Stand up and speak: presentation excellence

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“Before you speak, think: is it necessary, will it improve on the silence?”

A few weeIMG_3274ks ago I was invited to deliver a session helping leaders be better public speakers. The inviter is the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS), a flourishing contributor to thinking on new ways of developing leaders, and indeed on leadership- leading itself. Set in the magnificent landscape of the UK’s Lake District, a place I know and love, and on a theme on which I’ve both appetite and expertise, saying ‘yes’ was easy.

IFLAS had asked for a few words to help promote the seminar! Capture the tacit, summarise a process, define impact in words that would be meaningful for an as yet unknown audience – harder than saying yes but a great opportunity to model how I work.

Having a moment of helpful detachment (airport transits are so great for ‘time out’) and a cheeky look at what other people do was helpful.

So how do we create excellent communication? How to stand up and speak with confidence and credibility?

It’s all in the foundations.

Step one: define WHY you want to speak (your objective)


speaking at the invitation of the Ministry of Higher Education, Uzbekistan, the British Ambassador and British Council Tashkent for 200+ of the country’s top researchers

So why do I want to deliver the seminar? What’s in it for me? Because I believe excellent communication is less about who we are as speaker but about throwing attention and understanding into the audience position. It’s all about the audience. I value the audience time –they are I’m guessing, busy people who could choose to do a thousand and one other things besides coming to a presentation. I don’t want to waste their time. I want to serve them as usefully and kindly as possible (though that’s not to say it’ll be easy!).  Comparing to what others’ push for presenting excellence, this is a relatively unique approach. I know it works and I want to share it. This is my WHY.


The next step is another W question: WHO for? Who are my audience? Audiences come in as many different sizes, shapes, backgrounds, ages and combinations of all the above (and gender blends) – a rich Schwitter’s esque collage. Their wonderful tableau requires careful attention: what dJo_pp_photo30o they already know, how much detail do they need, what biases and barriers to me or my content might they have, are their cultural norms to be met or worked around? All of these require a little detective work yet are essential questions to answer to reduce the odds of failing these wonderful people to somewhat beyond that of chance.

This is hard work. It takes time. But, borrowing from another branding, it’s because they’re worth it.

So on to the last W – my audience’s WHY. Why should they bother to listen / read / turn up/ tune in? What Critical Difference will this piece make to them?

My technique for this is very specific and comes down to three things

  • What will they KNOW that is new? (that they didn’t know before)
  • What will they FEEL that is different? e.g. now I feel confident to …..
  • What will they DO or BE ABLE TO DO that they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) do before?

Once we know who our audience are and why they want to join the party, we use this knowledge to build content (what to include and what not), structure (what’s most important, what lines of reasoning) and select an appropriate voice (authority, persuading, neutral etc).  Knowing our audience will also inform our choice of language, rich media, visual vs word balance etc.

Knowing your audience, focusing on meeting their needs also takes the pressure off you. If it’s all about them, why not relax, be fully present in the room and enjoy the multi-logue!

Or as Sufi poets / Sri Sathya Sai Baba / someone on Facebook once said (you choose):

  “Before you speak, think:

Is it necessary?

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Will it hurt anyone?

Will it improve on the silence?”

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