How to Speak So Your Audience Will Stay Awake

Our public-speaking expert shares advice about how to deliver engaging public presentations that will entice your audiences out of the snooze zone.

I was recently at a convention in Las Vegas where a roomful of delegates struggled to stay alert while an “inspirational” speaker read from PowerPoint slides in a monotone devoid of any passion or presence. The eerie glow of active cell phones hidden just below the tabletops filled the room as many audience members bent over their electronic devices. Others slouched in their seats, blank-faced and slack-jawed, lulled into a bored stupor as the speaker quoted statistics, analytics and all manner of other factoids.

Motivating? Inspiring? Hardly. The best thing you can say about talks like this is they give you an opportunity to catch up on your emails.

So why can’t the people delivering these droning talks see this? Why do many people mistake the ability to say words with the ability to speak to an audience. In fact, public speaking is a skill that requires training and practice. Speaking in public without professional training is akin to swimming in a shark-filled ocean with an open wound; it can be done, but it’s risky. As Robert Moment, author of How to Succeed in Life, said, “Public speaking skills are an essential key to achieving career advancement and success.”

When it comes to representing your business, I agree with vocal coach Roger Love, who said, “All speaking is public speaking, whether it’s to one person or a thousand.” So if you say a single word about your business, you are making a presentation — and it had better be good.

Fortunately, since presentation techniques are learned, not inherited, all business people can acquire the skills to avoid becoming a medical miracle for the hopelessly sleepless.

What Makes a Great Speaker?
Most public speakers simply recite information and believe the audience will absorb it. Great speakers share the best information and best ideas for the specific audience. They start by answering their audience’s top-of-mind questions, such as “What does this have to do with me?” and “How will this ultimately affect me?” and then present their listeners with a single and clear call to action.

A common mistake speakers make is including too much information. It’s an honest mistake made by those who want to provide audiences with as much value as possible, but it always backfires because too much information leads to confusion, and confused minds do nothing well.

So how much can an audience handle? As a species, we’re married to the number three. There is a reason those classic stories feature three bears, three little pigs and three Billy Goats Gruff. It’s because we remember what we hear first, we remember the last thing we hear even better, and we can quite easily recall the one thing that came in between. If you add more into the middle, you risk muddying your audience members’ memory.

The only difference between a 15-minute presentation and a full-length keynote is the number of details included for each of the three points. In public speaking, some people prefer to work from the human hand. Essentially, your thumb and little finger are your introduction and closing. In between, are your three main points. You can count them off onstage.

Make Your Movement Strategic
Often, in an example of good intentions gone awry, many speakers believe that to “reach” their listeners they must physically cover the presentation space. They wander from one edge of the stage to the other, and turn their attention both physically and mentally to the individuals closest to them.

This idea backfires because, instead of creating closer connections with listeners, it segregates the audience. Yes, the people directly in front of the speaker become attentive, but those at the other side of the room are left out of the conversation. The speaker does need to fill the space, but instead of using their feet, they need to do so with their charismatic presence.

Creating a charismatic presence means using gestures appropriate to the size of the room and choreographed to enhance the words and the message. There is no need to pace like a tiger in a cage — charisma and the projection of it are powerful skills, and they can be learned.

Voice is Vital
Sadly, voice is the most commonly ignored aspect of public speaking. Problem voices are those that sound like nails on a chalkboard, are raspy or hoarse like those of heavy smokers or are too quiet, too airy or too high-pitched. These voices are not going to inspire an audience to do anything but hope the presentation will be over soon.

Similarly, vocal pacing counts. If you talk too quickly, your audience can’t follow; if you talk too slowly, your audience may get bored. Also, pausing for emphasis is strategically wise, but speaking in staccato bursts à la Captain Kirk of Star Trek is not.

Pitch and timbre play a part as well, and accessing the full range of vocal variety is vital to stave off an audience-wide snoozefest.

If you are unsure about your voice, ask for feedback from those you trust, who will be honest with you — or work with a public-speaking professional who can train you in the techniques to turn your voice into an asset.

Close Well
Once you’ve delivered your riveting presentation, there are far more powerful and elegant ways to conclude a presentation than to mumble “thank you” and leave. Try taking a single step backward, bow your head once, long enough to think, “I was terrific,” then raise your head while wearing a sincere smile. Stand still and accept your applause.

Through their applause, your audience is telling you they appreciated your ideas, insights and skill. To ignore them by immediately exiting the space is to say you don’t care whether they liked it or not.

Business leaders can no longer afford to ignore the importance of giving impactful and influential presentations.  Words have always had great power, but only if they are delivered straight into the ears and hearts of the listeners.  A good idea not shared well is unfortunate.  A brilliant idea not shared well is a tragedy — and in today’s business world, it can mean the difference between success and failure.

Rosemarie Barnes, owner of Confident Stages, is an inspirational speaker, presentation and vocal coach and Certified Speaking Coach.