Speaking on stage in front of an audience of people is a wonderfully scary privilege. You have a large group of people’s undivided attention, and you can have a direct impact on their lives (and potentially your future). Here’s how not to screw it up:
1. Tell great stories. If you read nothing else in this article, focus on this tip. Think about stories you can tell that are interesting but also have a lesson learned in them. We all have stories we can tell, but will those stories resonate with an audience? Will the audience be able to relate to them? If you use a visual presentation -- PowerPoint, Keynote, etc. -- like I do, it should be an accompaniment to your stories.
2. Do NOT read your presentation from your laptop, or worse, notecards. Listen, I get it, speaking in front of an audience can be nerve-racking. But you know what, you agreed to do it! So give the audience and the event the respect they deserve. Practice your presentation and know what you’re talking about it. If I ever find myself losing my train of thought, I just glance back at what slide I have up on screen. If I’m not using slides, I just make a quick self-deprecating joke and move on. The worst thing you can do is sound like a robot on stage.
3. Use video to increase your comfort on stage. Some of you may remember doing this for school projects back in the day. You’d record yourself giving a speech and watch it back to see how you did. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. For me, I used to host a live daily video show to engage with an audience and it helped me become more comfortable. Try this yourself. Invite a few friends or colleagues to watch you “rehearse” live. Have them give you constructive feedback that you can work on.
4. Don’t be the “stats and quotes” person. I’ve seen this so many times. Someone gets on stage to talk about something interesting, and instead of giving their perspective, their presentation is littered with statistics from other websites and quotes from other people. You can surely back up some of your talk with stats and quotes if needed, but you should first and foremost share new information and offer your own insights. Without knowing it, people will find great quotes from your talk that you didn’t even think were great.
5. Use Guy Kawasaki’s “10 20 30 Rule of PowerPoint.” I’m a visual presentation guy. I believe even the greatest speaker can have people distracted by their phones or laptops. I like to use big bold images and text in my presentation. Guy Kawasaki was my inspiration for this with his 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point font. I don’t follow this specifically, but it’s the backbone to my presentation. If I have any text on a slide, it’s big and void of long sentences (short bullet points are great). Typically my presentations are 20-30 slides, but mostly because I like to accompany my stories with photos I’ve taken or interesting photos I’ve found on the web (that I give photo credit to of course).
6. Bring the energy! I recently had the pleasure of watching James White of Signalnoise.com give a talk. He jokes that he had 750 slides in his presentation, and while I don’t think there were actually 750, there were a ton. He used his slides to create energy and engage the audience. Some were funny, some were his work, some were bulleted lists he referenced over and over. Yes his slides were great, but it was his energy that brought the entire audience out of their seats when he finished his talk. I’m not a high energy guy at all, but just by moving around on stage, having confidence when you speak and engaging with the audience makes a huge impact. If you have energy, the audience will give it back.
7. You don’t have to tell jokes. Many aspiring speakers make the mistake of trying to be someone they are not when they’re on stage. Most of the time this is by trying to be a comedian. You don’t need to tell jokes to make an audience laugh. If you aren’t used to telling jokes in front of an audience, your speaking presentation shouldn’t be the place to start. I tend to use topical humor that doesn’t require the delivery of a Dane Cook or Jerry Seinfeld. When the Brett Favre inappropriate text message photo ‘thing’ was timely, I used it in a slide when talking about taking more photos for your social media content strategy. I had three bullet points in my presentation, with the last one being a quick jab “Don’t take photos like Brett Favre.” People loved it because it was relevant to the subject I was talking about and it was current news.
8. The audience is afraid of Q&A. Listen, we aren’t all Gary Vaynerchuk with people clamoring to ask us questions about great wine, the Jets, etc. If you want to leave room in your presentation for Q&A, be prepared to have the audience not raise a single hand. Think about it, when was the last time you raised your hand in a crowded audience? I personally love doing Q&As because I think people always ask me more interesting questions than I ask myself.
When I know I’m going to have Q&A time at the end of my talk, I give the audience a heads-up at the beginning of my talk and say something like “Hey guys, I’ll have 10-15 minutes at the end to do Q&A, please write down a question or two while I’m talking so I look popular at the end when everyone raises their hands.” By doing this simple thing, it primes people to be ready to ask questions at the end. If I don’t say that at the beginning of my talk, I’ll call the audience out and say something like “It’s time for Q&A, if you don’t raise your hands, I’m just going to start answering random questions that come to my mind: My shoe size is 15. I love cheez-its. Sorry, I’m not single.” Maybe you don’t feel comfortable doing something like this, but it works. The audience just needs that kick start to get them going.
9. Don’t like Q&As? Take questions after your talk, off stage. The first couple times I spoke in front of an audience, I didn’t want to do Q&A. Event organizers aren’t going to force you to do Q&A and if you’re honest with them, they’ll tell everyone to ask you questions afterwards. This is an easy way to not have to interact with the entire audience’s questions, and you can talk to people one-on-one off stage. I’ve created some of the best business relationships I have by doing this. People aren’t afraid to talk to you one-on-one, whereas they probably don’t want to speak up in front of the entire audience.
10. Be yourself. I know this sounds so typical of an article like this, but it’s absolutely important to remember. The more you try to act like someone you're not on stage, the more people will see right through you. The more you act like yourself, the more confident you’ll seem, and the more the audience will be able to relate to you.