Strengthening Your Speaking Savvy


Speaking at a conference can work wonders for your credibility. Delivering a presentation is an opportunity to share your insights, convey valuable information, and gain a reputation as an expert on your topic. Provided you keep a few key points in mind. In this article, Naomi Karten offers suggestions for successful presentations.

I'll never forget one particular presenter at a software conference I attended. According to the session description, his talk would address some thorny issues that were plaguing many conference attendees. The room was packed with people eager for his insights and advice.

To our amazement, he read his presentation word for word, from beginning to end—this, mind you, immediately after a carb-laden, nap-inducing lunch. Some people can read a prepared text and still sound spontaneous, but Mr. Word-for-Word's monotony detracted from his otherwise interesting material.

His audience may have forgiven him for reading his presentation if he hadn't made one glaring gaffe: Before beginning his talk, he distributed a complete transcript of it.

Poor fellow! By the time he'd recited the closing sentence, half the audience had walked out. The other half remained, perhaps due to interest in the topic—or perhaps because his droning recitation made the room a perfect location for an après-lunch snooze. As a professional speaker, I remained out of empathy. I still remember my first conference presentation more than twenty years ago, and I know how unnerving public speaking can be for those inexperienced at it.

Fortunately, Mr. Word-for-Word concluded his talk before his allotted time was up. He then opened the session for questions. I assumed no one would ask any (why make a bad situation worse?) and that after an embarrassing silence, the session would end.

But someone did raise a question, and to everyone's surprise the speaker came alive. He was enthusiastic and articulate. He had some provocative ideas and opinions, including some sharp criticisms of his management. He responded to every question with eagerness. Clearly, he knew his stuff and knew it well. Why he relied on a prepared text is a mystery.

If you'll be speaking at a conference or meeting, here are some suggestions for delivering a polished presentation: 

  • Use notes if they'll help you remember your key points. But don't read your presentation unless legal or other circumstances require you to do so. And don't memorize the presentation. In most settings, listeners prefer an informal, conversational, me-to-you style of presenting to the formal rendering of a scripted text.
  • Start strong. Take a few deep breaths, look to the people at the back of the room, and project your voice to them. You will sound confident, and that will help you feel confident. If you become nervous at any point during your presentation, slow down and speak louder. This really works! Your insides may be playing hopscotch, but your audience will never know.
  • Monitor your pace. Some people unwittingly speak much faster when in front of an audience. There's a big difference between speaking at an energetic pace and speaking so quickly your audience can't keep up. In fact, it's a good idea to pause periodically. Some presenters fear silence and pack every second with content. But in a presentation, less can be much, much more, because a moderated pace and the occasional moments of silence give listeners a chance to absorb what they've heard.
  • Make occasional eye contact with people in different parts of the audience. Each audience member will experience you as speaking directly to him. Don't be like the presenter I once saw, who gazed intently at the floor through most of his presentation—as if he believed that by not looking at us, we wouldn't see him.

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