The ability to communicate your ideas effectively will be one of the greatest determinants of how far and how fast you advance in your career. There are plenty of smart people out there who seem to freeze up when it’s time to present to a more senior group of people, or who just don’t seem to be able to articulate their vision clearly to their leader, and end up walking away from these meetings feeling deflated.
As the former speechwriter for the CEO and President of General Motors and a keynote speaker myself, I work with high potentials and executives who want to give more persuasive presentations. Often, these people lack the confidence and some of the know-how necessary to make their presentations stand out and garner the desired results. Though it is fairly common for people in the corporate world to make presentations, many haven’t had much coaching on how to do a really great job in this area. I recently worked with executives who felt like they were average communicators and knew that if they wanted to progress in their careers, they needed to invest some time and energy into their presentation skills.
I love seeing the difference in people who really put themselves out there to try out new styles and translate feedback into meaningful results. If you have ever felt like you could have done a better job sharing your ideas, I have a few tips you can use to improve your presentations starting today:
1. Connect with your audience by starting with a story. Even a formal, corporate presentation can often be enhanced by sharing a one- or two-minute anecdote in the beginning of your presentation that adds a personal dimension to your talk and connects with your listeners right from the get-go. Try to tie in the story, even loosely, to your forthcoming points as a segway to the “meat” of your presentation.
2. Don’t ramble. The best way you can ensure you don’t go on for too long is to practice, practice, practice. Don’t “wing” presentations or important discussions with your boss. Make it tight. Think of any possible questions you could be asked about your information and be sure to work out an answer for it in advance. Steve Jobs was known for giving high-impact speeches; he never winged it. He would practice his talks so thoroughly that they seemed natural.
3. Cut back on your PowerPoint. I often see PowerPoint as an overused tool that becomes a crutch for the speaker. If you choose to use PowerPoint, do so to display useful, attention-grabbing images with just a few bullet points on each slide that you speak to, rather than read aloud.
4. Take a breath. As part of my preparation for my recent executive session, I read the book Breathe… Just Steps to Breathtaking Speeches by drama and vocal coach Brenda Smith. She discusses how things like breathing properly during presentations helps set the right tone and pace for a bigger impact. It is important to remember to breathe during, but also before, your presentation. As a big believer in pre-talk or pre-meeting success rituals, I always take a few moments before going into almost anything, including a coaching call with my clients, to take some deep breaths to feel grounded. During this time, I remind myself of the real meaning behind my work — to help others. This takes the pressure off of all the other stresses I may be feeling and opens the door for me to do my best job communicating my ideas.
5. Listen. When we go into important meetings, we can get caught up in our own heads, focusing so hard on what we are going to say that we forget that presentations are two-way communications. Even beyond any Q&A session, it’s important to listen to the cues your audience gives off. Are they tired, bored, energized, interested, uncomfortable? If you notice a certain vibe from your audience, you may need to shift your style to make sure it meets their needs. This will increase your chances of ensuring your messages are received and that you’re providing information of value to your audience. Whether in a one-on-one meeting with your leader or a talk to a packed auditorium, the same principles apply: Be yourself. Be real. Share your stuff and be confident about who you are. Connect. Relax.
Remember, at the end of your talk, some people are going to love you, some will dislike you, and many will probably land in the middle. It is when you tried your best and were true to your ideas that you know you were a success. Making the investment to work with a coach can be a great use of your time and resources. In the meantime, you can put these steps into practice right away to fine-tune your presentation style and become a great communicator.