I have yet to meet an engineer in any field of engineering who aspires to a career in public speaking. There may be one or two out there somewhere, but in my experience I have not heard an engineer say “I sure hope someday I can forget all this math and technical problem-solving and spend the rest of my life on stage speaking to enormous crowds of people.”
So, it would be perfectly reasonable of you to think that the public speaking profession would have nothing useful in the way of advice to offer, nothing that would advance your career or make your life at work better.
But you’d be wrong.
There are at least four things successful public speakers know that every technical and business presenter should get in on. And here they are:
1. The Audience is More Important Than You Are
Many presenters make the mistake of thinking that, because they’re the presenter, it’s their moment. They, and what they have to say, is the most important thing in the room. Not so. Professional speakers know that what the audience thinks and feels matters most. Whether the audience gets it, whether they’re engaged or distracted, whether they’re bored or (worse) lost–that’s where the speaker’s focus should be. Not on himself.
But many presenters make the mistake of turning inward, clinging to the material they’ve prepared–the slides, the notes they brought along–and more or less leaving the audience to fend for itself.
The pros will tell you to read your audience. Watch their expressions. Are they confused? Ask them, and be prepared to clarify or rewind, if necessary. Don’t just plod on and hope they catch up. Do they disagree with you? Then go there, without getting defensive. Let your audience express its opinion or share information and keep calm (even if it’s your boss).
How can you tell your audience is with you? They’re nodding, making eye contact, maybe even smiling. And if they’re not? They’re looking away, doing something else, or maybe even furrowing their brow, indicating confusion. Your job as a presenter is to tune into all of that.
2. Begin with the End in Mind
Know what you want your presentation to accomplish before you give it. Do you want approval for a design change? Do you want to instill confidence in your audience that your project is back on track? Do you want to prepare your audience to do something specific–like take a detailed spec and implement it? If you don’t know what you want out of your presentation, your audience never will.
Ask yourself this question: When I’m done presenting to this group, how will I know I’ve been successful?
The answer to that question isn’t “Because I’m done — whew!” The answer is about your audience. Do they now know what you were trying to teach them? Do they agree with you? Are they debating meaningfully rather than getting way off-topic? Those are measures of success, and you should know ahead of time what specifically you intend to accomplish. The pros will tell you that’s the way to stay on track.
Knowing where you want to end up will also help to keep you from creating an unstructured brain dump. The objective of your presentation–that is, your objective–is the prize, and your arguments, graphics and data points should be organized in a way that leads you there.
3. Winging It is a Terrible Idea
Now let’s venture way outside the field of engineering and even public speaking for a minute, and let’s take a tip from professional stage actors. Why do they rehearse for weeks before opening night? So that they can be spontaneous. You might think that sounds counterintuitive. I mean, if you rehearse something a lot, doesn’t it get stale? On the contrary. If you rehearse something, you own it, and you’re able to share it easily. In the case of professional performers, they have to be ready to interact with others on stage, in the moment, and they can’t possibly do that if they’re still getting to know the part themselves.
Same goes for you. If you walk into a presentation cold and just expect to read the slides to the audience, you’ll be stilted, confused, maybe even nervous, and you’ll probably run out of time. Prepare. I don’t mean you have to be as thorough as an actor. There is never enough time for that. But rehearse some of what you’re going to say aloud, especially what you’ll say at the beginning and the end, and any tricky parts in the middle.
Don’t just mumble it at your screen and call it good. Rehearsing for a stand-up presentation means rehearsing standing up. There isn’t a pro in the business who would tell you otherwise.
4. You Don’t Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression
The other night, I listened to a presenter whose energy level started out very low. She was tentative, too quiet, and she did not kick off the presentation in a way that engaged the people she was speaking to. I sat in the audience mentally rooting for her, thinking, “C’mon, pick this up, you can do it. We’re counting on you!” I was probably the only person in the audience thinking that way–an occupational hazard for communication coaches, I’m afraid. But about 10 minutes into her presentation, she did start to pick up the pace. She raised her voice to a comfortably audible level, lifted her eyes to the audience, and seemed to hit her stride. But for this audience, the blahs had already set in. They were distracted and impatient, and our presenter couldn’t reel them in.
Any professional speaker will tell you there’s an easy way to avoid this problem: invest time into preparing for those first few minutes. Those first minutes of any presentation matter. When you start off uncertain, self-conscious, vague or lackluster, your audience will mirror you. They’ll feel vague and lackluster, too. Once they desert you, you won’t get another chance to connect with them. They may not have a choice about sitting there and listening to the info you’re sharing, but they won’t like it.
Know what you’re going to say, and go in strong. Even if you think people are about to disagree with you or take issue with your presentation content. Even if you think what you’re about to tell them isn’t very interesting. Think about what would engage you if you were in the audience. Do something a little unexpected rather than something completely predictable. Plan your first couple of sentences and, as advised above, practice them.
When you watch and listen to a professional speaker–such as someone who kicks off a conference with a keynote address–don’t you expect that person to be at ease? Wouldn’t it be terrible if it seemed like it was too much, like they couldn’t handle it? That would be painful to watch.
You know one thing that professional speakers do to make you, the audience, feel at ease? They smile. It’s such a simple thing to do. Imagine a professional speaker who was grim and unsmiling every moment. After not very long, it would be a real drag to watch.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered that we have within our brains mirror neurons. These neurons make us respond with similar reactions to what we see from others. It’s why if someone smacks his thumb with a hammer, we cringe, even though our thumb is fine. And it’s why, when someone smiles at us, we smile back. Or if someone stares at us blankly, we do the same.
So smile at your audience. Don’t stare blankly. Smiling is easy, and they’ll be grateful you did.