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What I learned from a year of public speaking

By Nick Leech - January 28, 2016

It starts with the words: “And now we’re going to have a short presentation on paid search from Nick Leech”.

Adrenaline floods out of my brain and into my bloodstream. I look down and I can see my shirt moving as my heart pounds. I lift my notes and start to talk. Everyone, surely everyone, can see my shaking hands?

Fast forward 10 years and I’m on stage at Microsoft Decoded. I’m relaxed. My pulse is below 80. And I’m enjoying myself.

So what’s changed? How has it gone from ‘oh no’ to ‘come on then!’?

I’ve just completed a year of public speaking like no other. Thanks to our events with Enterprise Nation, opportunities at the Business Start up show, the Digital marketing show, Google and a few others’ besides, I’ve been on stage over 20 times.

This post is to help anyone who has to speak publically and give presentations as part of their role. I used to think that it wasn’t for me. Now I know that with the right approach and some great content, anyone can do it.

1. Manage your physical reaction 

Being on stage puts you under scrutiny. People are looking at you. You’re out of the comfort zone.

We all have a natural response in times of raised tension: behavioral psychologists call it fight or flight.

Your body responds to the situation with primeval instincts. It prepares you for a time when you’d have had to either fight something. Or turn tail and run like hell.

The adrenaline burst affects your senses, making you hyper aware of what you can hear and see. The result is that you think everyone might be looking at you, and when you speak your voice sounds odd.

Your muscles respond by becoming sensitive to the smallest input, pulsing in time to your heartbeat. Any attempt to hold your hands steady has the opposite effect, amplifying the background tremor.

The first stage in overcoming this completely natural physical reaction is to recognize it. The second is to rationalize it.

I used to get annoyed that my mouth went dry. That I started sweating. That my heart tried to burst out of my chest.

Now I recognise that it’s happening, and I remind myself why – it’s the body preparing for fight or flight. I tell myself that my brain is pumping adrenaline into my body and my body is reacting to the stimulus.

Knowing this lessens the physical impact. As sure as your pulse has risen, so will it fall. It’s about having the confidence that this effect is only temporary.

This helps me come to the realisation that the audience doesn’t know I’m apprehensive.

You may think your voice sounds weird and inconsistent. That your shaking hands give you away. That your shiny forehead can’t be missed.

But no-one else will notice. They’re thinking about themselves, checking Facebook, deciding what they’ll have for lunch.

I’m not saying that your audience would rather be elsewhere. But all the time you’re up there, relax in knowing that most of the people are not focusing their attention 100% on you. They’re blind to the physical micro changes you think are so obvious.

2. Show your audience things that will change their life

This heading overeggs my point. Of course your presentation won’t cause the audience to rethink their fundamental priorities.

What I mean is: show them something that will make their job easier or better.

First, make sure that you’re not telling them stuff that they already know. Understand who is in the audience and their level of experience. Are they new to your industry or seasoned veterans?

Make sure that more than 80% of the advice you give is completely new to them. If they’re beginners then this shouldn’t be too hard. If they’re advanced then you will have to pick a narrow topic and cover it deeply.

If you say stuff they haven’t heard before then they will be hooked. They’ve given up their time to learn something new. And that’s exactly what you’re giving them.

Second, be clear that your advice is drawn from your experience. Use examples of when you’ve tried something and how it has panned out. Speaking from the heart has an authenticity that cannot be faked.

Third, make your advice practical and actionable. Give them three things that they can go away and do tomorrow. Connect your advice with their immediate development.

I firmly believe that you learn things best by applying theory to a real world setting. It’s about using the knowledge you’ve gained. Make this easy for your audience by giving them obvious actions to take straight away.

You want to avoid this kind of reaction

You want to avoid this kind of reaction

3. Make your deck look awesome

I can’t emphasis how important this is.

It’s very hard to be a great speaker with a poor deck. But a poor speaker can become good with incredible slides.

A strong deck serves many purposes.

It captures the audience attention. It provides a visual hook for their memories. And it stops people from staring at you.

Having the right deck gives you the confidence to give them best presentation you can.

So what do I mean by a great deck?

First: No bullet points. I mean it.

Take each bullet point and turn them into a slide. If you have lots of bullets then don’t worry. You just need lots of slides.

Contrary to popular opinion, a big slide deck isn’t bad. Having too much information on each slide is when things start to drag. So the solution to lots of slides is to show each one quickly.

One of the best speakers I’ve ever seen is Peter Hinssen. For a 30 minute presentation he must have close to 250 slides. But the visuals move so quickly you become totally absorbed, feasting on his narrative whilst the visuals add effect.

The other benefit of one message per slide is that you disable the audience’s ability to read ahead. The last thing you want is the audience reading all your bullets whilst you’re still introducing the first one. They won’t be listening to your commentary, and will be bored by the time you reach the lower half of the slide.

If you have no option but to include more than one point on a slide, then deliver the same effect through animation. You need to slowly reveal content lower on the slide, as you talk about it. That way the audience keeps focused on what you’re saying.

Second, use stunning images. Don’t settle for standard stock. An amazing visual will arrest the attention of the audience, adding weight and meaning to your words.

Make your main point in a short written sentence on top of the image. But don’t give too much away with words.

This isn’t a sales deck. It should not work without your spoken word. If it does, you might as well not be there.

Third, try to show a video or play music. Both forms connect emotionally with an audience, altering the pattern of their attention.
It doesn’t have to be a video you’ve made yourself, there’s lots of clips on YouTube that can make almost any point.

Last of all, never ever skip past any slide with a comment like ‘this bit’s boring’ or ‘you don’t need to see this’. I’ve lots count of the number of times I’ve seen this happen.

If it really is boring then it shouldn’t be in the deck. More likely that the presenter feels the session has lost pace and is trying to skip to a stronger part. That demonstrates a lack of preparedness that can turn audiences off in a heartbeat.

4. Tell them a story

Whether you’re writing a blog post, making a video or doing a presentation, great content needs to have a story.

The point of a story is to take the audience on a journey. The shared experience connects everyone in the room and makes it memorable.

The story can take many forms, but the best ones are from personal experience.
This allows you to use graphics you created along the way, be that photos, screengrabs or graphs.

Evidence that you lived and learned from the experience will hook your readers.

You start with a problem. You work out the different ways to solve it. You choose one and show how it all panned out.

This is exactly the format I use for a presentation about how to make blog that brings 1,000s of visitors.

We had a blog and it had few visitors. That’s because we weren’t writing well on interesting topics, and no one was discovering our work.

The solution is to understand what our audience is interested in and where we’re relevant. Then to produce compelling content on the topic that sucks in the reader. Finally to propel our posts in front of our audience at the exact point that they need the info.

Each step of the way there’s a practical example of how we tackled the problem at 123-reg, and what we learned along the way. The audience picks up bonuses when I recommend free tools that we use to do the heavy lifting.

Telling a story helps you express a clear opinion that you back up with evidence. That gives real credibility.

So consider how your presentation can be a story, and deliver it with gusto. Be enthusiastic. And demonstrate how you love your topic.

Audience involvement is crucial

Audience involvement is crucial

5. Involve the audience

I organised a strategy day last year. It involved ten presentations of around 45 minutes each. I’m pretty sure I almost killed the audience.

The problem was the format. It was information rich content communicated from each speaker to the group, with zero opportunities to interact.

That’s an extreme example, but even the shortest presentations will last half an hour. Most are longer. If your presentation is one of a series, your audience may well have been sitting several hours.

That’s a long time to be in one position, just listening. You audience’s capacity to absorb will almost certainly be almost full. And their enthusiasm for what you’re saying may be low.

There’s an easy way to fix this. And that’s to get your audience to participate by answering questions.

There’s a right and a wrong way to ask them.

First, make sure the questions you throw open to the audience are closed and not open. This means they can easily answer by saying one or two words, rather than a whole sentence.

So don’t ask ‘how do you make your website higher on Google’. Far better to say ‘which ranks higher on Google – big brands or small?’

Next, make sure the questions test them slightly, but not too much. The worst thing is to get a blank faces and with most saying ‘I don’t know’.

Third, set them a task them can complete in order to give you an answer. For example, ask them to take out their phone and search for something and tell you what they see. Most will do the task and then be more interested in shouting out their answer.

Last, ask questions where you can get answers from many rather than one. For example, ‘put your hands up if you have a mobile website’ involves more people than ‘what is the most popular social network’.

By involving people like this, you’ll be more likely to keep their attention.

That’s it

Through lots of practice I’ve learned how to speak publically and give a presentation that works.

It’s partly been about mastering the physical, and overcoming the psychological. It’s also involved partly creating great visuals, which accompany the right content.

Do you speak publically? Or have you got to step up soon? Please let me know what your have found works best in a comment.