We’ve called upon our resident body language expert, Sharon Merrill EVP and Partner David Calusdian, to teach us to become better speakers – whether at meetings, investor conferences or in more personal settings. This four-part conversation provides a taste of the good, and bad, habits of executive presenters, with a few tips for improvement along the way. Today’s post is the finale in the series.
The Podium: Well, David. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, when you share your deepest presentation secrets. What are common mistakes you’ve seen presenters make over the years?
DC: Let’s start with nervous habits. Nervous speakers will fiddle or fidget with anything. The reason is that many people do not know what to do with their hands. Some put their hands in their pockets, making them look stiff. Others fiddle with the keys in their pocket, a pen, a wedding ring or other jewelry.
The Podium: What does it mean?
DC: It’s a bad habit, and it sends a nervous signal to the audience.
The Podium: On a related note, we often hear that speakers should not pace. Why is that?
DC: When you get out from behind the podium, some people stand in one spot, and some walk around. But presenters need to be certain they aren’t just pacing back and forth repeatedly, or shifting nervously from side to side.
The Podium: What positive actions can we implement to improve our presentations?
DC: Let’s talk about posture. One goal when presenting is to have a good presence. So if we slouch, we won’t have the same credibility as someone who is standing up straight and appears to be very confident.
The Podium: For much of this series, we’ve focused on speakers who are standing. What about speakers who are sitting, as in a meeting or on a discussion panel? Should they do anything differently?
DC: First, when sitting, you usually have a table in front of you. You would then want to lean forward. Once you assume that position, though, you should maintain it. For instance, if you’re leaning forward for most of a presentation, and then someone asks you a question and you suddenly lean back, that can be a signal that you’re uncomfortable with the question.
The Podium: So which is more important, leaning backward or the change of position?
DC: You need to really know someone to be able to read their body language.
Let me give you an example. I was at an investor meeting with a CFO – he was sitting forward, very engaged. And then an investor asked him about a part of the business that wasn’t performing well, and he casually sat back and folded his arms. The change was abrupt. The investor might have sensed a difference in tone but might not have specifically noticed the change, unless he was trained in body language. To someone who knew the business and the CFO’s sensitivity about it, it was fairly obvious.
The Podium: Have you ever met people who say they’re just naturally good speakers?
DC: Some are, and there are certainly different skill levels. But even people who are naturally gifted still need to practice to be at their best.
The Podium: So what do you say to people who don’t want to practice and just want to read a script?
DC: Reading directly from a script is never the best situation. When I see a speaker, I expect them to know their material and to be an expert in what they’re talking to me about. So from an audience perspective, I question why you need a script.
The Podium: What does script-reading communicate?
DC: You look like an anchor on the 6 o’clock news. We know they’re not an expert on the war in Afghanistan; they’re reading from a teleprompter. This is an important point: anyone could read a script. And if you are presenting on your topic of expertise, you want people to understand that you’re an expert.
At the same time, you do need to prepare your material in advance. And to be a great speaker, you need to practice that material enough to sound natural. People sometimes say, “I don’t want to have something prepared in advance, because I don’t want to sound scripted.” Well, if you don’t have something prepared, your presentation may come across like amateur hour. You need to have something prepared and then practice it enough so that so it sounds like a very dynamic you.
The Podium: It seems like knowing your material well enough allows you to focus on the other aspects we’ve been talking about.
DC: Exactly. Tips alone will not make you a great speaker. It takes a lot of work to be able to use good hands gestures, make eye contact, know exactly what you’re going to say and say it with dynamism. Having the text memorized enables you to incorporate all of those elements. And when you present, you don’t have to have it down word for word, but you should know the content well enough to be able to make it look like you’re speaking off the cuff.
The Podium: This is our final question, the one we all really want answered. What is the risk of not being a good speaker?
DC: It’s all about credibility. Many presenters spend inordinate amounts of time developing their PowerPoint presentations, and then they don’t really think about what they’re going to say or practice it. The delivery, which is where most of the content is and what the audience is actually paying attention to — is lost. Especially now, when people are looking at their phones for most of a presentation, you need to capture your audience. You have to have a great delivery, or your content won’t get through, and you won’t generate the credibility you’re seeking.
David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues.
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