The executive gets up to speak. Everyone there needs to hear what he has to say about the company, but within 10 minutes, they are either hopelessly confused or falling asleep. What is he doing wrong?
Whenever you open your mouth, whether your audience is one person or a thousand, you want to get a specific message across. Maybe you want your opinions heard at meetings, or perhaps you are giving a formal presentation, internally or externally. Possibly your team needs to improve its customer communication, or you’re in a position to help your CEO design an important speech.
Anyone who sets out to present, persuade and propel with the spoken word faces 10 major pitfalls.
1) Unclear thinking: If you can’t describe what you are talking about in one sentence, you may be guilty of fuzzy focus or trying to cover too many topics. Your listeners will probably be confused, too, and their attention will soon wander. Whether you are improving your own skills or helping someone else to create a presentation, the biggest (and most difficult) challenge is to start with a one-sentence premise or objective.
2) No clear structure: Make it easy for people to follow what you are saying. They’ll remember it better – and so will you as you deliver your information and ideas. If you waffle, ramble or never get to the point, your listeners will tune out. Start with a strong opening related to your premise; state your premise; list the rationales or “points of wisdom” that support your premise, supporting each with examples: stories, statistics, metaphors and case histories. Review what you’ve covered, take questions if appropriate, and then use a strong close.
3) No memorable stories: People rarely remember your exact words. Instead, they remember the mental images that your words inspire. Support your key points with vivid, relevant stories. Help your listeners “make the movie” in their heads by using memorable characters, engaging situations, dialogue, suspense, drama and humor. In fact, if you can open with a highly visual image, dramatic or amusing (but not a joke!), that supports your premise, you’ve got them hooked. Then tie your closing back to your opening scene. They’ll never forget it.
4) No emotional connection: The most powerful communication combines both intellectual and emotional connections. Intellectual means appealing to educated self-interest with data and reasoned arguments. Emotional comes from engaging the listeners’ imaginations, involving them in your illustrative stories by frequently using the word “you” and by answering their unspoken question, “What’s in this for me?” Use what I call a “high I/You ratio.” For example: Not “I’m going to talk to you about telecommunications,” but “You’re going to learn the latest trends in telecommunications.” Not, “I want to tell you about Bobby Lewis,” but “Come with me to Oklahoma City. Let me introduce you to my friend, proud father Bobby Lewis.” You’ve pulled the listener into the story.
5) Wrong level of abstraction: Are you providing the big picture and generalities, a sort of pep talk, when your listeners are hungry for details, facts and specific how-tos? Or, are you drowning them in data when they need to position themselves with an overview and find out why they should care? Get on the same wavelength with your listeners. My friend Dr. David Palmer, a Silicon Valley negotiations expert, refers to “fat” and “skinny” words and phrases. Fat words describe the big picture, goals, ideals and outcomes. Skinny words are minute details and specific who, what, when and how. In general, senior management needs fat words. Middle management requires medium words. Technical staff and consumer hot-line users are hungry for skinny words. Feed them all according to their appetites.
6) No pauses: Good music and good communication both contain changes of pace, pauses and full rests. This is when listeners think about what has just been said. If you rush on at full speed to crowd in as much information as possible, chances are you’ve left your listeners back at the station. It’s OK to talk quickly, but pause whenever you say something profound or proactive or you ask a rhetorical question. This gives the audience a chance to think about what you’ve said and to internalize it.
7) Irritating non-words: Hmm-ah-er-you know what I mean ... One speaker I heard began each new thought with “Now!” as he scanned his notes to figure out what came next. This might be OK occasionally, but not every 30 seconds. Record yourself to check for similar bad verbal habits. Then keep taping yourself redelivering the same material until such audience-aggravators have vanished.
8) Stepping on your punch-words: The most important word in a sentence is the punch-word. Usually, it’s the final word: “Take my wife – PLEASE.” But if you drop your voice and then add, “Right?” or “See?,” you’ve killed the impact of your message. (To discover if you do this, use the tape-recording test described above.) Don’t sabotage your best shots.
9) Misusing technology: Without a doubt, audio/visual has added showbiz impact to business and professional speakers’ presentations. However, just because it is available doesn’t mean we have to use it! Timid speakers who simply narrate flip chart images, slides, videos, overheads or view-graphs can rarely be passionate and effective. Any visual aid takes the attention away from you. Even the best PowerPoint images will not connect you emotionally. Use strong stories instead, if at all possible. Never repeat what is on the visuals. If you do, one of you is redundant. Make technology a support to your message, not a crutch. The trap is that information presented through technology tends to be about the speaker and the speaker’s organization, while communication should be about the audience. One executive I was asked to coach had 60 PowerPoint slides – 58 about his company and two about the prospective client. We halved the number and reversed the ratio!
10) Not having a strong opening and closing: Engage your audience immediately with a powerful, relevant opening that has a high I/You factor. It can be dramatic, thought-provoking or even amusing, but never, never open with a joke (unless you are a humorist with original materials). Get your listeners hooked immediately with a taste of what is to follow. And, never close by asking for questions. Yes, take questions if appropriate, but then go on to deliver your dynamic closing, preferably one that ties back into your opening theme. Last words linger. As with a great musical, you want your audience walking out afterward humming the tunes.
When you can avoid these 10 common pitfalls, you’re free to focus on your message and your audience, making you a more dynamic, powerful and persuasive communicator.
About the author:
Patricia Fripp is a speech coach, presentation trainer and keynote speaker. She works with companies large and small, and individuals from the C-Suite to the work floor. She builds leaders, transforms sales teams and delights audiences. To learn more, visit www.fripp.com, call 415-753-6556 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.