Public Speaking Skills: The First Principle of Great Presentations

Before sharing with you some general advice about principles of public speaking, I am assuming that you know that great presentations take hours, sometimes days, of dedicated preparation. I do realize that if you make presentations to clients on a regular basis and it’s only the actual content that changes, you won’t have to spend a great deal of time preparing after the first couple of times.

However, I base all my seminars on the principle that to present at your best, you must be prepared to prepare. Both your material and your self.

First Principle: Aural (listening) and visual communication are very different

The saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ can be true. Keep that saying in mind when using visual aids. Use a picture, diagram, flow chart or other image to convey visually what you’d need a thousand words (or so) to say. Your use of visuals in a presentation should illuminate the meaning of your spoken words.

Great presenters support their visual images by speaking in detail about what is being conveyed visually. That tactic is very useful and extremely powerful. It focuses the minds of the listeners simultaneously on the message which they’re receiving both visually and aurally (by listening).

When you show a slide of a rose but you talk about lemons – not that you’d dream of something as silly as that – but when there is a conflict between the visual image and what you’re talking about, confusion follows. Human beings find it difficult to listen to your words, while simultaneously looking at images about something even slightly different via your visuals.

Yet, even the most experienced public speakers do that. They spend their preparation time really well by distilling some complex information into a great diagram that is clear and easy to understand. They create that great visual and then talk and on and on (and on) – about something else.

We’ve all paid a huge entry fee to hear great public speakers present their information to an audience of people keen to hear them. We’re just relaxing into the presentation when up on the screen comes a diagram that looks like a circuit for a computer. Boxes all over the place, a few arrows going both ways or in circles and a colour/color scheme that confuses the listeners even more.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but University lecturers have been the worst offenders to date. The others are the people whose information is extremely up-to-date and very valuable but they haven’t invested enough time learning how to present their gems.

My approach to public presentations is inspired by something Albert Einstein is alleged to have said:

“If you really understand something, you can make it understandable to a ten year old.” So, be like Einstein: keep it simple. Your words and your visuals.

There’s a related rule I use in my own presentations. You don’t have to follow it, it’s just my advice. That rule is:

If your visual aids don’t stand alone, or make sense by themselves, dump them. If you don’t discard them, please at least have a very good second look at them. If your visual material is going to require lots and lots of verbal explanation, sorry sweetness, but they’re too complex for a public presentation. You can of course include them in your conference paper. That’s a different medium of communication altogether.

So to sum up that fundamental principle of good oral communication: never confuse your eager listeners by presenting difficult-to-follow visuals which in turn, are out of synch with what you’re actually talking about.

Public speaking fear can mar your presentation

A big reason for under par presentations is one with which we all feel some empathy. The person speaking is a world expert on the topic but… s/he is has such high levels of fear of public speaking that it becomes easier to hide in visuals. Worse still, some very nervous speakers resort to standing there and reading their presentation. I know that everyone can conquer their public speaking fear. If fear of public speaking is more of an issue for you than preparing your talks and presenting them using clear and simple visual and verbal language, I urge you to get the help to conquer that public speaking fear.

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