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The Personal Touch: Delivering a Presentation (When You're Lousy at It), Part 1

You finally earned the spotlight. For the first time, everyone was in one place—and they were here for you. This will be the turning point, you thought. They'll never forget this presentation.

It was memorable, all right! You cowered behind the podium, punctuating every third word with "um," repeating your point before digressing into a new tangent. Your PowerPoint slides were army issue: a black glob of type that left your audience with squinty eyes and craned necks.

So your audience checked their watches, shook their heads, and muttered, "Wrap it up." Yes, your presentation hammered home one takeaway: This guy doesn't cut it. And if he bombs here, imagine how he'll do when it really counts!

In leadership, your success sometimes rides on delivering a clear and compelling message. Without that, you're relegated to a punchline. So to craft an unforgettable presentation (of the good kind), take note of the following strategies:

Manage your message. Reflect on a presentation you've attended. How long was it before you started to drift? Ten minutes…20, tops? And what do you recall—maybe a jaw-dropping stat or side-splitting anecdote? Did it really change how you work or live? Doubt it.

Heck, you probably remember more about your cohorts and meal than the message. How can you counter this now that the roles are reversed?

Start by streamlining your message. Don't deluge your audience with a laundry list, hoping something sticks. You know far more than you can convey (or what they need to know). Don't stuff five pounds of groceries into a two-pound bag; it only stretches so far. Instead, pinpoint two or three central points. Refer back to them as you determine what content is relevant.

In drafting your presentation, focus on organization. Are you addressing your highest priorities early? Do you define their significance and prove your claims? Are you looking to educate or inspire—and does your tone fit with that goal? Are you always sprinkling in "you" to address your audience?

Similarly, don't ignore the entertainment value. If you're blessed with a screen, illustrate a point with an "SNL" skit or action movie scene. A pertinent story, joke, or analogy has similar impact. You can also build in a slogan, encouraging your audience to chant it at key point to highlight a point.

Bottom line: Don't expect your words alone to be compelling. Use an array of strategies to make your message unique and memorable.

One more point: don't write your presentation word-for-word. You'll sound artificial. In the oral tradition, a few extra words won't hurt you, but a cluttered message will. Most times, a handy-dandy note card or outline works just fine.

Do your due diligence. As you plan your speech, reflect on your audience. Ask yourself four questions:

1. What do they have in common?

2. How well informed are they on your topic?

3. How enthused are they about being there?

4. What do they expect to gain from you?

By understanding the context, you can design a talk that fits the atmosphere. For example, let's say you follow other speakers. Learn what themes they're tackling, so you can tap into their work. Even more, know what that person who introduces you will say, so you easily transition to your speech.

Similarly, prepare for your surroundings. In particular, adapt to the size of your audience (and room). For example, addressing 10 or fewer attendees frees you up to ask questions and invite comments. It also gives you the flexibility to use tools like grease boards or flip charts.

In larger gatherings, you'll contend with space and noise, requiring you to pay closer attention to lighting, acoustics, and staging. As a result, you'll face less interaction with your audience.

Rehearse. Practice makes perfect, right? Start by focusing on your opening and close. The former will keep your audience tuned in; the latter often sticks with your attendees. Make sure you have both down pat, as they will make-or-break your speech. To be effective, you engage first, educate second, and reinforce third.

Second, simulate the conditions. Know where your audience, podium, props, and water will be placed ahead of time. If you're integrating PowerPoint, conduct a final run-through with your projector and laptop in case you don't have a techie on standby. Most important, prepare for the worst, such as a shrieking microphone or blank teleprompter. Prepare a back-up plan in case your tools fail.

Finally, get some real-time feedback by practicing in front of someone. Start with your content. Can your volunteer easily follow along? Do your points build off each other, creating a logical, unified flow? Are there places where your momentum slows or certain points seem irrelevant or redundant?

Also, have your volunteer study your non-verbal message. Ask him what two qualities you convey as you speak (and why) to determine if they're congruent with your message. For instance, does your crouched stance or jerky movements reveal defensiveness? How can you soften that impression? Identify whether your gestures reinforce or distract.

And don't forget your verbal communication. Does your volunteer feel your pace is rushed or protracted? Does your voice project to the back of the room, and do you maintain that range throughout your presentation?

Here's one more strategy: Sit down and watch your volunteer deliver your presentation. That way, you can experience it as an audience member. Otherwise, videotaping or recording yourself can offer similar self-awareness.

Next week, we'll look at how to connect with your audience.

SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at jschmittdbq@mchsi.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.