The Art of Powerful Communication

I’m not a massive fan of public speaking. I inevitably get those pre-presentation nerves that leave me wondering ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ or encounter those awkward moments halfway through where I being to suspect that the audience is bored out of their collective skull. Like, I suspect, rather a lot of the general population I just don’t think I’m that engaging a public speaker. I don’t have the ‘wow’ factor that some people have. My presentations are ok but they aren’t ‘did you hear THAT?’ awesome. That sort of charisma just can’t be taught. Or can it?

Fortunately for me last night I attended a fantastic UpRising Fellowship Master Class on ‘The Art of Powerful Communication’ and I’ve picked up some simple and surprisingly effective presentation tips. The session was led by the distinguished and infectiously enthusiastic Malcolm Smith. As a communication coach to the great, good and fabulously successful and the 2010 Vistage International Public Speaker of the Year it’s pretty clear that he knows a thing or two about how to impress an audience. Partly out of the hope that this will be helpful to others as adverse to public speaking as myself, and mostly so I don’t forget them, here you will find a selection of Malcolm’s straightforward tips on how to be a powerful communicator.

Step 1: What do I want to achieve?

So you’ve been asked to do a presentation, where to begin? Well according to Malcolm the very first things you need to do are:

1) Find out about your audience – who are they? Why are you talking to them? And

2) Establish what one, simple thing you want them to take away with them. What do you want them to do/think/remember? Write it down in no more than a couple of words, the simpler and clearer you keep it, the better.

Step 2: Mind Mapping

So you know what the topic and message is, how do you decide what to say? Malcolm’s favourite tool is Mind Mapping.

Now I doubt that there are many out there who haven’t encountered a mind map before. However, just in case, a mind map is essentially a way of visualising your thoughts and getting them down on paper in a manner more akin to the non-linear form in which they appear in your mind. Starting with a central idea you note down words, ideas or anything else linked to a main central idea. In Malcolm’s view they are key to reducing the complicated notions surrounding a presentation topic down to straight forward, simple and communicable ideas and, most importantly,  remembering them.

In his preferred use of the idea he recommends 5 key things:

1)      Start with your Central Idea reduced down to one or two words.
2)      Reduce your ideas down to just three (maximum four) key points, ‘People can only take away three things’ if you want your audience to remember your presentation, keep it simple.
3)      Use curved, not straight lines, ‘your brain likes curves’ so they are a good memory aid.
4)      Instead of drawing lines to your related points write along your lines, but only one word per point.
5)      Use colours – they are more memorable.
6)      Use pictures to illustrate your point, standard icons if possible (again, memorable)

Step 3: Box it up.

Now we’ve got the what, it’s time to structure it.

1) Order your points:

First thing to do is rank the points you’ve put in order of importance, which points do you want the audience to remember the most?  The audience are far more likely to remember the first and last points you make (‘primacy’ and ‘recency’ effect) than those in the middle so ensure that your key points occupy those positions.

2) Flesh them out (a little bit):

Now you’ve got your points ordered it’s time to explain what they are about. Summarise the argument behind your headline points in three short sentences. When you actually deliver your speech you will, of course, elaborate further (whilst keeping to the point) but at this stage it’s all about clarifying your basic argument.

3) Opening and Closing:

With the core of the central content of your speech sorted it’s time to establish how you’re going to grab your audience’s attention at the start and leave them impressed at the finish. Malcolm refers to these stylistic flourishes as your ‘Opening Bang’ and ‘Closing Bang’.

Opening Bang:

Malcolm was pretty vehement about one thing in particular; whatever happens; ‘do NOT start with your name, job title and company’.

You want to be getting your message across and engaging from the get go. There are other ways of getting this information across – you can have it on a slide or, if there is one, have the host or chairperson introduce you.

Given that pretty much 99% of my past presentations have started in a manner similar to this I was slightly perturbed by this prohibition. Fortunately there are lots of things you can say and putting the ‘bang’ in your opening really isn’t as tricky as it seems. Malcolm listed a variety of opening techniques:

Classical Opening – Get straight to the point ‘There are 3 key things you need to know about…’

Involvement – Get your audience involved, ask them a question ‘How many of you have…’

Dramatic – tell a story ‘I was x and y happened and suddenly…that is why (speech topic) is…’

(for a particularly, um, striking example of a dramatic/involvement opening see Steve Ballmer’s opening to a speech in 2006)

Rhetoric – Ask a rhetorical question ‘Who wouldn’t want to be a x’

Fact – Use a striking fact: ‘every day x happens y times’, particularly useful if you can make it relevant to the event and audience ‘in the time it takes for me to deliver this x long presentation, y will have happened’, ‘there are x number of people here, statistically y of you will z in your lifetime’

Closing Bang:

The same techniques as above are good for the closing bang as well, make sure that, whatever you say, it’s something you really want them to remember and is directly relevant to the core aim of your presentation.

Step 4: Delivery

You’ve boxed up your speech and created a fantastic memory aid for yourself. Now you’re clear on what you want to say it’s time to look at how you say it. Here are some of Malcolm’s most strongly recommended rhetorical devices:

1) Signposting – every time you start a new point, say so ‘my first point is about x, x is…my second point is about y…etc’ every time you make clear you are moving on to a new point your audience will reengage, preventing the typical mid speech ‘lull’ in attention.

2) Tripling – say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. It is particularly important to get your key message across at least three times in a speech. For whatever reason, human memories seem to like threes.

3) Make it relevant – find out about your audience, who are the big names in their field? What are the hot topics of debate? Work in some key names and phrases into your presentation, where relevant and appropriate to create more of a link with your audience. If what you’re saying sounds directly relevant to them and their everyday lives, they’ll listen.

4) Make it unusual – think of unusual ways to present facts, for instance, if you’re company’s got loads of warehouse space don’t say ‘we have x amount of warehouse space’ say ‘our company owns enough warehouse space to accommodate x number of Wembley stadiums’.

5) Use intonation – change the pace and tone of your delivery to emphasise key points.

6) Pause – don’t fear the silence, every time you make a key point, pause and let the audience absorb it before moving on. Likewise, if you have to look at your notes to remind you of what to say next pause, read, memorise, look up and then speak – looking at your notes whilst speaking is off putting for the audience.

7) Write down your opening and closing line in detail – the most nerve wracking parts of a speech are the open and close. Make sure you know exactly what you are going to say and write it down. Don’t read it from the card but just have it with you in case you in case you do need to check and ensure that you don’t begin or end by choking.

8) Slow Down – this tip is particularly relevant to me (I occasionally speak so fast that individuals un-attuned to my pace of speech can’t understand a word). What you are saying will have far more impact if you say it slowly and give the audience time to reflect on it.

Some final hints and tips:

Now you’ve got a handy tool-kit for putting together pretty much any presentation here are some final little pieces of advice:

1)      Love your nerves. In Malcolm’s words ‘you’ve got to be nervous to have energy’. Energy is what makes your speech exciting and a healthy dose of nervous energy can actually help you capture your audience’s attention. Don’t hate your nerves, embrace them.

2)      Be passionate. ‘It’s all about your passion – if you’re passionate I will be – remember you’re there to make a difference, not to read the notes’. Passion is such an important ingredient to Malcolm that he goes as far to say that if you’re not passionate about something (if you can) don’t do a presentation on it. Faked enthusiasm, however convincing, will never be quite as engaging as the real thing.

So that’s it. Turns out charisma isn’t just an innate trait. With handy hints like these and a fair bit of practice, the ‘dark arts’ of powerful communication will be revealed and just about anyone can learn how to deliver a pretty darn inspiring presentation. Thanks Malcolm!


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