When David Suzuki talks, people listen. At the recent Halifax launch of his new book, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future, Suzuki gave a one-hour presentation that received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.
Experts agree that too many public speakers make the mistake of relying on visual aids, instead of using them as a complement to a presentation. The result is a missed opportunity, says Marianne Gobeil, CEO of Leading Communicators in Toronto. Gobeil has coached many C-level executives, and she advises clients to avoid PowerPoint presentations altogether, or to keep the slides very simple.
“Not all PowerPoints are bad, but most contain so much detail that you’re asking the audience to read while you’re speaking,” she says. “A PowerPoint should be visually interesting, and support or enhance what you’re saying.”
A lot of IT people make the mistake of overloading their slides, says Neri Basque, executive vice-president of IT and strategic development at Virtual Agent Services in Moncton, NB.
“The slide isn’t speaking to the audience; you are,” says Basque. “People try to cram too much information onto the slide,” and as a result, the audience spends more time trying to decipher the slide than listening to the presentation.
Peter Poulin often uses PowerPoints in his presentations, but he’s careful about how he put the slides together, making sure they support the theme he’s trying to get across.
“Your PowerPoints become far better when you cut down the number of messages in them,” says Poulin, the CIO for Canada Revenue Agency. “People can only absorb three or four themes during the presentation.”
Make a connection
Having an impact on an audience is about making eye contact and connecting through body language, says Nancy MacKay, president of MacKay and Associates, a Vancouver-based communications consultancy.
“The most common mistake I see is presenters focusing too much on their slides, but if you consider that words and visual aids account for only about seven per cent of communication, while body language accounts for 55 per cent and voice 38 per cent, the focus is often misplaced,” says MacKay.
About two years ago, IT veteran Catherine Aczel Boivie hired MacKay to help fine-tune her presentation skills. One of the big takeaways for Aczel Boivie was shifting the focus of the words she used to the audience, instead of on herself.
“Before I would say, “I have three things for you to learn,’” she says. “Now I say, ‘you will learn three things.’ It’s not about me; it’s about the audience.”
Connecting with the audience accounts for about 90 per cent of effectiveness, according to Marilyn Latchford, an independent executive coach in Toronto, who advises clients who have a case of nerves to turn the spotlight on the audience.
“It’s not about you; it’s about the message you’re trying to deliver to the audience,” she says. “You want to turn your nervousness into positive energy because when you’re speaking to a group you need a lot more energy.”
David Booth remembers the first presentation he gave about 20 years ago. Now the CIO of North American Construction Group in Edmonton, Booth was slated to speak to a group of about 100 about IT’s ability to transform the business. When he arrived at the event, he realized the group was more like 600. That’s when the heart palpitations began.
“I knew my material very well, but when I got up in front of that crowd, I began the presentation by gripping the podium,” he says. “I can still remember the point in the presentation where I went from being terrified to thinking it was kind of neat. After that, I relaxed.”
Nervousness can manifest in a number of ways on stage: a quivering voice, pacing across the stage or a general sense of unease – all of which the audience tunes in to. Most of those symptoms arise from the speaker focusing too much on not making mistakes and wanting to do a good job, says Jim Key, Toastmaster’s 2003 world public speaking champion.
“(Speakers) need to realize that most audiences don’t want to see them fail as a presenter, but rather succeed in communicating their message,” he says.
Key suggests speakers find their authentic voice, whether they’re speaking to a group of 20,000 people or a meeting in the boardroom with peers. He says pesenters sometimes make the mistake of donning a “speaker persona” when they’re on stage, but it would serve them best to “be their natural selves.”
“When you’re in that natural mode of being yourself, it is much easier to be authentic and have greater credibility. With those two things, your audience will be much more receptive to your message,” says Key.
Think you can wing it? think again
Both communication experts and veterans on the speaker circuit say preparation is a presenter’s best ally in delivering a quality speech. Some speakers are under the impression that because they know their subject matter so well, they can simply wing it.
“The best preparation is to put your own material together, and solicit lots of feedback ahead of time,” says Booth, adding that he often takes advantage of reference materials from agencies such as Forrester and Gartner, which have extensive research on effective communication techniques for CIOs.
Those who think they’re too busy to put in the time usually pay the price because if the presentation style is not smooth, the audience picks up on it, says Daniel Rex, executive director of Toastmasters International in Rachos Santa Margarita, Calif.
“It’s not enough to have the presentation formulated,” he insists. “You need to get in front of a person or two and practice. There are endless benefits to rehearsing; it creates familiarity with the material and gives you an idea of the timeline.”
Investment leads to returns
Speakers who are serious about maximizing the opportunity speaking engagements afford often turn to agencies such as Toastmasters International, a non-profit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. With more than 260,000 members in 113 countries around the world, it helps people of all backgrounds, including IT, become more confident and effective in front of an audience, says Rex.
“It’s interesting because there’s a big difference between comfort and ability,” he says. “Many people are comfortable leading a meeting or speaking in public, but the fact is they’re not very good at it.”
Booth joined Toastmasters about two years ago, and says his experience has been invaluable, both in improving his presentations and in teaching him one of the most important lessons in effective communication.
“It teaches you to listen, which for me doesn’t come easy,” he says, adding that the benefits have been realized in tangible ways.
“I was presenting to the board of directors and spent no more than five minutes talking about the IT direction, and the rest was all about return on investment, my run rates and the financial (aspect) that boards are interested in. After the meeting, one of the board members applauded the speech and said, ‘we hired you because you have an IT philosophy, but we don’t need to hear it.”
CIOs should regard speaking engagements as an opportunity to demonstrate their acumen as a key member of the corporate strategy team, says MacKay.
“It’s about having an impact, making a contribution and being viewed as a strategic partner in the business, rather than a techno whiz.”
Many people can be effective leaders to a certain level, points out Latchford. But until they can share their vision and inspire the masses, their opportunities for advancement are limited.
“I’ve seen people with a lot of skills in other areas who have not advanced up the corporate ladder because of how they present themselves.”