How Long Should I Spend Preparing For A Presentation?

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Students ask me this question quite often.  The answer depends on how high the stakes are, doesn’t it?  For me, the stakes are always high.  Whether I’m developing a presentation for class, a workshop for fellow faculty, or a video for my volunteer organization, I spend a lot of time and effort preparing.

Let’s break down the presentation I most recently presented in a high-stakes environment.  I presented a Faculty Development workshop in November called “The Introduction the Presentation Revolution.”  I’ve spend about three years reading, studying, and learning the content of the presentation.  If I haven’t put in a thousand hours on my content (my message) yet, I’m getting close.  It took me two months to develop the slideshow, the visual presentation.  I worked a little bit every day from August to November.  For the entire month of November, I rehearsed and practiced my delivery.  This may seem extreme because I am a perfectionist.  Nancy Duarte’s more reasonable suggestion is putting in 36-90 hours of preparation time for a one-hour presentation (Source).

You don’t have time to prepare?  Well, your audience doesn’t want you to waste their time.  Time is valuable.  Consider an audience of 25 people.  Let’s say those people spend one hour listening to you speak.  Including you, that’s 1560 minutes of life you and your audience will never, ever get back.  Is it worth their while?  Are you putting in 1560 minutes of preparation to ensure your audience’s 1560 minutes are worthwhile?

Keep in mind that there is a difference between preparation and practice.  Preparation is about content. Practice is about delivery.  Ethos3′s Scott Schwertly says we should practice at least 8 times (Source).  I believe you must figure out the exact times for yourself, but these general figures from Nancy Duarte and Ethos3 go a long way to let you know how much time and effort the professionals put into their presentations.

Let’s get real.  No one wants to work hard.  Everyone wants the easy way out.  The only people who will be strong presenters are the ones who go the extra mile because they know that’s what their audience needs, wants, and deserves.

Inspiration: Zach Wahls

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Zach Wahls is a 19-year-old University of Iowa student who spoke about his family in the Iowa House of Representatives.  His short but powerful three-minute speech is the very definition of persuasion.  His delivery is natural, passionate, and strong.  He uses ethos, pathos, and logos masterfully.

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This is a wonderful example of “lighting in a bottle,” which I will discuss at length later this week when I post and examine MLK’s Dream speech.  We can all learn something about powerful, persuasive speaking by watching Wahls.

6 Ways to Hook Your Audience

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Introductions are tricky because they are so incredibly important to the success of a presentation.  As we covered yesterday, there are 3 no-nos for speech introductions.  Today, I wanted to give you the alternatives, the ways to engage your audience.  Often called “the hook,” an introduction should be catchy, but not gimmicky, interesting, but not absurd.  These 6 approaches are guaranteed to work, as long as you use these while taking the 3 no-nos into consideration.

First, you can open with a shocking statement.  In “The 6 killer apps of prosperity,” Niall Ferguson begins by giving startling statistics.  (Please ignore his death-by-bulletpoint visual presentation).

Metaphor is a powerful tool because human beings think in metaphor.  James Geary discusses metaphor in his TED Talk, “Metaphorically speaking.”

Though not in his introduction, the Earl of Spencer used a sad metaphor in his eulogy for his sister, Princess Diana: “It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.” Listen to the entire speech here.  The metaphor comparing Princess Diana to Diana, the goddess of hunting, appears in the middle.

Asking your audience a question is a sure-fire way to get them sucked into your speech right from the start.  This doesn’t mean you need to receive answers from all of your audience members; your question could be rhetorical.  In “Does democracy stifle economic growth?,” Yasheng Huang begins with a question.  In Erin McKean’s speech, she asks the audience a direct question relating to her presentation on redefining the dictionary.  (On a personal note, I love that her “y’all” snuck in there).

Telling a story is an amazing way to get your audience leaning forward and really listening.  In my presentation courses, we always begin with the narrative speech because knowing how to tell a good story is absolutely crucial if you’re going to be a good public speaker.  Ric Elias begins with a story: his story of surviving a plane crash.  Sir Ken Robinson’s “Schools kill creativity” is a fantastic example of incorporating story throughout a presentation.  You can find the link in the “Inspiration” section of my blog because it is one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen in my life.

For more information on the narrative, see Duarte’s short video on storytelling.

Beginning your presentation with a quote is thought-provoking because it makes your audience recall the quote and the original speaker of that quote.  This can lend itself to your ethos as a presenter because you are aligning yourself with the famous presenter and the famous quote.  In his eulogy at Richard Nixon’s funeral, Bill Clinton opened with a quote.  Clinton said, “President Nixon opened his memoirs with a simple sentence: ‘I was born in a house my father built.’”

Ahh, humor.  Keep this in mind: humor is not about telling jokes.  Your humor should directly relate to your thesis, the main point of your speech.  Humor is quite tricky because you don’t actually know what your entire audience thinks is funny.  Do they laugh at slapstick humor or chuckle at wordplay and puns?

Use humor with extreme care.  Remember that self-depreciating humor is always best because it allows you to develop your ethos as a presenter.  Some examples of light humor are Patrick Chappatte’s “The power of cartoons” and Morgan Spurlock’s “The greatest TED Talk ever sold.”  These work because the speakers aren’t telling jokes.

It’s always helpful to view presentations to learn how to be a better presenter.  I would suggest checking out TED.com, my favorite website about speeches.

3 No-Nos for Speech Intros

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3 No-Nos for Speech Intros:

Experts say you only have 6 seconds to make a first impression.  In life, we can botch a first impression but later make up for it… if given enough time.  Unfortunately, a speech is typically too short, so if your audience immediately gets a negative impression of you, you may as well sit down.

Your introduction should be the most powerful portion of your speech for many reasons.  Primarily, your nerves will calm down if you get through the first few minutes successfully, and, most importantly, your audience will connect with your material if your introduction is engaging.  Having a poor introduction will ensure that your audience dozes off or ignores your speech completely.  For some reason, many speeches begin negatively.  If we know what doesn’t work, even if we’re terrified of public speaking, we can make changes in our behaviors to at least make a powerful first impression.  Here are my 3 no-nos for speech introductions:

First, never, ever begin your speech with an apology.  “I’m sorry that I’m late.”  “I’m sorry, I haven’t been feeling well, so I’m sorry if my voice isn’t loud.”  “I’m sorry I’m not wearing the right clothes.”  “I’m sorry, but I’m really nervous.”  An apology is a negative thing.  An apology is about remorse, regret, sadness, and shame.  Why in the world would an audience member want to listen to the rest of your speech if your first few minutes are heavily bogged down in all of that negativeness?  You know how people don’t want to be around a Negative Nellie?  Starting your speech with this bad energy makes people not like you and not want to listen to you.

If the first thing out of your mouth is negative, you’ll have to do too much overcompensating to making things positive again.  Remember… 6 seconds.

Don’t ramble.  Your introduction should be short, attention-grabbing, and explain the reason for the speech.  Your introduction should also comprise 10% of your overall speech.  Rambling may display your nervousness, as speakers who ramble often are trying to shake off their nervous energy.  Rambling may also signal to your audience that you’re boring or unprepared.  Losing the audience’s attention and going over on your allotted speech time due to rambling won’t make your message connect.

TED Commandment #8 says, “Thou shalt not read thy speech.”  This is crucial in your introduction.  Reading your speech is hiding behind a barrier (a physical barrier if your notes are in front of your face).  We can all tell, even with our eyes closed, a voice that is reading versus a voice that is speaking from the heart.  A reading voice is robotic; a natural voice is more human.  Some notes are good… just don’t read them word for word.  I would suggest phrases only on your notecards so that you have your talking points, but the order of words comes from your heart.

Reading also suggests, of course, that the speaker hasn’t practiced.  Lack of practice signals to the audience that the speaker either doesn’t care or isn’t an expert on the topic.

Your introduction should be confident, assertive, and engaging.  We connect with a positive and direct opening for a speech.  Consider these three tips when planning your next presentation.  What can you do to create an amazing introduction?  Check back tomorrow for my advice on introductions that work.