If you’ve ever dreamed of emerging from the shadows and taking your place in the leadership spotlight, solid presentation skills are a must. Having weak presentation skills puts you at a distinct disadvantage with your competition. But when you clearly and concisely communicate your thoughts—regardless of what you do for a living—people will take notice and listen.
Public speaking is scary for most people. You worry about looking bad and shy away from taking center stage in meetings or at industry conferences. But without practice, you will never improve, and the people who control your future career opportunities will not notice you. As an old Chinese proverb states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.” It is a perfect analogy for working on your presentation skills. Waiting will not help grow your ability to address an audience.
Remember, greatness in anything does not happen by accident. Fine-tuning your skills requires investing time and effort. Practice, dedication, coaching, contemplation, prioritization, focus and more practice are the only things that will lead you to become more confident on stage. And improving your speaking skills will improve your career prospects and odds of promotion.
Start by joining a Toastmasters Club. It’s one of the best places to gain knowledge and experience for business-related speaking. With more than 310,000 members in 126 countries, Toastmasters International is a leader in communication and leadership development. I encourage the people I coach to invest two years of active participation in a Toastmasters Club. I never met anyone who regretted the investment of time, because the impact on their career becomes self-evident.
I find it surprising how little attention business professionals, even those who have achieved high levels of success, give to their public-speaking skills. Most presentations are fine, but the presenters are the same driven, high-energy individuals who would never settle for “just fine” in any other part of their lives. Most assume they will do an adequate job and invest more time in creating beautiful visuals and handouts than in their delivery. But a presentation’s success is directly tied to the speaker’s ability to communicate ideas, not to the beauty of his or her PowerPoint.
Recently, someone complimented a talk I gave. He had seen me give a similar presentation the previous year. He thought I had done a good job then, but this time he was “wowed.” How had I taken the presentation to the next level? he asked. The answer is simple. In the past 12 months, I gave 50 more presentations. I learned something each time I spoke and never once winged it. Before each presentation I invested several hours in preparing, not just my PowerPoint, but also the words that I planned to use and the way I planned to deliver them.
Each year, I also attend more than 100 presentations, which I treat as my speakers’ college. No matter what the speaker’s experience level, I always learn something from observing them on stage—not just about the subject, but about how to appear more polished.
Here are seven tips that I picked up along the way:
1. Always learn. Remember that public speaking is a skill. Do not fool yourself into thinking that talented speakers are born naturals. While some speakers are blessed with talent, most who can “wow” an audience have invested a lot of time crafting their oratory skills. Invest time to improve your speaking or stay off the stage (and concede future career opportunities to others).
2. Give to the audience. It’s called “giving” a speech, so remember that every time you take the stage you are delivering a gift to the audience. Do not make the presentation solely about you or your company. Whenever you tell personal stories, make sure you share an underlying lesson with the audience and tie your words to actionable value points that people can use. Make the audience your priority and they will know you are doing this to help them (not yourself).
3. Release your personality. You are not an actor, so do not pretend to be something different than who you are inside. Be true. If you are not naturally funny, don’t try to tell jokes. Open the kimono and let the audience see the real you. Make your stories reveal the good, the bad and the ugly about what makes you tick. Everyone has something to offer an audience; be clear in what you bring to the stage.
4. Keep it positive. Never spend too much time on your own problems or start your talk by apologizing for being unprepared. Speaking is not free therapy. People do not care about your fears or other hang-ups. They care about themselves. They are interested in what information and knowledge you can provide that will help them in their own jobs. If you share stories that show your failures, be sure you tie them to lessons learned.
5. Dress professionally. People will judge you by the clothes you wear. In today’s casual society it’s easy to forget the old rules of making a good impression by dressing for success. Ask how your audience will be dressed, then select clothing that is just a little nicer than what you expect them to wear. Too fancy and you will look and feel out of place, but too casual and you won’t look professional.
6. Stay within your allotted time. Some speakers think that sharing important information gives them the right to run over time. But conferences have an agenda, and when the timing is off, everyone pays the price. If you speak for 10 extra minutes, you take away from other speakers’ time or make everyone stay late. Running over the agreed-upon time makes you look like an amateur, not like a great speaker who shared extra information. Respect the schedule even if you have to leave out part of your presentation. It’s better than droning on and on.
7. Share something unique and useful. Challenge the audience to think differently. A great speaker reveals new perspectives that matter to the audience. People remember speakers who choose creative topics and challenge the status quo.
In our highly competitive world, doing good work is not enough; you must also appear confident and prepared. When you develop your presentation skills, you improve your odds of stepping into the professional spotlight and finding career success.