’re not always complete. But when he speaks, people listen. He sounds as though he knows what he’s talking about. Clearly, Frank has an edge when it comes to plum assignments and even promotion. His advantage is the ability to make highly effective presentations to public officials, citizens, peers, and businesses. However, he didn’t necessarily start out that way. In 26 years of coaching thousands of people to be successful presenters, we’ve heard this said many times: “Some people are just natural speakers.” And it’s true that some people are natural speakers just as others are natural tennis players or singers. But anyone can develop these skills. Even fear that paralyzes many of us when we must speak before a group can be transformed into increased energy and used to great advantage. The secret lies in a simple formula: A + P = C: Awareness of proven techniques plus frequent practice equals consistent control. These are the steps to success. Be prepared First, you must decide where you are going. That means knowing who your audience will be – concerned citizens or city council members. Then think about what they want to know – how the proposed plan impacts their neighborhood or what kind of tax base expansion can be projected. The next step is to clarify your goal. Do you want to reassure the citizens, or do you want to communicate data about the project to the city council? Let’s assume you’re a planner for a coal company that is seeking a permit for a strip mine in a rural area. Citizens are concerned about the mine’s environmental impact. The company eventually intends to restore the sire as parkland. If you talk only about the geology of the area, you’ll bore the audience and do little to allay their fears. You may even create hostility. Instead you should be reassuring the citizens that the company will be a good neighbor. Follow the two-step process: Know your audience, and define your goal. You’ll also have to decide whether to write out your presentation, rely on notes, or simply wing it. The best approach is to write out first but to speak from an outline. Winging it is like playing Russian roulette. One of these days, you are going to shoot yourself in the head.

Writing out a presentation forces you to focus on the important points, cutting out irrelevancies and ramblings. It’s the first step. The easiest way to start is stream-ofconsciousness. Let your thoughts flow without worrying about order or grammar. If you would rather talk than write, use a tape recorder, then transcribe to paper or computer. Then move segments around into a logical order. Don’t worry about the introduction until you have the major points down. Added fillips Now is the time to think about ways to zip up your presentation. Avoid jokes, which can rebound and cause problems. Instead, think of humanizing your talk with anecdotes and examples. This magazine offers many of both. In July, for instances, Sylvia Lewis began an article on growth management with an anecdote about a couple who got thousands of signatures on a petition to overturn a local wetlands ordinance. It was an effective story because it was so specific, giving the names of the couple and describing what they did. Sometimes it’s a good idea to insert a reference to someone you know will be in the audience: “We owe a lot of credit to Jack Phillips for organizing the new Main Street project.” Also, consider including arresting statistics, particularly for an opening: “Four hundred empty apartments in 1989, 1,000 empty apartments in 1990, 1,500 in 1992.” Visual aids – slides, maps, flowcharts, diagrams – may not be appropriate. Don’t make the mistake of the planner who makes his entire presentation with his back to the audience while pointing to details on the screen in front of him. These guidelines are helpful in deciding what visual aids should be used – and how: • • • Prepare the speech first. The choose visual aids. If visual aids were meant to do all the communicating, you wouldn’t need a presentation. Cull the pile. The fewer visual aids, the more effective the presentation. Simplify. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a chart with 1,000 words isn’t worth anything. The audience should be able to grasp a message in two or three seconds. If you must use words, limit yourself to a few bulleted items. Be creative. Overlays allow you to prepare original and colorful maps and graphs. Slow down. Introduce each visual aid and point out salient points. Then remove it and comment on it. Don’t switch to the next visual aid right away. If you are using slides, use every other space in the carousel so you have some time to talk between images. Cover maps that you’ve tacked up until you’re ready to refer to them. Eyes front. Visual aids don’t need your attention; the audience does.

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Practice Now read your presentation aloud. Listen to yourself. Then ask these questions: Have I achieved my goals? Are all my points relevant? Can I cut? Be ruthless. Don’t use up all the time allotted to your presentation. After you’ve cut, it’s time to prepare a key word outline, which is what you will speak from. The outline should highlight your main points, with just enough words to keep you on track. Now run through your talk again. All that practice will give you confidence in your material and free you to establish rapport with your audience. Once you feel confident about what you are going to say, you can focus on communication. These are some of the questions we often hear from people who are nervous about presentations: • What should I do with my hands? The answer: Be natural. Don’t try to be dramatic. Natural gestures reflect your personal style. Keep your hands out of your pockets – and don’t cross your arms, which can suggest insecurity or hostility to your audience. Where should I stand? Stand next to the podium so you can glance at your outline from time to time. Standing behind the podium erects a barrier between you and the audience. Don’t sit down unless you’re part of a panel where everyone is seated at a table. In such a situation, make an effort to project energy by leaning forward while speaking and turning your head to the other speakers. How does a speaker establish eye contact? Divide the room into several areas and make eye contact with one person at a time in each area. Hold the contact until your attention is recognized, at least four seconds. Then move on to a person in another area. In a question-and-answer session, maintain eye contact with the questioner while the questions is being asked. Immediately after, however, turn to the audience, using the same kind of eye contact as for the original presentation. That way, people won’t feel left out. When a question-and-answer session becomes heated, a simple technique can help. It’s called “listening for a point of agreement.” The rules are simple. First, find an honest point of agreement. For example, “I agree with you that we have a difficult situation here, and that we need to do something about it.” Next, enumerate the pointes of agreement. Never add the qualifiers “but,” “however,” or “yet.” Should I go to a speech therapist to get rid of my squeaky voice? The answer is no. You don’t have to have a powerful or melodious voice to give a successful presentation. However, you can’t afford a colorless voice. Watch your pacing (speeded up for excitement, slow for importance) and inflection (emphasize important words and phrases). Speak louder at some points, quieter at others. Use pauses like commas to break up phrases and sentences or introduce thoughts. A long pause allows your message to sink in.

How should I dress? “Professional is the key word. Don’t use the occasion of a public presentation to try out a new fashion, and avoid distractions like flashy jewelry or loud ties. The main thing is to know your audience. A powerful blue suit may put up barriers in a school auditorium but a sport jacket would be just right. Unbuttoned jackets on both men and women suggest openness and honesty.

All of these suggestions will help you become a poised, confident speaker. Remember, though, that sincerity shows: If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.

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