Delivering an Effective Speech or Presentation

Delivering an effective speech or presentation is the natural – and guaranteed – result of thorough preparation and practice, along with mental discipline and the right attitude.

While you’re rehearsing your speech or presentation, you may have the feeling that there’s a lot to think about, that you need to be concentrating on a lot of different factors at the same time. This is true – and this is the point of practising! When you’re first learning how to speak well in public, there is a lot involved, but the good news is that, once you’ve learnt the techniques, you can apply them time after time and each talk will be easier than the last.

When you get to the point of delivering your speech or presentation, you should no longer have that feeling of there being a lot to think about, because you’ve practised so much that it’s now second nature. All you need to think about is engaging with your audience.

The Right Attitude for Successful Delivery

You have been asked to make this speech or presentation and the audience is sitting there with the purpose of listening to you. You are in control. No matter what happens, if you remain unflustered, you will be fine. The only mistake you can make that will spoil it all is to show nervousness or embarrassment. Cover up those and you can get away with anything.

If something goes wrong, laugh it off. If you’re embarrassed, the audience will be embarrassed and it all gets very uncomfortable. If you’re not embarrassed, nothing else matters. Whether you spill water all over your laptop and it goes up in smoke, or your trousers split up the back, nobody is going to think badly of you for having these things happen to you. They will judge you only on how you react – which, believe it or not, is up to you.

Act as if you’re confident and enthusiastic and success will follow.

A word of caution about over-confidence

Confidence is a wonderful commodity but it can be overdone! It needs to be mixed with a dose of humility or it can put people’s backs up. This talk you’re giving is not for your benefit but the audience’s; if you go in believing it’s all about you, you risk alienating the audience.

Avoiding and Dealing with Distractions

Physical mannerisms undermine your effectiveness as a public speaker

Repeatedly smoothing your hair is distracting and annoying

The first thing to say here is, make sure you’re not causing any distractions yourself. Keep physical mannerisms to a minimum: they are annoying and they make you look nervous. Don’t keep shifting your weight around, sniff, jangle keys in your pocket, fiddle with your hair or do anything that takes attention away from your message.

One of the purposes and benefits of thorough practice is to eliminate verbal mannerisms from your talk, so they should not be a problem.

If you want to do something unplanned, such as take a swig of water, do it and move on. Don’t pick up your bottle or glass and wave it around while you talk because people will start to wonder when you’re going to take your swig, instead of listening to you. (Also, you might spill it.)

Fiddling with a pen is a classic mistake in public speaking

Fiddling with a pen is distracting and annoying

Don’t pick up anything you’re not actually going to use immediately. Playing with a pen is a classic distraction from public speaking.

When there’s an external distraction, many people feel you should ignore it and soldier on regardless. My own view is, it’s better to be natural. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, I always stop for a second and ask someone to sort it out. For example, if a loud conversation starts up outside your meeting room, someone can ask the culprits to be quiet. If it’s something bigger, such as a pneumatic drill outside the window, I always mention it, to diffuse it, and then carry on (more loudly). Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away and I find acknowledging a distraction can help the audience forget about it.

Handling Questions

It’s a good idea to make it clear from the outset whether you welcome interruptions if people have questions, or whether you’d prefer people to wait till you’ve finished presenting.

If you take interruptions, this automatically makes the session more interactive and often more relaxed. It also avoids people missing the point – and potentially switching off – because they failed to understand one small detail of what you were saying. The drawback is that you have to be careful not to be sidetracked. Points of information and clarification are to be encouraged, I’d say, but bigger questions may be better dealt with at the end.

If you take questions only afterwards, you may not get any immediately. You’ve given the audience a lot to think about and they may need time to process it. They may feel their question is not important any more, have forgotten what it was, or not want to be the first to speak up. To prevent that awkward silence from dragging on, it can be useful to plant a question in advance. This will help you because you’re not just waiting there, wondering if anybody was actually listening to you, and you can start off with a question you’re expecting.

If you don’t know the answer to somebody’s (factual) question, be very cautious about making it up. There may be situations where this is necessary but it is usually far better to come clean and admit you don’t know. As with everything else, if you’re unfazed and say something like, “What an excellent question!”, the asker will feel smug and be most unlikely to hold your lack of knowledge against you. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to get back to him/her with the answer later, or perhaps you could open the question to the floor and see whether anyone else present knows the answer.

You can probably predict the sort of questions that may come up and you can prepare for them, so you’ve got the facts at your fingertips and the words at the front of your mind. Particularly if you’re worried about questions, it’s worth rehearsing some generic answers, so you’ve got material to draw on when you’re answering a specific question.

Enjoy It!

Even if what you’ve got to talk about is inherently not very exciting, you can make a big difference to how your listeners perceive it by the amount of energy and enthusiasm you put into your talk. Whatever the material, it’s your job to make it interesting – and you can. If you give the impression of being involved with and stimulated by what you’re saying, you will draw the audience in.

If the audience can see the subject is important to you, they’ll be interested. If they can see you’re enjoying talking about it, they’ll enjoy listening.