Tips for Public Speaking, Pitching and Conveying your Message with Impact

Carlos Miranda Levy • 18 March 2019
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Public speaking can be a scary endeavor. A whole audience is focused on you, looking at you and attentive to your words and moves. It doesn't matter if they're 5 or a 100. And the worst thing that can happen is actually losing their attention and their focus on you. The future of your project, the recognition of the work done by your team, the respect of your peers, the experience of the night, they all depend on how well you do your job when you speak in front of others.

But actually, addressing your responsibility like that is the most common way to guarantee you fail to do a good job. You are not there to speak to others. If that would be the case, the solution is simple: have a bunch of note cards and go through them or a printed speech and boringly read from it.

Standing there and talking, going through notes, slides or paragraphs accomplishes nothing.

You are there to communicate something, to create awareness, to sell a product, to inspire people, to convince others, to get funding, to get their support, to motivate a response and generate action.

This requires that 1) you engage your audience to 2) convey your message 3) generating emotions to 4) create a reaction that 5) leaves a lasting impact on them.

It may sound like a complex and difficult challenge, but it is something definitely achievable with enough preparation and practice.


Visualizing the Talk and its Impact

Remember, you don't want to deliver a talk, not even a message. You want to connect with the audience, provoke reactions and generate and impact. There is a big difference in delivering a talk and achieving the former.

Style and Content

Both for the talk as a whole and for each part of it (more on that below) you want to define:

  1. Message.
    • what is the main idea you want to convey throughout the talk and in each segment)
  2. Emotion.
    • what is the feel, the feeling you want to associate with the talk and each segment. This includes pace (speed), awe, shock, provocation, happy, funny, formal, personal, thoughtful, peaceful, silly, humble. Try to avoid negative, sad, condemning and technical -- You can achieve the same and better results through other emotions.
    • The talk as a whole can and should be a journey through many emotions, but there is usually one that's dominant, and you may not want to stray too much from it or people may get lost or lose the point or emotional drive.
  3. Reaction.
    • What is the reaction you want to generate on the audience throughout the talk and on each segment. Reaction usually comes from a combination of message and emotion. Do you want them to be awed, indignated, motivated, inspired, puzzled, relaxed, trusting, distrusting, etc.
  4. Impact.
    • What is it you want to accomplish with the audience? Do you want them to question things, do you want to change their ways, do you want to contribute to your cause, do you want them to do something, view things differently, etc? Impact is what you want to happen after the talk, what you want them to take with them and keep and do later...

Structure

We approach this as a short story or narrative. But you still want to build an arc. You want ups and downs, changes in pace, tone and emotions.

Either the classic 3 act arc, or the W narrative, are good structures.

Conventional 3 Act Structure

The story is divided in 3 parts. Between each part there is an "inflection" point (usually called a plot point) that moves you into the next one. And within each part there is significant plot point or situation that sets the stage for what's coming and also allows exploring themes, topics and facts.

  • Setup
    • Includes an "Inciting Incident" that leads to an:
    • "Inflection Point".
  • Confrontation.
  • Resolution.
    • Includes the Climax of the Story.

W Structure

Also follows the 3 Act structure, but adds a couple of ups and downs to keep the story moving and allowing more perspectives and elements.

5 main points tell the story along three acts.

Each point is a corner of the W, hence the name.

  • Act 1:
    • 1st Trigger point (high): Where it all Starts.
    • Followed by a situation evolving that leads down to a:
    • 1st Turning Point (low), which leads to:
  • Act 2:
    • Recovering, on the way to positive, leading up to a:
    • 2nd Trigger Point (high), maybe a Climax, a small success.
    • Followed by evolving conditions, complications, challenges, that leads down to a:
    • 2nd Turning point (low), a point of no return, discovery or twist onto a new direction on:
  • Act 3:
    • Where the final and definite change has to happen, leading up to the:
    • Resolution (high).

Now connect the points and you will see the W :-)

Blocks or Scenes

Easiest way to structure your story, talk or presentation is to divide it in 6 to 8 blocks or scenes, storyboard style.

You can either do a little doodle or drawing for each and/or put a title, word or sentence that represents it.

This allows you to move them around and you will be surprised how easy and what a big impact shuffling elements around can have in the quality and impact of your talk.

As for the scenes/blocks you want to define the following for each:

  • Main "moment".
  • Transition to the next block/scene.
  • Feeling and Style.

Here are some examples I did during a workshop back in 2002 (yep, a lifetime ago) at a Digital Storytelling Workshop in the University of Virginia (ignore the actual content, I'm just sharing them to provide an idea of how to divide your talk in moments).

Opening

First 15 - 60 seconds are key. Your talk only lasts 15 minutes, so you have to gather the audience's attention early.

You want to generate empathy, interest, shock, awe, curiosity, wonder or question.

Some easy way to achieve this are by using:

  • a personal anecdote;
  • a 3rd person or fictional story;
  • a real life or historic event;
  • a shocking fact or statistic;
  • a personal or intimate question;
  • a global question; a paradox;
  • a joke;
  • a flashback;
  • a vision of a possible future;
  • an imaginary or ideal reality.

You want their empathy, sympathy, reaction... mostly their interest and attention.

No need to waste time introducing yourself, talking about you, your name, etc., unless it's relevant or part of the story or the presentation.

Closing

It's time to wrap up. Plan to finish ahead of time and not be rushed to finish. 

You don't need a grand finale. Your ending can be calm and soothing, uplifting, leave your audiences feeling worried or inspired. It can be an open question, a call to action. An invitation to reflect there.

Here are some techniques for closing that you can use individually or combined for better impact.

Callbacks

You can get your audience where you want them by going back to your opening and the situation or story you used to grab their attention. Comedians do this "callback" all the time, when they re-take a joke they made earlier and connect it to the current one or enhance it.

"Remember that child we talked about when we started? She will never be afraid again, for there is no reason to fear and she will never be alone again. She now has us and we are here for her". And show a picture of a happy child or bring a happy girl on stage. Cheezy example, but you get the idea.

Call to Action

Invite your audience to join you in your quest, but reassuring and highlighting the impact of doing so, or not doing it.

Brag

If you have some big accomplishments, you can save them for last. In case they were not convinced, awe them with a big fat fact or figure of what you've done so far, the impact you've accomplished or how much of the road you've traveled.

Offer, don't Ask

As you brag about your accomplishments, you can wrap up clearly indicating what you're looking for, what you want or need, what can happen if your audience responds to your call. You are not asking for a favor, gift or support. You are offering the opportunity to join something meaningful, grow and have an impact together. 

Epilogue

Describe a better future, what happens now, where you're going. Reinforce the notion of what you've done and get your audience to envision what you will do and what will happen.


Techniques for Grabbing Attention and Modulating the Flow

Impact Tools

There are two elements you want to make use of, but not abuse:

  • power phrases.
  • pauses/silences.

Use them too much and you over-do the drama, dramatic talks are out. No one wants to be lectured or made feel bad or too serious. They get plenty of that at Sunday mass, Sabath service or from their own conscience :p

But you do need pauses and silences to allow ideas to sink, for people to complete the messages in their heads and make them their own. Time to process and reflect, connect them with their own personal views and structures.

The art of storytelling is not to tell everything and have your audience complete the story in their heads so that the story becomes theirs.

And power phrases are what gets you quoted, tweeted, remembered. They are carefully crafted sentences that you will drop (usually before a pause) to summarize, convey and make sure your point comes out as clear and straight as possible.

You can choose to drop these power phrases either nonchalantly or with some drama or flair... if they're powerful enough they don't need much (not even the pause or silence after them), but people will react to them and they will stick to people.

Attention Grabbing Tools

There are some tools you may want to use as crutches, mainly because people like them and sometimes they are practical and come in handy:

  1. Facts.
    • But don't get too technical or detailed. It's one big, fat, juicy number, figure or percentage you will show. Just one, not bar chart or line chart, maybe a pie. But it works best if you leave out any other figure and just focus on one big number. ie. 57% of people this or that; 2 out of 3 customers tip more than waiters expect, etc.
  2. Tips.
    • People love tips, specially coming from an expert, which you are passing for or perceived as since you are on stage.
  3. Lists.
    • If you don't feel like lecturing or are too humble to provide explicit guidance, lists are a good way of sharing insights, lessons learned and personal observations and perspectives.
    • The great thing of lists is that they allow you to cover many things quickly and strengthen your message by giving credibility to it.
    • One trick is to go through the entire list, not too fast, with rhythm and cadence, like a soft rap, before going into each of them in detail, if you have to go into detail at all, often you may not.
  4. Paradoxes.
    • People love paradoxes, irony, sarcasm, unexpected twists and facts, and contradictory information.

Using one or two of these gives people a little of what they want, expect and are used to and eases their connection to your talk.


Visual Format

As for the format of the slides: the best layout is one big picture with a single sentence on each slide. if anything, a byline or smaller, secondary sentence below the main one.

No large bullet lists, no big tables with many rows and columns, no statistics charts with multiple series on them

Lists, you split them into one item per slide.

You don't want your slides competing with you for attention.

The audience's focus should be on you and you should be telling the story, not your slides.

You don't want people reading your slides, but reading your lips and focused on you.


Practice and Rehearse

Finally, practice, practice, practice: on your own, while walking, driving, in front of a mirror or not.

Not just in your mind, say your talk out loud, so that you can hear yourself.

Ask others to listen and provide feedback.

Change it until it feels right.

Do not try to memorize the words but to learn the flow and moments by heart.

Have a clear vision of your talk moments and components so that if you get lost, you know where you are and can quickly jump forward or sideways to another moment or element.

Have a clear list of points you want to convey so that if you get lost, you can review them in your head and make sure you cover them.


Be Ready for the Unexpected

Be ready for problems and practice your response to them. Here is a short list for which you should be prepared and have a response for. They happen all the time, everyday. Do not be offended if they happen to you and don't let them affect your presentation. Be ready to come out as a winner even if you're hit by the talk goblin or the pitch trolls:

  • the slideshow doesn't display.
  • the clicker doesn't work.
  • a video doesn't play.
  • a demo can't be presented.
  • there is no internet access.
  • there is no sound.
  • the figures are not legible (you shouldn't have small figures anyway).
  • your time on stage is cut short in advance.
    • you had 30 min, they just told you you only have 15 min now.
    • happens all the time.
  • you get interrupted by technical problems or any other reason.
    • often you can't go back to the beginning, so you have to make the best of it and graciously continue from where you were interrupted.

I hope this helps, let me know if you have questions, ideas and when you want to bounce ideas or practice your story or have me review your presentation.