When you absolutely must deliver the best presentation of your career, you can find yourself feeling paralyzed in the preparation. It is quite common for even the most savvy and experienced executives and professionals facing their most daunting audiences to find other things to do, besides get themselves ready for the big stage.
Complacency is the Enemy of Commanding the Room
As the stakes get higher and the audiences are more demanding; taking your performance to the next level is the goal. Yet paradoxically, it is especially challenging for leaders who are already comfortable in front of most audiences on familiar topics. Whether you are now preparing to speak to investors, shareholders, the board of directors, media, at a major industry conference, or to your own company’s leadership team, you have a short amount of time to make a powerful impression. How you get out of the gate matters, and commanding the room is a must.
Audiences are rooting for you to succeed, but they are also discerning, so make no mistake, they draw conclusions about your competence in leadership based on how you perform on stage. After two decades at this, I’ve witnessed that leaders who take time to capture their own thoughts their way, practice out loud, and say it from the heart, are the ones that impress audiences with powerful content and a comfortable, confident, compelling style.
Recently, I was preparing for a keynote and found myself avoiding the task. I had to go home, close the door, shut out the world, write, rewrite and practice on my feet. It was a matter of discipline, I didn’t enjoy it at all, until I practiced several times and it started to flow. As one of my mentors once said, this is necessary, because “practice is the work, and performance is the relaxation.”
It’s in Your Reach: 10 Critical Tips for Making the Presentation of Your Career
As the 10th anniversary of the best-seller Speak Like a CEO, Secrets to Commanding Attention and Getting Results is upon us, we’ve been refreshing some of the book’s advice to make it relevant for leaders today. What you’ll find below is an updated tip list on “Presenting to High Powered Audiences.” We provided this to a group of public company executives preparing for their investor day: however, these are ideas that work for any leader, with any audience, when the stakes are high.
I suggest you ask yourself this question: “Which two or three of these could I put into practice to raise my game and give the presentation of a lifetime?”
- Set aside practice time. Don't wait until the last minute. Depending upon the length of the talk, you may need to have a completed script a week or two in advance, so you can practice several times; put it onto your calendar as an appointment with yourself.
- Practice out loud. Out loud practice enables you to hear your presentation the way your audience hears it. This is an essential step in becoming a more powerful public speaker. It is not enough to review slides and notes silently at your desk or while traveling. Out loud practice also commits the script to memory and allows you to make changes so it flows when you give the real presentation. It is a myth that you can practice too much. Practice is the work, so you can relax when you’re on stage.
- Use a full-length mirror. Since you are your toughest critic, you will be able to recognize distracting movements, awkward stances and wandering eye contact right away. Practice with energy, as if it is real. Smile, make eye contact, and use gestures. It is also a good idea to try out your attire for each event, as sometimes clothing choices can restrict your movement or make you feel less confident on stage.
- Record audio and/or video. Record it on your phone and play it back, to identify areas that need improvement. With an audio recording, you'll be able to hear annoying vocal habits, areas of hesitation or uncertainty, and awkward sentence structures. A video recording is even better.
- Don't memorize. Instead, internalize the messages so it flows. Memorizing puts you in too much danger of forgetting what you want to say. It is a good idea to practice stories, phrasing and transitions, but don't be a slave to saying it word for word the way it's written. This will help you make your points succinctly and powerfully.
- Time your presentation. If you have a time requirement you must meet, timing your presentation will determine where you may need to eliminate or elaborate material. This is especially important for limited time presentations such as those to boards of directors, which are notorious for offering half an hour and then cutting a presentation to five or ten minutes.
- Use a friendly test audience. Asking a trusted colleague or mentor to listen to your speech will help you begin to feel comfortable speaking in front of other people. Ask them for their observations – what they liked, what you might improve, if they understood your message. On the day of the event, try to get in a complete dress rehearsal.
- Remember, you represent the brand. As a leader in your company, you embody your company’s brand, and everything it stands for. Own that and live it. Speak with confidence, conviction, power, and authority. Include stories and vignettes that bring alive the data. Relax and use humor and a light touch when appropriate. Be an avatar for your brand, with internal and external audiences.
- Be open to feedback. Although you are an experienced speaker, you may not be as familiar with these audiences – including investors, analysts, media, large conferences, even leadership forums in your own organization. Be open to learning about these audiences and how to communicate best with them. Ask for help from leaders who have presented to these audiences, and from coaches inside and outside your organization who can make you look good.
- Be true to who you are on stage. People want to know the real you. They appreciate learning how you think and who you are as a leader. Authenticity in our research is one of the most important qualities to winning trust. To be more authentic on stage, share stories, not of yourself as the hero, but you as the leader who has learned lessons you want to share. Consider incorporating fun, interesting visuals, so that you connect with the audience on a personal level.
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Praise for Speak Like a CEO, Secrets to Commanding Attention and Getting Results?
“…practical, helpful, insightful, and comforting. Suzanne Bates helps leaders learn how to find their natural and authentic voice, and does it with an informed understanding of the real everyday work of leaders.”
-Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Author of the National Bestseller Confidence, How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.
“Must-reading for anybody who wants to make a connection – whether it’s through a TV screen, in a boardroom, or on a stage.”
-Miles O’Brien, CNN News Anchor
“A practical, how-to-guide. Reading this book may not make you a CEO, but it should make you sound like one.”
-Charles Stein, Business Columnist, Boston Globe