‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’ a guide to public speaking

BRENDAN LAWLEY GUIDES us through the perils of public speaking, from preparation and content to overcoming the dreaded nerves.

Whether your Board of Directors wants a comprehensive department overview or Nancy is getting married, as an agent or a senior person in your department, sooner or later you will be required to give a speech or make a presentation.

Broadly speaking, this is something not too many people enjoy. In fact, ‘Top Ten Fears’ lists often have public speaking rated higher than death. (This presumably means that at a funeral people would rather be in the box than giving the eulogy!)

The key to any successful presentation, however, is preparation. You will have seen this proven at weddings where the best man (often after a few nerve-settlers) has totally underestimated the significance of preparation and fumbled his way through a terrible speech. An audience will accept that you may be nervous, but they won’t accept that you have shown a lack of respect by not bothering to prepare.

Your preparation starts with a series of basic questions.

  • Who is my audience?
  • Why am I giving the presentation?
  • When will I be giving the presentation?
  • What is the subject matter?
  • Where will I be presenting?
  • How will I present the information?

You should begin your preparation as soon as you know that you are to give a presentation. This doesn’t mean you lock yourself away and start ploughing through piles of research. It may initially mean that you just start thinking about your topic and making some occasional rough notes, which will ultimately evolve into a structured, fluid presentation. The longer you prepare, the more chance you have of delivering a refined outcome, memorable for the right reasons.

Your first task is to establish clearly the purpose of your presentation. Are you there to inform (the introduction of a new department procedure), convince (you need a bigger department budget) or the much less formal celebrate (good luck on your wedding day, Nancy).

For any of these, you will need to do some research and compile anecdotes, facts, quotes, personal experiences or statistics. You must then sort this information into a meaningful and relevant structure.

Don’t forget that as much as your content may be gold, ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!’ Your statistics and data may be top notch, but if they are delivered in a monotone manner supported by a bland PowerPoint presentation with four million numbers on it, it’s snooze time for your audience.

As gripping or compelling as your numbers may be, we all have a limited attention span (in adults it’s now less than about ten minutes), so don’t push your luck.

Make some broad notes as an outline for your presentation and ideally rehearse with someone first as a ‘dry run’. Try to do this with someone who can give you constructive, honest feedback.

Be careful not to over-prepare. Once you have done all the work to put your presentation together and you are happy with its content, structure and how you plan to deliver it, leave it alone.

If you are speaking to a large group and are using visual aids such as PowerPoint, arrive at the venue in plenty of time. Identify any potential problems (noise, room layout and so on), and check that your technology works.

Don’t apologise for yourself or your subject. If you are delivering a topic that you think may be dry or boring, try to make it different or throw in something that is unexpected, challenging or confronting. A well-placed question or relating a personal experience can re-engage an audience that might be slipping away. Speak clearly and naturally, use expressions and gestures, and make sure you speak to the entire room.

Don’t be afraid to use a pause to effect. This is useful if you are a fast talker and your audience needs to catch their breath and absorb what you have just said. It can also be used if you want your audience to think about a statement you have made, and of course it’s handy for you to gather your thoughts if you’ve been thumping along at a rate of knots.

Try to anticipate questions. These are great if you are planning an interactive presentation, as it generates a real connection with your audience. Treat obvious questions with respect; you’ve invited questions, so don’t make someone feel embarrassed if they ask a dumb one. If you don’t know the answer to a question or it’s off topic, promise to find out the answer or offer to discuss the question later.

As much as you might like to think your audience is focused on visual aids or handouts, the reality is they are looking at and listening to you. Be aware of your stance and posture. Don’t slouch, pace the floor, rock backwards and forwards, or fidget. Some speakers find themselves doing these things out of nerves, so just be aware of it.

Gestures are really important. As most of our communication is sent by non-verbal signals, your body language, volume, pace and tone are vitally important. Using gestures keeps you animated and interesting, but this doesn’t mean you have to be flapping around like one of those inflatable waving guys out the front of a car dealership. Make sure your gestures are relevant and timely, to give your presentation enthusiasm and energy.

If you are using a presentation on a screen, make sure you are facing your audience when you speak to them and don’t direct your voice to a screen or whiteboard.

Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, shortness of breath? Congratulations, you’re normal! The good news is that these signs are rarely noticed by your audience, but because they are inside you they seem magnified 100 times compared to what others can see. All public speakers who care about their topic or their audience experience nerves. Take three deep breaths before you get up to speak rather than a series of short, shallow breaths. Walk slowly to the front of the room and start with a measured, controlled introduction.

Try to sound confident. This may call for some acting but it will be worth it. Above all else, don’t get nervous about being nervous. Just go with it and accept it.

Most people appreciate that speaking in front of a group is a difficult thing to do. As a result, you have the chance not only to impart some valuable content but to represent yourself as a confident and assured leader.

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Brendan Lawley

Brendan Lawley spent over a decade in the real estate industry as CEO of Brad Teal Real Estate. He is currently the Director and Owner of Thunder Road Fitness