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Express your best self: Go for connection, not perfection

In a previous post for SmartBrief, I introduced four simple steps for creating a powerhouse presentation. This post takes a closer look at the finer points of connecting with an audience in a way that is uniquely your own, making your message more personal and resonant with your listeners. Read the whole series.

When you are about to step up to deliver a presentation, you may feel like the audience is an adversary. If so, you may be surprised to learn that, with rare exceptions, your audience is really cheering for you; they want you to succeed.

Whether listening by choice or out of a sense of obligation, your audience members want to feel they are investing their time well. They have a purpose for being there: to learn something that helps them do their job, to understand where the company is going, or to gain inspiration about their work. To make them feel like your talk was a good investment of their time, you must “own the room.”

Sound like a tall order? I’ll let you in on some best-kept secrets for expressing your best self so that you radiate ownership every time you speak.

Shift your mindset

Many people already have the skills they need to give a good presentation, but their heads are in the wrong place. These critical mindset shifts can help you get out of your own way and tap into your best self.

A presentation is an enlarged conversation. If you were talking with an individual or small group at a dinner party, what would you do to have an interesting conversation? You wouldn’t think too hard about gestures or vocal variety -- you’d use them naturally because you’d be engaged in what you’re saying and who you’re speaking with. A presentation is simply an enlarged conversation.

The skills you use in an intimate discussion are the same ones needed for a presentation: eye contact, an audible voice, a vocal tone that matches your words, and facial expressions and gestures that match your content.

Your audience wants connection, not perfection. Take the pressure off. Your audience does not expect or want perfection. As a matter of fact, sometimes perfection can make your audience suspicious -- "What’s really going on? What’s he not telling us?" If you connect with them in a meaningful way, they will forgive any number of faults and listen intently.

When you step up to speak, instead of trying to be flawless, focus on what’s important to your audience and engage them in the conversation. Authenticity always trumps perfection.

There are enough ways in the world for everyone to have their own. There is not one right way to make a business presentation; there are many right ways. You do not have to present like your boss or your colleague or that TED Talker who’s always held up as an example. You can be yourself with your own style. Make your own best presentation your own best way, using your own natural talent.

Of course, it’s helpful to know the ground rules for presentations, and that’s what we’ll be discussing here. But once you know them and can use them well, you can choose where to bend them and where to flat-out break them.

What language does your body speak?

Even seasoned presenters can be uncomfortable getting up in front of an audience. When you feel this way, your body language often reflects your emotions. You may unconsciously stand in a closed posture, limit your movement, or use weak gestures, any of which can make you appear less confident.

The best presenters get everything working together: their words, body language, facial expression and voice. When all aspects of your presentation are in sync, you will find that your audience not only gets the message, but they are also inspired to act. To enhance your delivery, consider these tips:

Speaker stance

The speaker stance is all about using your posture to communicate presence and poise. Stand tall with your shoulders back. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart, with your weight evenly distributed. Imagine your legs are trees with their roots going down into the floor: you are grounded.

If it’s more comfortable for you, place one foot slightly in front of the other. This position helps you avoid the tendency to rock and prepares you for movement. (But look out for that two-step: one step forward, one step back, one step forward, one step back. Don’t make your audience seasick.)

Tip: To practice a strong and erect posture, balance a book on the top of your head.

Gestures

Adding to this strong posture, relax your arms at your side. Keep your elbows slightly bent with your hands at about waist height. This position primes you to gesture. And, frankly, if you stand like this very long, you’ll feel silly, so you’re forced to gesture.

Gestures reinforce your message and help people understand what you are saying. Chances are, you already use your hands in casual conversation. Let that movement become a natural part of your enlarged conversation with the audience, as well. Make your gestures numerous, purposeful and varied.

Intentional movement

I am often asked, “Can I move when I speak, or do I need to stay in one place?” My answer? Assuming you are speaking in person rather than on videoconference, of course you can move! Just make sure it is purposeful.

Moving with intention demonstrates confidence in yourself and your message, emphasizes and reinforces what you are saying, and creates inclusion and connection with the audience. But avoid dancing, pacing and aimless wandering, or you are sure to distract the audience.

Be sure to move across the stage or around the room to include all members of your audience. On a large stage, come closer to the front of the stage if possible. Imagine three bus stops: one far right, one middle, one far left. Walk to each and stop there for a portion of your speech. If in a conference room you must stay in one location, pivot your body to face each section of the audience directly. Everyone wants to be included.

Tip: When you want your listeners to pay attention to a slide or consider what you’re saying, stop moving.

Facial expression

When you speak, your facial expression helps your listeners interpret your words. A monotone face requires your audience to listen harder. Instead, strive for animation and match your facial expression to your words. Happy words, happy face; serious words, serious face. It’s that simple (of course using the full spectrum of emotions). Beyond that, I can offer this piece of advice . . .

Smile

Smiling makes people instantly feel comfortable and welcomed. A genuine smile lights up your eyes even before your lips move, telling your audience you are sincere. When someone smiles back at you, you know you’ve engaged them. Even if you don’t outright smile, maintain a pleasant, neutral facial expression.

Tip: Practice smiling while waiting in line at the store, driving your car or sitting at your desk.

Eye contact

As a presenter, using your eyes to engage your audience is critical to creating a sense of confidence, establishing credibility, and building rapport. The overarching guideline: During your presentation, maintain a minimum of 90% direct, continuous and roving eye contact.

When speaking to a crowd, you may be tempted to use a “soft focus” on the whole group or several people at a time. You may want to give your attention to your notes, slides, flip chart or the back wall. Or you may -- without even realizing it -- speak past your listeners.

Instead, look directly at individuals within the crowd and speak to their eyes. Hold eye contact with a person for about three seconds, and then move on to the next. Or look at one person until you finish making a point, and then move to another person for the next point. The idea is to appear comfortable making eye contact, so if it helps, find a few people who are smiling, nodding, and showing support, and focus on them.

Tip: Try to notice if you tend to favor one side of the room (usually the side of your dominant hand). To ensure everyone is included, it may help to visually divide the room into sections so that you address all of them. Turn your head, pan your body, walk around the stage, or even step out into the audience to make sure you include everyone.

The four P's of vocal expressiveness

How much time do you spend thinking about your voice or how you come across as you speak? Whether you’re speaking at an industry event, a quarterly board meeting, or a town hall, it’s crucial to align what you say and how you say it. In fact, I would venture to say that vocal expression is as important as getting your message right.

While many people ignore vocal delivery altogether, the other extreme is to become hyper-focused on it, which can make you seem disingenuous or as if you’re “overacting.” To avoid these extremes and find your sweet spot, consider the four Ps of vocal expressiveness.

Power

Power refers to volume, or how loudly or softly you speak. It’s no secret that adding volume to your voice is essential for making sure everyone can hear and clearly understand what you’re saying, especially in a large room or in a remote setting. Yet your vocal power can also convey emotion and confidence to your listeners. Using more vocal power gives you energy and authority, and expresses conviction. That’s why you naturally speak in a louder voice when you want to get listeners fired up about your topic.

Tip: If you’re concerned that you may not be heard across the room, or during a video call, simply ask someone to raise a hand if they’re having difficulty hearing you. Listeners will be happy to help and may even pay closer attention to what you are saying.

Pace

Pace refers to speed. Many people speak too fast because they’re nervous (or unprepared), making it difficult for the audience to keep up. At the opposite extreme, speaking too slowly or at an unvaried pace has put many an audience to sleep.

Make a conscious effort to vary your vocal pace. Slow down for important or complex information so that listeners can process and understand. Speed up to highlight familiar points and keep listeners engaged. If you struggle to slow down, practice pausing in places you would use a comma in written language; just take a breath.

Tip: A natural, conversational tone provides vocal variety and helps you make an emotional connection with your audience.

Pitch

Pitch refers to your vocal inflection -- the rise and fall of your voice as you speak -- and helps to convey emotion. When your pitch is too extreme, it can be unpleasant to listen to. When it’s monotonous, it may cause your audience to let their attention wander. Use variety in pitch to keep your audience’s attention.

Another widespread practice is the tendency to end each sentence with a raised pitch so that it sounds like a question. Referred to as upspeak, this change in pitch may detract from the speaker’s credibility. Instead of raising your pitch as you near the end of a declarative sentence, using a downward inflection will enable you to gradually return to a conversational pitch as you reach the end.

Tip: Does your voice shake when you are presenting? If so, try this breathing exercise before you step up to speak.

  1. Slowly breathe in through your nose, counting 1-2-3-4.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds (if comfortable).
  3. Breathe out through your mouth, counting 1-2-3-4.
  4. Pause for four seconds before slowly breathing in again.
  5. Repeat this process two times more.

Pause

Pause refers to the space between sentences, phrases or words. Think of pauses as verbal punctuation marks. They help your audience understand and relate to your words by providing microbreaks to process information and to rest. Pauses also give you time to breathe, and breath gives you more power and control of your pace.

Many speakers are uncomfortable with silence, so they fill the empty space with “um,” “ah,” “like” and “you know.” We’re all human, so a few filler words here and there aren’t usually a problem in a business presentation. However, if a pattern develops -- if people start tallying up how many times you say “so” or “like,” turning it into a game -- you’ve got a problem. When your audience is distracted by filler words, they’re not focused on your message.

Real pauses at the right frequency punctuate your message, add weight and gravity to what you say, and give your listeners the necessary time to digest what’s being said.

Tip: If you are a fast talker who never pauses, try this: Grab the novel on your nightstand and read out loud for a few minutes. Every time you come to a comma, pause for a second. When you come to the end of a sentence, pause for two seconds. When you reach the end of a paragraph, pause for three seconds. While this may feel awkward it will help you become more aware of the impact of a pause.

“Own the room.” Still sound like a tall order? Apply these best practices to your delivery style to project confidence every time you step up to speak. And as you become more familiar with the rules, you can decide which to keep and which to break.

 

Intrigued? Be on the lookout for my next post in this series, where we’ll look at the importance of engaging your audience through dynamic, interactive conversation and a well-executed Q&A session.

Stephanie Scotti coaches leaders and their teams for every type of presentation, from Fortune 500 CEO keynotes to TED Talks to multimillion-dollar pitches. Find her bestselling book “Talk on Water: Attaining the Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations” at Professionally Speaking Consulting.

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