How to be an Above Average Speaker

During my sophomore year at UC Berkeley, I worked on a social app startup called Impulse. My team and I had entered into a pitch competition with a bay area Venture Capital firm — and we made it to the final round! With pitch competitions, its common for everyone competing to be in the room as others present to VCs and judges. I was ready to present as the 5th speaker in line.

The first speaker presented; their idea was a breakthrough cloud seeding technology that would help restore water in California. Cloud seeding technology! Come on, how was a social app supposed to compete with that! The next pitches also involved high tech, diminishing my confidence to deliver the best pitch my team and I created.

I went up to give the pitch. After my first couple of sentences, I looked into my audiences’ eyes and I could only make out dead and uninterested faces. My head was focused on those faces, unable to remember the rest of my speech. I was silent for 10 seconds with “umms” dispersed in between. I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say.

Fortunately, the audience showed sympathy for me by clapping and encouraging me to continue — because I thought about just stopping there. After laughing it off and grabbing a sip of water, I finally remembered the rest of my presentation and delivered it knowing that we had absolutely no chance of winning.

After that moment, I wanted to learn more about how to deliver good presentations and become better at public speaking. I enjoyed watching presentations at conferences such as E3, CES, and product keynotes like Apple’s product launches. I’m still on the journey of becoming a better public speaker.

Recently, I read two books that I think offer tremendous value when creating presentations, and I wanted to share my notes with you all. Please enjoy 🙂

“Weekend Language” by Andy Craig and Dave Yewman

Main Point: On the weekend, we are all good communicators. We tell captivating stories. Our speech is conversational, simple, clear and interesting. We speak using examples, anecdotes, and analogies. But when we return to work, we rely on high-level concepts, technical language, and PowerPoint to present information. Instead, we should give presentations like we’re telling a story on a weekend.

Use the STORY format

1. SUSPEND POWERPOINT

  • “People who create their slides before developing their verbal narrative are just asking for trouble.” Slides should be the last thing that you create.
  • Don’t encourage death by PowerPoint.
  • You are the presentation, not your slides.
  • Good presentation designers try to keep their visuals so simple that the audience can absorb them in three seconds and then turn their attention back to the presenter for context or further meaning. 3 seconds!
  • Abstraction is the enemy in communication. Great communicators break things down so there is absolutely no ambiguity about what they want the audience to do, think, or feel.

2. TELL A STORY

  • Don’t use jargon.
  • Your audience cares about themselves. What do they get by working with you? How will it help their lives? Has anyone else benefited from what you do or how you do it?
  • Concrete details add color and credibility to your messages.
  • Look to add analogies.
  • If you have a backstory, bring it to the forefront of your next presentation because people love the stories behind the stories. They add context and understanding. They can be powerful and engaging.
  • Personal stories are another way to get your audience excited.
  • Incorporating stories requires the courage to try something different. You might fail. Do it anyway.
  • Using the word “imagine” is a great technique. For example, “Imagine you’re an elderly patient at the hospital…”.

3. ORGANIZE YOUR NARRATIVE

  • What’s your major message or takeaway?
  • Make sure it passes the: “So what? Who cares?” test.
  • You only have the first two minutes to capture the audience’s mind.
  • Get to the point, make it about them. “What can you do for me?”
  • Your message better be drop-dead simple for your audience to understand and without the need for any translation. It should clearly define what makes you different. It should be framed and articulated in a way that makes it easy to deliver across your entire team – with consistency. And it should mean something to every team member.
  • Be aware of “commodity language.” For example, everyone in the price-optimization software market talks about how they optimize prices. Everyone in the architecture industry talks about sustainability. How are you different?
  • Instead of telling your audience what your product, service or technology is, start by telling them what it does for THEM. What do they get?
  • Humans consume meaning first, details second. You need to give meaning first.
  • Good speakers never go long or over time. Never, never, never, ever.
  • Never use the words “dumbing down,” “high level,” or confusing acronyms

These are magic words to use (Make it so simple and clear):

  • Imagine…(tell a story)
  • What that means is…(Translate it so they don’t have to)
  • For example…(illustrate)
  • Our customers tell us…(No one cares about you. What can you do for them?)
  • Think of it this way… (Analogy)
  • What makes us different…(no time for ambiguity, call it out quickly)

Making the presentation:

  • First, know your audience and think about what they want to hear.
  • Second, what’s your headline or lede? Does it pass the “so what, who cares” test?
  • Imagine if you’re writing an article for the New York Times. What would the title be?

4. REMEMBER MEHRABIAN

  • Dr. Albert Mehrabian shows that vocal and nonverbal communication accounts for 93% of message understanding in certain circumstances.
  • Keep in mind: vocal inflection, pauses, body language, verbal pacing, hand gestures, eye contact, and physical spacing.
  • Tone of voice. Know how to emphasize certain phrases to create impact.
  • Pausing after punches to let the message sink in.
  • Vocal pacing: emphasis, intonation, and a conversational tone. Also, probably focus on slowing down since most people speed up.
  • Projection: Make sure your audience can hear you.
  • Get out of your chair when you practice. Stand up like you are delivering the presentation to an audience.
  • Eye contact: look at each member of your audience for 1-2 seconds.
  • Don’t stand behind a podium, don’t stand in one place.
  • Be open in your stance (like you’re giving a big hug).
  • Gestures: The bigger the room, the bigger the gestures
  • Gesture with your palms up. Don’t point unless recognizing someone for good work.
  • Smile very often. Smile. Just smile.

5. YOU MUST PREPARE

  • You can’t wing a good presentation.
  • Good presenters practice obsessively. Ex: Steve Jobs spent days perfecting his keynotes.
  • Practice out loud. Slides should be the last thing you focus on.
  • It’s ideal to practice 45 minutes for every 1 minute of speech delivered.
  • Use a video camera to understand points of improvement and awkward habits.
  • Ask people for feedback:


Lastly:

Good speakers tell great stories. Often they do nothing else. The best speeches are sometimes five or six stories linked by a common thread or theme.

If you tell more stories, use less powerpoint slides, and practice out loud, you’ll be the best speaker at your company.

“Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

How to create sticky stories.

Make stories that are:

Unexpected

  • The most basic way to get someone’s attention is to break a pattern.
  • Identify the central message you need to communicate.
  • What’s counterintuitive or unexpected about the message.
  • Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines. Once broken, help them refine their machines.
  • Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages!
  • Expose the parts of your message that aren’t common sense.
  • Figure out the main point you’re trying to communicate with your audience.
  • Create suspense: HUH? To “Aha!”
  • Create curiosity gaps: tell people just enough for them to piece it together.
  • Hook curiosity, what happens next?
  • Open gaps before you close them, don’t tell people the facts.
  • Highlight knowledge that they’re missing, pose a question that confronts the people with a gap in their knowledge.

Concrete:

  • Challenge them to predict an outcome
  • Think “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”
  • Messages cannot be allowed to grow ambiguous. Abstract language doesn’t stick.

Credible:

  • Tell stories using real people and specific details.

Emotional:

  • Promise reasonable benefits that people can easily imagine themselves enjoying.
  • In forming opinions, people seem to ask not “What’s in it for me?”, but rather, “What’s in it for my group?”
  • To get people to care, tap into their sense of their own identities, like the “Don’t Mess With Texas!” for littering.

Stories

A story with built-in drama is the most interesting: bring people on the journey of mistake mystery and discovery to keep them interested, instead of just delivering the outcome. That way people can mentally test out how they would have handled the situation.

There are three basic plot types:

CHALLENGE PLOT

  • David and Goliath. Protagonist overcomes the formidable challenge and succeeds.
  • Underdog. Rags to riches. Willpower over adversity.
  • The obstacles seem daunting.

CONNECTION PLOT

  • People who develop a relationship that bridges a gap – racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise.
  • Inspire us in social ways. It’s about our relationships with other people.
  • “Big meaning in small events” stories. Start with a small, specific situation or event, and then look for the larger connection to the greater human experience. These stories usually have a little surprise or epiphany in them that really drives the point home.

CREATIVITY PLOT

  • Involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, tackling a problem in an innovative way.
  • Good messages must move from common sense to uncommon sense.
  • When people tell stories that only have the common sense, they’re often remembering the entire journey in their heads, but only communicating the outcome.

I hope you enjoyed these notes on what makes a good presentation. I would like to leave with a tidbit I learned from HubSpot Founder and CTO, Dharmesh Shah. His presentations at Inbound, HubSpot’s annual marketing conference, are always so captivating (check out the one from 2018 to understand what I mean). When speaking with Dharmesh, he mentioned that comedy is the highest correlated factor to audience engagement. He even coined a measurement called laughs per minute. Dharmesh says that the optimal LPM is 2-3. So, if you can find ways to weave in jokes, by all means, test it out!

What do you think is missing from these notes? What have you found that contributed to the most entertaining and captivating presentations?

Do you have questions? Want to chat about the post? Message me: