Three Simple Tricks to Improve Your Big Talk
1. Shake up the opening Forget the obligatory opening joke. It's been done to death. Everyone is expecting it, and they may not be in the mood for it. Instead, use your opening moments to emotionally connect with your audience. Tell a short, personal story (doesn't have to be funny), or relate a recent personal or family event. Of course you will use this story to casually segue into your presentation topic.
"Before I start, I just have to express how proud I am today. My daughter was just accepted into law school. We are just so proud. After years of hard work, and chasing her dream, I received this text from her yesterday.....there was a picture attached. I wasn't sure what it was at first, but I opened it, and zoomed in ...my eyes aren't what they used to be...and I started to read. I immediately forwarded the picture on to my wife, who called me three seconds later. I answered the phone, and there was no speaking. We were both crying. After a few seconds of that, we talked, and then called our daughter, and cried some more. All this happened within a couple of minutes. Wow. Our daughter is really amazing. And hey - technology is amazing. I have some amazing things to share with you guys today.
Of course you will be appropriately choked up during this story, and the audience will be eating out of the palm of your hand. And off you go.
Telling a joke to lighten the mood has its obvious merit, but it is strictly one-dimensional - lightening the mood, before you bring it back down again. By telling a personal, emotionally-charged story, you accomplish a few things. First, you bring your audience close to you. They will feel as if they know a bit about you already. Second, because you have been so candid with them, you will have earned their trust. Everything you say from that moment forward, will carry more weight, and will be more readily believed. Third, you have engaged them. Your audience is now listening. They like you; they trust you; and they believe you.
A joke won't accomplish this.
2. Tell stories
Not to be confused with number one. Telling stories leads to significantly better fact retention. Flipping through slide after slide, throwing facts and figures at the audience will not work as well as you think. People will retain facts much better if they are part of a story. Even better: personalize the story. Explaining, say, that the cost of xyz has gone up 8% as related to the cost of abc, is fine, but it's just numbers, and that's boring. Instead, build it into a story. Relate is as something you did. Put real names and faces to the data. Make the numbers just part of the storyline, rather than the whole story. Remember those mnemonic devices we learned to remember things (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, for the notes on the treble clef)? This is the same idea. Search up stories on well-known business or sports figures, and make it work with your data. There is always a story that will fit. Failing that, use your own story. The data hidden within the story will be absorbed more than you'd think.
We've all heard this one before, but it's a big one. It's also the most difficult for nervous presenters, but with some practise, it can be mastered. Dynamics while presenting refers to two things: pace, and volume. We want to speak HIGH-LOW-FAST-SLOW. We all know that monotone presenting is torture. So how do you use dynamics? The first thing I always suggest is to study acting. No, I'm not suggesting that you spend four years, and thousands of dollars enrolling in the Yale School of Drama, but by just paying attention to powerful acting performances in TV or movies, you can get a great idea of how dynamics play a big part in getting a message across. Imagine your speech as a rollercoaster ride. Now, you can design this roller coaster any way you want, but you want to make it an exciting ride. There must be a beginning; there must be climbs, hills, speed, slow-downs, turns, and an end. Now, put your voice on that roller coaster that you've just designed, and speak with the ride. Slowly, calmly climbing the hill, building tension and excitement. Racing down the first hill with the wind in your hair. Slow down a little as you take a sharp turn. Speed up a bit. Up-down-up-down, before finally slowing down to a complete stop - CH-CH-CH-CHHHHHHHHH! Now do it all again. The point is, your voice needs to change. Just like the rollercoaster, you need to be slow, then fast, then whisper quiet, then loud, and then stop completely. The order depends on your subject and order of content, but just keep it moving. One of the most powerful tools is the complete stop - that's where you go completely quiet for a few seconds. It will feel like an eternity to you and your audience, but they'll be on the edge of their seats, just waiting for that ride to star again. Next time you are rehearsing your talk, don't forget to build your rollercoaster.