Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Connect the Dots for a Successful Public Presentation

by Cat Woods

Fast Fact: Public speaking is not high school speech class.

Evidence: Me

During my demonstration speech (you know, the one where you can't even hang on to your note cards because you have to SHOW how something is done?), I crushed the eggshell I was supposed to decorate.

After another I shook so badly, I couldn't walk back to my seat in a straight line.  If a cop had been present, I'd have landed a DWI for sure.

As far as I was concerned, the word speech should have been reserved for tenth grade English and diagramming sentences.  Since that time, however, I've presented at social organizations, professional organizations and Young Writers' Conferences.  I've found myself at the front of the room in libraries, schools and churches.

The moral of this story: If I can speak in public, so can you.  It's as simple as connecting the dots.
  1. Connect with your topic.  You're a writer.  You're passionate about the process, the business, literacy, your book, your genre, your audience, etc....  Whatever you are speaking about, make sure you are engaged in the topic.  You must first believe before you can ask others to do the same. 
  2. Connect with yourself. Before entering a room, take a deep breath. Give yourself a pep talk. You are smart, funny, warm and compassionate. You know this topic like the road map of veins on the top of your hand.  Stand confidently, no matter how uncertain you feel.  And for heaven's sake, wear clothes you like.  If your new suit is stiff, you'll be stiff. 
  3. Connect with your audience.  Right off the bat, you must personalize your presence with the guests in the room.  Smilethe kind that reaches your eyes and not just turns the corners of your mouth.  Maintain solid eye contact.  Make each individual in your audience feel as if you notice them and are personally thrilled that s/he is here.  Your audience's comfort level has a direct impact on your comfort level.  Breaking the ice is your job. 
  4. Connect your audience to your topic.  This could be the single most important connection you make in a presentation.  To keep audience members from memorizing the vein patterns on the backs of their hands, you must engage them immediately and make them feel as if they have a stake in the presentation.  Give them a reason to be there and a reason to listen.  Make it personal.
  5. Connect with the energy and use it to guide your presentation.  Watch your audience for cues on when to elaborate or when to gloss over something.  Presentations are not about you.  They are personal experiences between your audience and your topic.  You are the messenger. 
So, how do we connect the dots in a way that draws a cohesive picture and would garner A's from our English teachers of high school past?

We must do a little research.  We must know our audience and the reason behind our presentations.  We must have clear goals.  We must care so deeply about our topics that we can allow our presentations to meander within the confines of our expectations.

Last week I spoke to a fourth grade class.  January was the teacher's month to help her students make a real world connection between what they learn in school and how this knowledge is necessary and applicable into adulthood.

In more ways than one, I connected the dots.
  1. My Topic.  Hello!  English, grammar, characterization, yada yada yada.  Easy peasy.  But I took it one step further.  I figured out how writers use each and every subject in school. 
  2. Myself.  I got out of my jammies for once and actually did my hair.  I wore the appropriate--adult, but not boring--clothes and tapped into my inner fourth grade kid.  Humor. 
  3. My Audience.  They're kids.  That's easy.  A smile.  A raised eyebrow.  A little wave to the shy girl who so wants to be noticed but will never tell you that.  A conspiratorial wink to the class clown when the teacher gives him a hard look and a subsequent finger to the lips to let him know we share a secret and we're in this togetherquietly.  It's easier than you think to play a room as long as you know your audience.  Once, when talking to the local Kiwanis chapter, I connected to my audience via the strongest presence in the room.  I told them I was woefully unprepared to speak to such a prestigious group of professionals, but when the judge asks, "What are you doing for lunch?" and follows your "Nothing" with, "Well, you're busy now," you have no choice but to say yes.  Even if you only had one hour to prepare.  It worked because every business professional has felt pressure from above.  This icebreaker connected us on a very real level.
  4. My Audience to My Topic. The teacher wanted me to talk about parts of speech.  The kids wanted to hear anything but that.  I met in the middle and asked if they'd ever had to write a paper for their teacher.  I asked if it looked like it had been shot with a red pen when they got it back.  Then I showed them my working binder of a manuscript with all the red lines and notations and scribbles and stickies and told them they were just like me.  With that simple prop, I showed them that we were on the same level: imperfect, yet ambitious (a very fourth grade trait).  That alleviated all the angst they were feeling and nudged their curiosity about the process.  Seriously, how does a mess like my binder end up in the library?
  5. The Energy.  I explained how a writer writes, read them a short story I'd written and answered questions.  When questions slowed, I hit them with a bomb.  "What subject in school does a writer never need to use?"  Math.  Of course.  It's so brain-opposite from the written word that it's obvious even to the youngest readers.  I then walked them through the various ways writers might get paid.  By the word, the page or the completed project.  They had to figure out which would be the better deal for the story I had read them.  A whole new round of questions followed based on this new tangent.  At the end of my presentation, a student raised his hand and said, "So, a writer really needs to know a lot about a lot of things."  Bingo!  The kids were happy, the teacher was happy and I was happy.
I'm gearing up for another presentation in a few weeks.  This one is for a women's group with members on the more experienced side of life.  I know they like to read.  I also know they don't have a clue what it takes to get those books on the bookshelf for them to enjoy.  My topic will be different, as will the way I present.  I'll dress differently and research different questions.  The only thing that will remain the same is my connection. 

I have never walked out of a presentation drained.  Instead, I'm energized and focused.  I feel renewed excitement, motivation and connection toward whatever topic I spoke about.  The minute that changes, is the minute I pack up my microphone and store it in the attic with the remnants of my shattered eggshell.

How about you?  How does public speaking make you feel?  If you're an experienced presenter, please share your tips with those just starting out.  If you've never given a public presentation beyond your high school speech class, tell us why not.  Do certain topics or audiences seem more appealing than others?  More terrifying? 

Curious minds want to know.


Jean Oram said...

It sounds like you rocked it! Good stuff! I love how you made it relevant to them. That's so key!

The biggest thing for me is to be prepared. Then I can chill out a bit and make eye contact--I'm not wiping the drops of sweat off my note cards. ;)

R.C. Lewis said...

I never took any kind of public speaking class while in school, and I was ridiculously shy as a child. (I still think I am--I've just figured out how to fake my way out of it now.) Now that I have a few years of teaching behind me, I can usually get up in front of a group of teenagers, no problem.

It's when there are other adults in the room that I start freaking out. Especially deaf adults, because then my second-language insecurity starts acting up.

I'm with Jean, though. Being prepared makes it easier. So does planning in a way that includes some fun, even if the topic is kind of dry or serious.

Maria S McDonald said...

I like this part: "Connect with your topic" - you have to present something you can connect with otherwise people can see you're faking it from a mile away. I also do tons of research - over-prepared is better than under, I reckon. And practice, practice, practice - even if it's only in your head :)

Marcia said...

Connecting with the audience, I think, is the tough part. I'm not a natural entertainer, and I sometimes fear that the big, connecting smile just strikes the kids as one of those too cheerful "Aren't we having fun?" things that adults do. Still, I've usually left most speaking engagements energized, and if drained, then in a happy way. Good points.

Leslie Rose said...

Great checklist. I'm passing this on to a few new teachers I know.

JoeB said...

I also get very nervous speaking to a group of people. If they already know what you're speaking about and will know if you slip up, it's really tough. But, if you are there because you're educating them on something they know very little about, you've got it made. They want to know what you have to say and are usually happy to listen. Stages are a problem for me. It's easier if I'm on the same level. Like in a crowd, it's much easier. So just remember, you can make a mistake and nobody will probably catch it.

Man of la Book said...

Connecting the dots is certainly important, but in my opinion there are two ways to get better at public speaking: preparation and practice.

Great post.

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