Winston Churchill, one of the world’s most renowned orators, gave this simple advice: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Presentations are meant to whack people into action!
If you have something to say, say it with confidence and boldness, but most of all, leave no room for confusion about the message you are trying to convey. Make it so obvious that the listener cannot help but walk away with a call to action they cannot forget.
Martin Luther King, Jr. hit the world with a tremendous whack that still echoes today. His “I Have a Dream” speech is arguably the best speech of all time. In it King excels at using effective public speaking tactics to leave his audience inspired, eager to repeat his message, and most important, ready to take action toward the dream he envisions. King repeatedly uses the simple yet powerful phrase, “I have a dream…that one day” with consistent pauses and vocal inflections to create a captivating pattern that escalates throughout his speech. His stance and facial expressions evoke a confident yet authentic individual speaking from a place of undeniable passion to see that dream realized. King knows the needs of his audience and tailors his speech to ignite shared possibility in their hearts. His call to action invites and challenges them to initiate change: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” King’s sense of urgency draws excitement and fervor from his listeners as they feel empowered to take action in the fight for their equality.
Crafting a high-caliber speech like King’s not only requires creativity and zest, but a number of practical devices to capture the audience’s attention and hold it. The opening of a speech or presentation should always contain a dynamic hook. “Research has shown that the first and last 90 seconds of any talk will have the most audience attention.”[i] Therefore, don’t waste precious time with introductions, apologies, or meaningless jokes, as most speakers do. Instead, grab the audience by the collar, urging them to sit up and pay attention. For example, sharing a startling statistic or opening with an unusual anecdote that pertains to the topic may be an effective way to capture your audience right off the bat. You will project an immediate sense of confidence and authenticity as a speaker, gaining their trust and their listening ears.
Once you’ve got their curiosity and attention, let your audience know why they need to hear your message. When reflecting on the content of your speech, ask yourself, “So what?” Our natural inclination is to speak about what matters most to us, but in this case, the audience’s opinion is the only one that matters. Be clear about what you want them to do or how you want them to think differently.
Remember to address both the eyes and the ears in the room. By engaging both auditory and visual learners you will avoid the pitfall of losing half your audience before you reach your main points. Appropriate props, PowerPoint presentations, and movement around the speaking area create a visual experience for the listener. However, be careful not to depend on the slides for verbal cues in delivering your message—and whatever you do, never read your slides. If relevant, cite clear, reputable statistics or facts in an easy-to-read format such as graphs or charts. Visual tools help your audience remember the main points.
Seek to create a personable and interactive environment. Though business topics require professionalism, every listener has a heart. To balance the use of statistics in proving your point intellectually, consider what your audience cares about at the heart level. How will this message affect them or others? Sharing a succinct yet moving story or anecdote can invoke the emotions of the audience and stir enthusiasm for action.
Remember, presentations are not theatrics and, in fact, they are not about you. You are merely a vehicle to stimulate action from the audience. Through adequate practice you will develop vocal inflections, body movements, and facial expressions that connect your message with the audience and make it effective. Practicing the delivery is vital, but beware of the temptation to memorize your presentation word for word.
Create a clear path for your presentation so your audience can easily follow the roadmap. Every speech should be easy to follow—confusion hinders the audience’s ability to pay attention. One simple way to check for ease of navigation is by asking a colleague to listen to your presentation and provide feedback.
Closing well is vital. Your closing should be brief but memorable and should call the listeners to action. Imagine an individual from the audience asking you, “So, now what?” If you could leave them with one takeaway from the presentation, what would it be? Never end with “Well, that’s the conclusion of my presentation, any questions?” The last thing you say sticks the most, so choose wisely. Tell them what you want them to do, and be specific.
It took incredible courage for Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver his speech in the face of adversity. His willingness to give a voice to his dream changed countless lives and continues to inspire equality and justice throughout our world. This is the power of a brilliant idea paired with a dynamic voice. Presenting a speech is an extraordinary opportunity to inspire others toward making a difference in our world. Be that voice.