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Speaking of Success
Steve Clements

Say it.  Be brief.  Be seated.

Reasonable rules for the message you are sending, but with one glaring omission.  You!  Who you are, your personality and way of conveying that through your speaking style is crucial to communicating successfully with an audience of one or a thousand and one. 

Sure, it’s all there in your presentation: the goals, the approach, the message, the pitch.  Unfortunately, those are just words – albeit well thought out words – on paper.  Most of us about to make a speech, presentation, or address in a group meeting spend hours refining the words we will use and the thoughts we plan to express.  Then we practice aloud time and again.  Well and good.  But how often do we practice being ourselves, acting human and approachable? 

In reality, how you convey your message is as important as the message you convey.  In fact, it’s the deal maker or breaker.  It’s that simple.  Your oral communications style can keep your audience at a distance and discourage attentive listening – or it can invite the audience in, making those individuals move toward the goals you have set. 

Think about. Ronald Reagan is touted as having been the great communicator.  Why?  Because no matter what size audience he addressed, President Reagan’s affability was so infectious that even a difficult message became easy to accept.  Likewise, John F. Kennedy is remembered more for his style, personality and humor than the work he accomplished in his three short years in office.  His ability to communicate made the mundane sparkle.  Even his very imitatable jab of an index finger towards an audience became beloved. 

This becomes even more critical in the world of technology.  How often have you watched your audience glaze over as you talk about bit streams, browsers, logic and URLs?  Or assumed the flash and glitz of a new power point capability or laser presentation will lead to a follow-on dialogue?  How you present the heart of your message is still the telling factor.  This should come as no surprise. Communications represents 70%-90% of activities in the work environment, 45% of which is time spent listening. 

So how do you keep your audience listening?  By making yourself approachable.  By moving away from stiff formality, and towards your own personality and distinctive mannerisms.

Whether you are addressing current or prospective customers, employees or stakeholders, software designers or marketing professionals, you must, ultimately, strive to be conversational—to embrace the entire group, no matter how large, with your words and style. 

To attain inclusiveness when speaking: 

  • Eye Contact:  Whether talking one-on-one or to a group, maintain direct eye contact with your audience.  Eyeballing as many participants as possible captures attention, and each person returning your look sends unconscious confirmation that your message is being received.  If someone appears to be “glazing over,” draw him back into the “conversation” by maintaining eye contact for a period of time.  Pose a rhetorical question and look for a nod that signals he is re-engaged.  However, remember to glance down occasionally for eye relief.  A direct, non-ceasing stare makes your audience uneasy and, therefore, less apt to listen. 
  • Volume:  Adjust the volume of your voice to the size of the group and your surroundings.  It seems obvious, but few people do.  If you are in a breakout room in a conference center, up your volume to counter the high ceilings and lack of wall coverings. And vary your vocal tones to separate your points definitively and make them more interesting.
  • Pauses: Use them!  Your won’t lose the audience.  Rather, a pause allows the audience to digest, reflect, and accept the points you are making as well as lends weight to your last comment.  So pause, smile if appropriate, take a drink of water, or just scan across the audience. 
  • Animation:  Look alive.  Standing?  Assume a confident stance and keep your hands above your waist, ready to gesture.  Lean towards the participants, facing first one section of the room or table and then another so no one is neglected.  Sitting?  Sit up straight and gesture as appropriate. 
  • Lecture:  Use it!  A lectern offers numerous opportunities for body movement that enhances your presentation and establishes authority.  First, stand tall at the lectern – even if you’re not.  Now, take a small step backwards.  This little bit of distance will you keep from leaning over or on the lectern, a position that works only after you have established a familiarity with your audience. 

    Now, move forward and backward behind the lectern, even walk to the side if you are not restricted by a microphone.  And, as you make a point, take a pace or two back to demonstrate the power your words had on you. 

By the way, this works without the lectern.  Think of a Jay Leno who stands in the middle of a stage and turns left, then right, stepping back now and again after he delivers a bit of information or joke.  You can do the same. 

  • Index Cards:  Throw them away.  Those seemingly inconspicuous bits of paper can be more damaging than helpful.  Rather than using cards, print your key words in large font on one standard sheet of paper.  Then a jog of the memory is just a glance away. 

Finally, structure your message to leave room for “hope.”  Even when conveying bad news, include some positive note that allows your audience to continue listening.  For example, if the company is suffering a downturn, project a note of optimism about the benefits the changes ahead might bring.

A Few Other Basics

As far as the basics, have a trusted contemporary tape your next presentation or ask a professional communications trainer to help evaluate your non-verbal – and often unconscious — cues.  Stroking a comforting lock of hair when you’re talking or finger combing across your scalp signals to your audience that you are frustrated, nervous – or both!  Moving your fingers over your mouth or cheek when making a point blocks out any volume your voice might carry.  And, for those of you who reach for an object with which to play, gesture or flail into the air, be aware this can convey discomfort and makes your audience edgy. 

Having said that, if you have a particular mannerism or gesture that is part of your personality, use it as an effective non-verbal cue.  Think of Johnny Carson’s tug to adjust his tie for transition or Bob Dole’s use of a pen jab to demonstrate authority (and cover an incapacitated hand).  Gestures like these, which often buy the speaker a comfort level, become characteristic and invite audience familiarity.

Bottom line, no matter how raw or seasoned you are as a speaker, refining your skill as an oral communicator who can get a message across will translate into heightened awareness, increased leadership roles and, ultimately, coveted positions.

This article appeared in TechLINKS, an on-line technology-focused media company providing continuous, sought-after information and market intelligence to executives, managers and professionals.

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