Be the king of presentations

COLIN FIRTH’S portrayal of George VI in The King’s Speech will have struck a chord with many in business. True, they might not have had to address the nation as it goes to war, but many will have faced the ordeal of delivering speeches to a large live audience. It’s one of the hardest things in anybody’s career. So how do you do it better?

A large part of delivering a speech well is about structuring it, says Liz Banks, managing director and a senior trainer at Skill Studio, a company that trains people to give better presentations and counts 50 FTSE 100 companies as clients. “The point of a speech is to communicate information to an audience. Make sure that it has a clear, simple structure, a strong opening and ending, and that each section does too. This is the skeleton that holds your speech together, and helps to prevent you going off on a tangent,” Banks says. Speaking in shorter sentences helps too, making it easier for the audience to understand what you are saying.

You should not use a script, but neither should you just freewheel. Use bullet-points that direct the speech. That said, if there are technical parts of the speech, for example legal language where the exact formulation of words is very important, then it is right to read those out. If the message is clear people are more likely to keep listening, which will build your confidence.

There are also tricks to encourage the audience to react in a certain way. Katie Best, director of the MBA course at BPP University in the City, on which students learn presentation skills, says that “A three-part list can work wonders for prompting applause. Or a longer list with the final part as a contrast can do the same. Our ears appear to be trained to pick out these constructions and see them as places where we should clap.”

Dramatic pauses are also important, says Best. “But make sure they are in the right place. Punctuate your speech with gaps in the wrong place and audiences will find themselves drawn to the wrong points. It may lead the audience to think you said something that you really didn’t, or at least that you didn’t mean to say.”

Body language also matters. Liz Banks says that you should “walk out with confidence, and stand with weight evenly on both feet. Take your position slowly and make sure you are comfortable before you begin. Start clearly and slowly, without fidgeting or mumbling. Work on breathing slowly and deeply – concentrate on a long out-breath and the in-breath will take care of itself.”

While speaking, make eye-contact with random members of the audience from time to time, and focus on them for three or four seconds to create a connection with the audience. “It also gives you a nice easy head-movement. People often hold their head to one side because of tension,” Banks adds.

Also remember to play to your strengths. People tend to concentrate on what they do badly, forgetting what they do well. Try to minimise the former, and maximise use of the latter. Hard, but worth it. As Katie Best says, “A well-delivered talk can change the average manager into being perceived as a leader.”

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