The former US President Gerald Ford once said that nothing in life was more important than the ability to communicate effectively. Deborah Ogden explains why his words still ring true today
The ability to speak in public and pitch effectively for business is no longer a nice to have. It is a necessity.
The truth is you may offer the best legal services in the world, have years of experience and be technically brilliant, but if you are not able to communicate this to your target audiences, then you are limiting your effectiveness. All too often great work fails because of poor presentation. Even worse, mediocre work can succeed when presented with excellence.
Being able to present with impact is an influential component of your personal brand. To build such a profile, presentation skills are non-negotiable.
A client recently shared a story illustrating the potential gains when you seize the opportunity to stand up and present. The client had a fear of speaking which we discovered had its roots in her school days when a particularly unsupportive teacher would berate anyone who volunteered a wrong answer in class. My client could still feel the humility of this experience in the classroom thirty years on, and feared the same response if she ‘got it wrong’ when presenting to an audience.
Having worked together on her presentation skills, she was offered the chance to represent her department at a presentation to the senior management team. She agreed before she had the chance to change her mind. A few weeks later, the presentation was referred to by her HR director and senior partner when she was offered a role as a partner.
The fear of public speaking, known as glossophobia, is quoted as the number one phobia in America – above death and snakes. Symptoms are real, and can range from knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky legs and tightness in the throat. In extreme cases, sufferers experience nausea, panic attacks and excessive anxiety.
Why does standing up and speaking to an audience trigger such extreme reactions? Most of these symptoms are due to the increase in adrenaline produced by our bodies due to our primal flight-or-fight reaction. This primitive response still exists in us even though we no longer have the need to fight or run away from wild animals. The concerns we have before a speech or presentation – worrying what people will think of us, worrying that we will stumble over the words or forget what to say – are enough to trigger the natural or instinctive reaction to run away.
Learning to control these feelings and conquer the urge to flee the perceived danger, we can begin to enjoy the process of public speaking. Once you get used to controlling your adrenaline, you can then make sure you have sufficient to give your speech that extra boost, but not so much that it makes you feel like running away.
Preparation, performance and delivery
Faced with a presentation or the need to pitch, the default for many, to calm nerves and build self-confidence, is preparation.
Hours of research, fact finding, relevant case law and legislation ensure one can appear before an audience confident in one’s ability to answer questions and share knowledge and expertise. This is backed up by research from Nancy Duarte, communications expert and author of Resonate.
Duarte reports that as many as 86% of executives say that communication clearly impacts their careers, yet only a quarter of them put more than two hours into preparing for high-stake presentations.
Further statistics reveal that the focus of the preparation is on content and PowerPoint slides with minimum consideration and practice given to the delivery. Dedicating as much time to the performance and delivery will dramatically improve your presentations.
When we communicate, only 7% is conveyed by our words. Vocal impact accounts for 38% of understanding, and a massive 55% is attributed to visual impact – including how the speaker looks and their body language. For impact, effective delivery is crucial and shouldn’t be an afterthought.
When you next address an audience, take to the stage like an actor. Actors own their space, project themselves and connect with the audience. They are master storytellers – another technique that will change your presentation beyond recognition. Facts aren’t enough on their own: it’s crucial to appeal to hearts as well as minds, emotions as well as reason. Including compelling narratives and sharing relevant, personal experiences, will engage your audience, helping them relate to your content and ensure your message is remembered.
Translating complicated statistics into relatable anecdotes brings them alive for the audience. On launching 12-gig memory cards, Steve Jobs explained their capacity to store enough music to last a journey to the moon, and back.
Telling stories allows an audience to visualise and feel emotion, embedding it in their subconscious. Martin Luther King famously stirred emotion and inspired the masses when he said ‘I have a dream’. Would he have had the same impact if he’d said, ‘I have a plan’?
We also judge a speaker in the first few seconds. Recent research by Harvard Professor and Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has shed light on what it is we are assessing about someone in those initial moments.
We consider two things. Can I trust this person, and do I respect them? Psychologists interpret this as the behaviours of warmth and competence. Cuddy’s research went on to reflect that in a business capacity most people would rate competence as most important here – we all want to be seen as good at our job – however it is trust, or warmth which needs to be established first. Competence is important, but without establishing trust, it can appear manipulative and off-putting.
Building rapport with your audience is essential – a smile and open body language can help build connection.
So you’ve started with impact: hitting the audience with an attention-grabbing statistic or statement that makes them sit up and listen. Throughout your presentation, you’ve shared relevant anecdotes and brought key points and statistics to life without boring everyone with slide upon slide of PowerPoint.
And then it’s time for your climax – wrapping up your message with a compelling call to action. But how often does a presentation fizzle out and come spluttering to an end with a near apology? Always leave your audience on a high; wanting to discuss further and act, eager to share your message and find out more.
“All the great speakers were bad speakers first,’” is a famous quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. And it’s generally true. Few are born great presenters, it comes with practice. However, like so many challenges, the benefits far outweigh the discomfort and hard work. The ability to communicate, motivate and influence are necessary skills for today’s professional. As Marc Benioff, the US internet entrepreneur and philanthropist said: “Presentation skills are key.
“People who work for you represent your brand. You want them to present themselves – and represent you in a certain way.”
Deborah Ogden works with lawyers on their personal brand and presentation skills, and co-presents a Good to Great presentation skills masterclass. More details can be found at deborahogden.com.