Tips on Being a Compelling Speaker (Hint, it’s not your credentials alone)
He was very tall, handsome and distinguished-looking. He most certainly had a commanding presence. The entire Rotary club near Sanur, Indonesia was looking forward to his presentation with great interest.
As the Australian club president introduced the day’s featured speaker, his admiration for the man’s credentials dripped off his tongue. Navy F16 fighter jet pilot, advisor to large companies, leader of retreats for huge corporations. Oh, and by the way, a much younger Indonesian girlfriend (what that had to do with anything is beyond my ken). The man had an impressive background, but the bio dragged on and on and on and on. Nothing in the background related to his presentation.
Then he got up to speak.
Here’s What NOT To Do…and How to Fix It
His presentation was a line by line item of what NOT to do if you intend to impress anyone in your audience.
- His presentation had not been set up ahead of time, so he futzed and putzed and looked like a rookie while he tried to get things to work. A pro gets there early, checks out the technology and ALWAYS makes sure that everything is working before anyone walks into the room.
- His program was supposed to be about a motorcycle adventure trip he’d taken around part of Indonesia. It had a loud soundtrack. He told us that we would be watching this during lunch. The moment it started he started talking over the soundtrack, which meant that not only could we not hear him, it distracted us further from both our lunch and his program. A pro sets up the program, lets it run and does not speak over the soundtrack.
- The video, which consisted almost exclusively of terribly long pieces of film of the highway, was visually deadly boring. The soundtrack didn’t match it at all. He kept talking over it. Within a few minutes, a number of people were checking their phones. A pro makes sure that if he’s going to put up a video, it’s edited well, and he has a professional review his end product, including the music. A pro also notices immediately when he loses his audience and takes steps to fix that right away- as in turning a boring presentation OFF and engaging people.
- When the video finally ended, he futzed again with the presentation. He didn’t have a slide advancer, so he constantly had to stop, lean over and move the slides by hand. He often got no picture at all, constantly apologized, and asked “Can you see this?” A pro brings his own equipment: mike, slide advancer, computer. He already knows if the audience can see what he’s putting up because he’s checked that out before people arrive.
- He held the mike at his beltline. We could barely hear a thing he said. A pro makes sure that he either has tested out his hand mike or wears a lavalier that he’s had the AV staff check out in advance. A pro makes sure his audience can hear him all the way to the back of the room.
- When it came time for him to ask the group a few questions, it was achingly clear he hadn’t given this part any thought whatsoever. He asked the group to discuss what joy looked like. The question landed badly because he hadn’t provided any leadup to why he would ask such a question. It came out of the blue and was very confusing. He had poor facilitation skills and only two people responded in what was apparently supposed to be a lively discussion. A pro knows how to bridge from one topic to another, and get the audience engaged and excited.
- Suddenly out of nowhere, the next slide showed a four-part business model. Not only did it not make any sense whatsoever, he could neither explain why it was in the presentation nor howit fit the topic. Clearly he saw it somewhere, liked it, and threw it in because…well, nobody had a clue. Clearly he didn’t either. The model had no relationship to his motorcycle presentation. The audience was completely confused. A pro makes sure that any slide included has relevance and impact. He doesn’t throw in the kitchen sink. Every element of the program is carefully thought out and relevant to the topic.
- He constantly stood in front of the projector, making a big shadow on the screen. Not only did this get in the way of our being able to see the slides, but he looked foolish for not staying out of the way of the projected images. A pro knows in advance where he can stand, where he can move, without getting in the way of his visuals.
- He complained about the problems technology was giving him. A pro has that handled already. Not only that, when and if technology fails, and it will, a pro knows his presentation so well that he doesn’t need the visuals. A real pro doesn’t count on his visuals to be the presentation. He knows the points that need to be made, so that when technology breaks down his presentation is just as seamless and powerful as if he had them.
- One of his points, which had no relevance to the rest of his presentation was “people who changed the world.” He gave us one, then couldn’t list any more. A pro has this kind of detail down. Just DOWN. A pro has practiced his presentation so many times that it’s second nature.
- The slides had poor grammar. A pro uses an editor to make sure there are no mistakes.
- Each time he started his second video, the screen died. A pro knows how to fix this because he had already worked through the technological glitches. He has his own gear just in case this happens- he already knows if the computer and projector work together.
- He talked over the soundtrack on the second video, which was too loud, didn’t fit the topic, and was more of our watching endless highway.
- He spent a great deal of time talking about his BMW motorbike, which had nothing to do with anything, other than to appeal to the big toy mentality of the men in the group. The discussion had nothing whatsoever in common with his topic. A pro stays on topic and doesn’t veer off into irrelevance.
- A man in the audience pointed out that he was very confused about the model, the relevance of the model, and asked for clarity. Our presenter only offered to give him a copy of the slides, which did nothing either to appease the questioner (and everyone else who was totally confused about the model) or to convince us that he knew what the model meant or why it was included. A pro answers the question fully. But then, he also doesn’t include confusing material in the first place.
- He put up a photo of his much younger Indonesian girlfriend. Um, why? A pro would never throw something up for bragging rights just to show off, whether it’s a motorcycle or a girlfriend or a boyfriend or his new mansion on the California coastline. Frankly nobody cares.
- Both the Australian club president and the featured presenter put up slides of an entire letter or a mass of small print, which somehow we were supposed to be able to read (not even if you were sitting in the front row). Pros put up three bullet points PER SLIDE. If someone in the second row can’t read it, you break it down into visually attractive bits.
On the way back to my hotel, I asked my hostess what she thought.
“Worst presenter we’ve ever had,” she said, laughing.
Credentials Don’t Make the Speaker
We’d spent time with this man after the program. I found him bright and likable. However I found his presentation insulting if for no other reason than he didn’t put the time and work into making it professional for his audience. How he manages in front of senior managers, I have no clue. As someone who has been presenting in front of senior executives for much of my professional career, from boardrooms to conferences of thousands, I felt that he had badly disrespected his Rotary Club. I sure wouldn’t hire him, and I’ve been in a position to hire such people for my companies.
It Looks So EASY
People who watch TED talks or a highly competent speaker often make the mistake of thinking that either they can do just as well or better because the speaker made it look easy. The National Speaker’s Association has a slew of beginners (turnover is high) that are wanna-bes, like this guy, because they want the applause without the immensely hard work and preparation that go into professional presentations. When you watch a polished program, you’re watching untold hours of hard work, sweat, editing, and practice, practice, practice. Even for programs that I know I have down pat, I put in hours of practice ahead of time so that when the computer fails (and they do, count on it ) or you have to deal with a heckler, you are completely comfortable. This man was nonplussed by every small glitch that he should have had under complete control.
Our guy had big time sounding credentials. However when he stood up, all 6'6" of him, he looked foolish, unprepared, and his program insulted our intelligence. That’s what happens when you lean on your laurels rather than respect your audience. Any time we have the chance to be a presenter, we have the responsibility to educate, entertain, inspire- any one of a number of potential outcomes. Shoving some self-obsessed, self-congratulatory material at us wastes our time. It most certainly isn’t going to get him business. If anything he was embarrassing to watch.
A Leadership Skill of Substance
The ability to present effectively is one of the key skills of leadership. This man pretends to teach leadership but there was nothing in anything he did that demonstrated even a basic level of competence. A beginner Toastmaster knows more. And in fact, that’s where this F-16 fighter jet pilot needs to go: to Toastmasters. His mistake is in assuming that people are going to be fascinated by anything he says because of his background. Being a fighter jet pilot is meaningless unless you’re speaking to a military audience or you can relate that experience to your topic. Other than that you’re just a jet jockey.
Leaders prepare. They have a healthy regard for those who are there to listen to them. To do anything else is to telegraph an arrogant disrespect for people who are giving their time to listen to you run your mouth. The same goes for retired NFL players, sports figures and the worst, retired generals. Too many bank on their background, but patronize their audiences through their lack of preparation, practice and professionalism. If you can’t translate that experience into actionables, takeaways and material that people find useful, then you don’t belong in front of a group.
It’s Not About You, It’s About Your Audience
Thousands of people have climbed Everest. Only a handful have turned that experience into a program worth listening to, like Coloradan Jim Davidson. Thousands of people have played in the NFL. Not all of them make great announcers- yet some, like brand new announcer and past-Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, seem to have a natural knack for knowing what the audience needs to know and how to explain it well. He considers what the viewers need to know and understand. The concern and commitment are to give substantial value.
In a world where everyone wants to be a star, everyone seeks to have a voice, one thing seems to be forgotten. You have to have something valuable to say, and then you need to hone your skills on how to say it so that others will listen. We owe that to those we want reading our words or listening to us speak. Both entail the sacred responsibility of putting the audience first, whether that audience is of readers or listeners. Whether we’re writing copy for our website or a blog, producing articles for general consumption, or standing in front of an audience of new college grads makes no difference. Your impact is directly related to the value you deliver, and how much you are committed to those who consume your words.
While it might be tough on the ego, the simple truth is that your credentials don’t matter nearly as much as how much you care about your audience. When people can laugh, learn, be moved and leave with impactful information that changes their lives for the better, you’re going to have raving fans- whether you were a jet fighter or not.
Don’t bully your pulpit. It’s a sacred right to engage people’s ears, eyes and minds. Have something worth listening to, and show up like a pro.