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.
  • Believe in yourself. I once coached a fellow who was terrified about an upcoming presentation. When I asked him to imagine me as his audience and give his presentation, he stood up rigidly and his words came out in a muffled, garbled mish-mash. I asked him to sit down and tell me what his talk was about. Immediately he transformed back into the personable, animated colleague I knew and presented a good bit of the talk. When I asked what changed when he was seated, he looked puzzled, and then broke out in a big grin as he realized he had just given a great performance. What he needed were pointers and practice.
  • Practice is at the heart of successful speaking. Practice out loud, and perhaps even record your run-through. Even after twenty years as a professional speaker, I never assume that what I want to say in a new presentation will sound as good when I speak it as it does in my head. When I hear myself speak it out loud, I invariably encounter bumps that need smoothing, ideas not fully formed, and words that get scrambled. Nothing beats practice at helping you sound like a pro when you present.
  • Don't worry about making mistakes. Instead, accept that one thing or another often does go wrong—and you will survive. One of the benefits of experience is that we don't let the inevitable glitches throw us. But regardless of your level of experience, most audiences want you to succeed, and they will forgive a lot. Imagine the worst thing you can imagine happening and plan how you'll deal with it. And if you lose your place, misstate something, or run into any of the many other possible snags, don't call undue attention to it. Just keep going.
  • Happily, most software audiences appreciate solid content over performance pizzazz. I've heard speakers at software conferences who fell short in terms of the technicalities of speaking, yet kept their audiences mesmerized because of the compelling nature of their ideas and information. In preparing your presentation, clarify your objectives. Identify the key points you want to make. Incorporate stories and examples to illustrate your points. Involve the audience as much as you can, even if only by asking how many have had a certain experience you're going to talk about. End by emphasizing the key points you want people to take away and apply.

And whatever you do, don't distribute your complete text in advance—especially for an after-lunch presentation. The reputation you save will be your own.

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