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Let’s Get Physical: Speaker Tips for Great Presentations





by Claudia W. Brogan

With practice and open, curious minds, our public speaking skills can get better and better. Not only will it help us “up our game” when we practice carefully and polish our own presentation, but it’s helpful too for us to pay close attention to other speakers’ styles and best practices. We can learn continually by watching other speakers. And not only can we learn from watching extraordinary speakers who speak with grace and clarity—we can also learn from watching presenters who have room for improvement.

Truly, I think we can learn from novice speakers as well as the aces.

By watching other speakers with a close eye and listening attentively, we can create our own inner list of “Personal Coaching” tips by watching actions that work and actions that aren’t quite as effective.

One such example happened to me recently, when I watched a subject matter expert deliver a presentation to more than 100 people. Though this presenter knows his topic inside and out, and had clear facts and figures to back that up, I was reminded about “what not to do” by observing his physical delivery habits. I came away with three great reminders that may help each of us polish and improve our presentations.

First, this speaker had prepared a full set of PowerPoint slides for the speech. With as much care as he put into writing the slides, he could have benefited greatly from actually facing the audience as he gave verbal explanations. Instead, the presenter turned his back to the audience for more than half of the time, facing the screen where his slides were displayed so that he could read and refer to the slides. By doing so, he left the microphone behind, and his voice was muffled and hard to hear. But even more egregiously, that meant we watched the back of his head for most of the speech. I have seen this happen several times actually, and this is easily fixed.

When presenting, try to rarely look at the screen. Print out a thumbnail view of your slides and hold that document in front of you as you face the audience. If you need to briefly glance over your shoulder to make sure the right slide is displayed, you can do so out of the corner of your eye. Remember that your focus ought to be on the faces on your audience, not the screen (keep the screen behind you).

Secondly, the speaker was planted in one stationary position for his entire presentation. This makes for a static experience for your audience members, and it is hard to keep people focused through this type of delivery. Instead, when your topic is familiar and you are well-prepared, you should be able to move around in the speaking area. You may discretely carry speaker notes as you move, or have the notes on the podium that you can return to as needed. But even adding simple movements around the speaking area will keep your audience members interested and keep your remarks more engaging.

Third, a physical improvement the speaker could have made was to vary his speaking tones and inflections. In fact, he “read” to the audience most of the time, in full text sentences from his slides and speaker notes. A great reminder for each of us to keep in mind is that when giving a presentation, this is not a reading class. It is almost never necessary to read PowerPoint slides verbatim to your audience. Instead, trim the text on slides so that only the essential words are there. Then, as a slide appears on the screen, wait a few seconds for the audience to read those words, then call their attention back to you by emphasizing a key phrase or illustrating that key point.  As much as possible, refrain from reading your slides or reading the full sentences of your speaker notes. Instead, practice saying the explanatory words aloud so the concepts are clear and familiar. Then during your delivery, you’ll find yourself phrasing things naturally as you deliver the key ideas and descriptions.

These three physical elements of delivering presentations can give us each ideas about how we might improve our own presentation skills: facing the audience and looking rarely at the screen; adding physical movements in the speaking area; and refraining from reading our presentations but instead speaking with ease and clarity.

Which of these can you relate to, or put into action for your own project?

We are never done learning how to improve: each speaker that we watch can teach us skills for delivering our own interesting, intriguing presentations.