Career SkillsCogent Communicator

Please Don’t Hand Me a Microphone

By Susan de la Vergne

A few years ago, I attended a fundraiser for a non-profit. There was everything you’d expect at such an occasion — alcohol, hors d’oeuvres, people everywhere chatting up the organization, and donation jars strategically placed. A perky young woman, one of the event organizers, fluttered about asking random people to make impromptu speeches extolling the organization. Specifically, she asked them to describe their affiliation with it and — most importantly — why this non-profit was worthy of everyone’s financial support.

I hoped she’d ask me. There are few things I enjoy more than a microphone and an audience. But she didn’t. Instead, she asked a man standing beside me, and he immediately declined. She, however, wouldn’t take his “no” for an answer.

“You’ll be great,” she assured him. “We just want to hear from you about why you think so much of this organization.”

“Really — ” he stammered, about to reiterate his decline.

“Just two minutes. Or three if you want. Even four. I’ll cue you when it’s your turn. Oh thank you so much,” she gushed, shaking his hand, and off she went in search of another speaker.

When the time came, the perky woman invited the unwilling man to the makeshift stage and handed him the microphone, I watched to see if he’d stare daggers at her. But he was too consumed by his own discomfort to have energy left over to be angry.

On the stage, his eyes zoomed urgently around the room as if the space were rapidly filling with water and if he couldn’t find an escape hatch, we’d all drown. Eventually, he stopped looking for a way out. Instead, he ahemed, examined the mic at arm’s length, shifted his weight back and forth, finally settling his weight on his left foot, jutting his hip to one side. When he  started to speak, he was hard to hear, but he managed to describe volunteer work he’d done on Saturdays. He thanked the board of directors for making the programs possible and looked at the perky woman as if to say, “Was that enough?” She took the mic, and he left the stage, clearly relieved.

I introduced myself to him a little later as we hovered over canapes. He told me he was an IT project manager and really hated public speaking.

“Why she asked me, I’ll never know. And honestly, had I known, I’d either have stayed home or had at least another one of these first,” he said, raising his beer. He then told me his wife was on the board of directors, which may have made it awkward for him to refuse the perky lady’s request.

You Never Know…

The point of the story is that you really never know when you’ll be called upon to make a speech. You may think, “Hey, I’m an engineer, not a limelight guy. All I need is the right tools, technology, a challenge, and some heads-down work time, and I’ll deliver. Just don’t hand me a microphone!”

What do you want to bet that’s what the IT Project Manager at the fundraiser thought?

The speech he gave was impromptu, probably the hardest kind there is to do. Whether you’re asked to wing it, as he was, or given plenty of advance warning, here are a few tips you can fall back on the next time you have to make a presentation at an industry conference, or toast the happy couple at your colleague’s wedding.

Body Language Tells All

One lesson from the IT PM at the fundraiser is that his anxious casting about the room for a way out and his awkward posture told us way more than his few words about volunteering. Body language screams messages. His screamed, “Get me outta here!” not “Please donate to this worthy cause.”

Imagine watching someone with rounded shoulders and an unshakable downcast expression walking slowly and reluctantly to the front of the room. They take the mic and, glancing at the floor, say “I’m very happy to be here today.” No they’re not. No one watching believes they’re happy because everything about their appearance says they’re miserable!

When it’s your turn to grab the mic, stand up straight. Walk with purpose, no shuffling. Get into position like you have something to say, not like you’re ready to jump and run.

And do everything in your power not to squirm or fidget.

Also, look at the people you’re speaking to, and when you do so, smile. Not a big toothy grin, just a pleasant expression that radiates professionalism, not disinterest.

First Words

If you’re addressing a meeting in your own company and you think some people in the room don’t know you, start by introducing yourself. Otherwise, don’t. If you start with “Hi, my name is Tom Schwartz,” you can bet your mortgage that either no one caught your name (they’re not paying attention) or no one will remember it. You’re not famous — if you were, you wouldn’t be introducing yourself — and you’re not likely to be famous after this speech, so don’t waste those first few seconds on something that doesn’t matter.

Instead, do something that connects you to the people you’re speaking to.

You’re here today because you want to know how we’re going to improve the safety of this product without compromising performance.

That’s an opening remark that (1) focuses on the audience (notice the “you”!) and (2) introduces the topic.

No one cares who you are. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. Think about it. When you go to a presentation at, say, an industry conference, do you care who’s presenting? No. You care what they have to say that’s helpful to YOU.

Those first few words tell your audience whether or not you’re going to deliver value and whether you’re going to keep their attention. Many people have attention spans that are shorter than a toddler’s. It’s definitely a challenge for any speaker, which is why how you start off is so important. Your audience will decide right away whether they should (try to) pay attention.

Start by stating a problem the audience wants to solve, or at least is curious enough about to listen to.

How do we store energy in sufficient quantities to power a small city in the event of a disaster? That’s the challenge we were given, and today we’re going to share with you how we think we can accomplish this goal.

Isn’t that a better beginning than “Good morning, my name is Srinivas Agarwal”?

Ready Or Not

Impromptu speeches are the toughest assignment, but most speeches aren’t impromptu. However, even though many people do have time to prepare, most don’t prepare enough. You can always tell when someone’s unprepared. They start slowly, say a few useless things first (“My name is…” “Is this thing working?” “Can you hear me?”). They’re always nervous. They’re usually boring. The audience is usually relieved when they’re finished.

Unless you want to be that guy, you should prepare well for any speech you’re going to give. You need to practice — aloud — with whatever technology you’re going to use (slides, microphone), on your feet, in front of a room (even if it’s empty). Do this several times, even if it feels weird to practice in front of a room full of chairs. This is how the pros do it, and who better to emulate?

So never think that just because you hate giving speeches that you won’t have to. Our IT friend made that mistake. You, now, have an advantage he didn’t have: three tips to take your next speech to the next level.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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