If you want to learn to be a better presenter, be careful who you listen to. There’s a ton of advice for public speakers out there, and not all of it is good. In fact, much of it is outdated and just plain dumb.
I was reminded of this yesterday when three interesting blog posts came through my feed offering tips for public speakers. Let’s start with the good pieces of advice.
1. Avoid the Dull, Boring Opener
We’ve all been there. A speaker comes out and spends the first five minutes telling us who he is, listing his stellar credentials, and walks us through his agenda for the session.
This is not your high school speech class. You have to grab your audience’s attention right from the start.
I love this analogy by Terry Gault at Speak Fearlessly:
Imagine if you picked up a newspaper and read, “Hello, I am Bob Woodward. Thanks for buying a newspaper today. For the next 17 paragraphs, I’m going to be writing about the Obama Administration …”
You can do better. Open with a startling statistic or a bold claim. Ask a provocative question. Or, best of all, tell a story. There’s plenty of time to reveal who you are and why you’re there. First you have to draw them in.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick guide I put together to help you open your presentation with a bang instead of a whimper.
2. Don’t Cram an Hour of Content into a 20-minute Space
I’ve often said that if you try to say everything, you end up communicating nothing. We have to be disciplined and focused, especially in an age of waning attention spans. (Did you know our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish?)
Besides, we’re all suffering from information overload. Nobody wants a data dump.
But people continue to try to throw everything into their talk. This problem is aggravated in an era where 18-minute TED Talks and five-minute Ignite presentations reign.
Dr. Michelle Mazur takes Tony Robbins to task for waging a losing battle against the clock in a popular TED Talk. Though she admires Robbins, Michelle advises speakers to avoid his mistake:
If you dream of giving a TED Talk, the one thing to remember is that you want one clear idea that you develop your whole presentation around. Don’t make the Tony Robbins mistake of trying to put in thirteen different viewpoints into your presentation.
I’ve seen this same issue with Ignite presentations, where the speaker has clearly taken a 40-minute presentation and compressed it into five. They cram a jillion ideas, datapoints and examples into the talk and blaze through the material at a breathless 250 words per minute.
Your job as a speaker is to figure out exactly what needs to be said right here, right now, in this particular forum that can’t be better communicated in some other way. Part of that is analyzing your audience to understand what would be most valuable for them to hear.
Here are seven ways to cut the fat from your presentation.
3. Forget Everything You’ve Been Told About Body Language
I laughed out loud when I saw this list of 15 supposedly fatal body language mistakes. The article isn’t about public speaking specifically, but I’ve heard a lot of this advice applied to speakers.
The problem with lists like this is that they turn otherwise smart people into circus monkeys, twisting themselves into a complex (and often conflicting) series of physical contortions, all in service to some mythical body language ideal.
Make eye contact (but not for too long!). Gesture with your arms (but not too much! Or too fast! And not so choppy!).
And in case you didn’t know, smiling when you meet someone is a good idea.
Many of the commenters on that post offer up great advice themselves, much of it boiling down to the importance of just being yourself—authentic, natural, warm and open—and not getting all hung up on these silly rules.
I often quote body language expert Dr. Nick Morgan on this subject:
“[I]f you’re going to give a speech, decide beforehand that you’re thrilled to have the opportunity to present to this great group of people … think first about what the purpose of the interaction is, what you want to get out of it, and what your attitude toward it is. If you focus your emotions in this way, your gestures will take care of themselves.”
In other words, focus your mind, and your body will follow. Here’s a piece I wrote that attempts to separate fact from fiction when it comes to body language.
More Tips for Public Speakers
And of course, there’s a lot more good advice in my book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins, which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t. In the meantime, weigh every bit of advice you get about public speaking, and don’t be led astray by tired old formulas.