Disclaimer: I’m not a public speaking coach. I’m a strength and conditioning coach who has been blessed with a number of recent speaking engagements. Further, I’ve received zero formal training in the realm of public speaking. What I lack in formal education, I more than make up for in the willingness to say yes when asked to address a room full of people.
What follows are a few things I’ve done over the years that I feel markedly improved my presentation style. These are also things I address with inexperienced speakers who reach out to me and ask for guidance.
I believe the things I’ve eliminated from my presentations have done more to improve my delivery than those that I’ve added, so I’ll start there.
Abandoned Speaking Tactic #1: An Overly Long Introduction
It goes a little something like this: the clinic host reads off a four-paragraph bio detailing the minutia of a speaker’s career. No accomplishment is left unrecognized. The audience is engaged initially, but soon check their watches and realize it’s 5 minutes into a presentation and they’ve learned nothing. The host passes the baton to the speaker, who proceeds to go through THE SAME INFORMATION provided by the host’s introduction. Then, they go on to discuss and thank the host, the sponsors, the host site, and of course God, their family, the family dog, and each of their 15 “mentors” (curiously, some of these mentors they’ve never spoken to or even met). A quick glance back at their watches tells the audience that 33% of the allocated time slot has been usurped by inane pleasantries.
But wait…there’s more!! At least 5 more minutes are needed to cover every detail of the speaker’s current situation. The audience absolutely needs to hear all of this. How else will they understand the context of the presentation? You know, the one they won’t hear 1/3 of due to time running out?
Someone reading this will take exception to these statements, claiming that it’s necessary to give context and to thank relevant parties. They’re probably reading this thinking I’m a jerk.
They would be right on all counts.
In truth, we all know that context matters and that being gracious to people who have given you opportunities is tremendously important. But so is concision. And so is your audience’s experience.
Because of this, it’s my goal to be through my first two slides (title and bio) in under 2 minutes so that I can move on to what matters: content. So let’s talk about how to better deliver that.
Abandoned Speaking Tactic #2: All the Words!!
If you’re reading from your slides, the audience is too. They aren’t listening to you, nor should they. It’s much faster for them to just…read the information off of the slides.
Aside from the overall aesthetic of my presentation, reducing the number of words on my slides is probably the portion of presentation prep that I currently spend the most time on.Aside from the overall aesthetic of my presentation, reducing the number of words on my slides is probably the portion of presentation prep that I currently spend the most time on, says @missEmitche11. Click To Tweet
Admittedly, it makes my life more difficult when in front of an audience. I have a friend who says talking to me is like having a conversation with Dug the dog from the movie Up. If a squirrel runs by during my presentation and there’s very little on my slides? I’m cooked.
So how on Earth am I going to prevent Dug from earning the cone of shame as my train of thought inevitably careens off track during my presentation?
Dug and his cone of shame #Up pic.twitter.com/rC7pSXkw
— Disney UK (@Disney_UK) January 1, 2013
Ummm, idk, practice? Use presenter view with a few notes to jog my memory? But mainly…practice. Not only does it help me seem and feel more confident having already run through the presentation prior to the big day, it also helps me determine if I’m going to get through the entire presentation in the allotted time or if I need to include less.
On a related note, unless I plan to specifically discuss a photo or graphic on a slide, I’ve stopped including it. I want the audience focused on the information being delivered, not a funny meme. And no matter how applicable and funny that Ted Lasso clip is, I’d think long and hard about whether or not it adds true value to a presentation or if it just generates a paltry laugh and wastes valuable learning time.
Speaking of things that often waste time…
Abandoned Speaking Tactic #3: Q&A time!!
This will probably be controversial and it might be incorrect, but I’ve found allocating any of the allotted time to Q&A to be less than productive. All too often, “questions” are in fact statements made by audience members in an attempt to seek validation. At best, they are tangentially related to the presentation. At worst, they turn into a monologue/rant.
When there are actual questions, I’ve noticed they tend to be so specific in nature that they hold little relevance for other audience members. These questions are best addressed one on one rather than in a group setting.This will probably be controversial and it might be incorrect, but I’ve found allocating any of the allotted time to Q&A to be less than productive, says @missEmitche11. Click To Tweet
One caveat to my anti-Q&A stance is in the context of hands-on presentations. These tend to lend themselves very well to more of a discussion format, since the presentation is punctuated by breaks transitioning from movement-to-movement. In fact, I encourage people to stop and ask me questions in hands-on formats. Maybe it’s my own comfort level with this presentation style because it feels like what I do every day: answering a billion athlete questions in the weight room?
If not via a formal Q&A at the end of a presentation, how do I address relevant audience questions? First, I try to make a pre-emptive strike. I gather intel on what type of person my audience might include and plan the level of content accordingly. Next, I practice. I practice one or two times on my own to get the kinks worked out, and then I am gracious enough to allow my husband to listen to me speak (he’s soooo lucky).
Anywho, after I delight him with this incredible learning opportunity, I ask him several questions:
- Do you have any questions about what I just presented?
- Was anything confusing?
- Do I need more detail anywhere?
- Did you learn anything new?
Based on his questions and feedback, I’ll go back in and clarify my message as I see fit. My goal is to leave the audience feeling as if they have a good handle on the topic, versus leaving them with 21 questions.
Next, I make myself available after the presentation to answer questions. A lot of those “questions” (read: monologues) go away when the person no longer has the floor. And the really specific questions that rely heavily on an individual’s context? Now I’m in a much better position after the presentation to take the time to give a more thorough answer that might actually help them.
So that’s what I’ve deleted—or attempted to—from my presentations as I’ve grown more experienced. But what have I added? A few things.
Addition #1: Something Usable to Take Home
We’ve all heard the clinic mantra: “If I got one thing out of it, it was worth my time.”
It’s 2022—if you’re speaking at or running a clinic where you’re only giving people one piece of usable content? You’re doing it wrong. Really, really wrong.
That’s honestly a cop out, giving presenters a free pass to spend a whole lot of time promoting themselves and not very much time giving back to the audience. Beyond that, a cursory use of the Google can quickly teach me “one thing” from the comfort of my couch and at the low price of zero dollars.
Let me, however, clarify what I mean when I say “something usable”—I’m not an advocate for presenting programs in their entirety. By which I mean, I won’t do it. The audience doesn’t have my facility, my athletes, my background, or my coaching acumen—they have their own versions of those things, and their program should reflect that. I also can’t possibly unpack all program inclusions of even a 4-week block of training in a 90 minute presentation.
So, I don’t try.
Instead, I present principles and systems that can be incorporated into existing programs when altered to fit unique contexts.
Sample take home items from my presentations? Shared folders with training progression videos, PDFs of a sample 8-week plyometric training progression, PDFs of conditioning guidelines by phase of training.Sample take home items from my presentations? Shared folders with training progression videos, PDFs of a sample 8-week plyometric training progression, PDFs of conditioning guidelines by phase of training. Click To Tweet
This gives attendees multiple pieces of potentially usable information. It also saves me about 50 extra “hey, can I get your slides” emails.
I give all this out via QR code during the presentation. As an added bonus, now they have whatever it is in the palm of their hand. I’m free from worrying about fitting such a large volume of information onto one slide in a font size that everyone is able to see. The audience is free from the frustration of not being able to see a table in 6-point font from 30 yards away. I can also spend less time talking about the minutia of whatever it is I’ve given out, and instead focus on the bigger concepts that will assist with modifying and implementing that information into their own training programs.
So now they’ve had the opportunity to listen to a fluid presentation and they’ve received something practical to take home with them…but as my father always told us: there are no free lunches in this world. So, the next thing I’ve added to my presentations is something for the audience to give me.
Addition #2: Feedback Form
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters in a speaking engagement is whether or not the audience benefitted from the content and delivery. Aside from “reading a room” and seeking pats on the back after the fact, a speaker often doesn’t receive any objective feedback unless it is actively sought.
I stole this idea from Jenny Rearick, speaking coach extraordinaire: asking audience members to fill out an anonymous feedback form delivered at the end of the presentation via QR code. Jenny has a list of potential questions, but the ones I’ve chosen are:
- How will you implement what you learned today with your athletes?
- What is one thing you learned from the presentation that you didn’t know previously?
- What 3 words would you use to describe me as a presenter?
- If I gave this presentation again, what would you want to know more about?
- How could I improve the delivery of this presentation?
Real talk: I speak frequently, and I often upcycle the same or similar content for different speaking engagements. Feedback from attendees can be tremendously helpful in shaping the efficacy of my content and delivery over time.I speak frequently, and I often upcycle the same or similar content for different speaking engagements. Feedback from attendees can be tremendously helpful in shaping the efficacy of my content and delivery over time. Click To Tweet
On the note of delivery, my final addition is one that I feel has been the most beneficial for me.
Addition #3: Pre-Game Routine
You read that right. I have a routine the day of a speaking engagement. I’m quite introverted and the need to be “on” before, during, and after speaking can be taxing. Gone are the days that I get to roll up to a clinic as an unknown face, give my presentation, and walk out.
Now, I’m often working these events and I’ve been coaching long enough that I know a lot of people, so there’s a lot of shop talk that goes on. Which is great, that’s why you’re really at a clinic, but if I don’t have some time to myself the day of, I’ll implode. Hence my routine, the high points of which are as follows:
- Prior to departure:
- 30’ Zone 2 work.
- Look over slides.
- Get the lay of the land/technology setup.
30’ Out from Presentation:
- Go into hiding, headphones on.
- Look over slides one last time.
- Pace around for 2-3 songs.
5’ Out from Presentation:
- Talk to host/answer any intro questions.
- Have a few brief conversations with friends in attendance (helps it not feel like a 0-60 mph transition to speaking).
Then, it’s go time.
Once I’ve finished speaking, I try to decompress a bit and reflect back on how I think it went and how I could improve. Sometimes, you’re fortunate enough to get videos of your presentation, which allows for a more objective—but hopefully not cringe-y—self-evaluation. From these reflections, I’ve determined three primary areas I am seeking to improve in my upcoming speaking engagements.
Work in Progress #1: Reduction of Filler Words
I really like have, uh, some trouble with, like, slowing down and like just pausing between words briefly. Instead, I like use a lot of, um, words…and, like, none of them do anything other than to like make me like sound nervous and incompetent.
Both of which are possibly true, but I don’t have to show that to the world when someone is paying me money to appear otherwise.
In all seriousness, I recently listened to a podcast that had me on as a guest. I was mortified. All of the filler words. Every. Single. One. To the point that I wondered if the easiest way to modify that behavior would be to wear a shock collar with the voltage increasing with each verbal misstep.
That’s probably not a safe solution, so instead I’m really focusing during my practice sessions on slowing down when I talk and pausing when I feel the urge to say something useless. I anticipate a lot of pauses in the future.
Work In Progress #2: Extension of Grace
I recently changed jobs. In truth, I’ve changed careers. It’s drinking from a firehose. Amidst this change, I’ve had two speaking engagements, this article to write (which I’ve been putting off), a masterclass I haven’t even started, and the list goes on.
I usually start prepping for presentations well in advance, even if it’s just a mental outline. Two weeks out from a presentation this past June?
Nothing. No outline, no thoughts, not a thing.
I’m not a person that asks for help very often. Okay, fine: never. But as panic set in, I phoned a friend. I needed someone to help funnel the storm in my mind into usable content. To summarize, I needed someone to do my homework for me so I could roll in and get the gold star on my chart. And that’s exactly what I did. (You know who you are. I know you’re reading this, and I’m forever in your debt.)
Beyond that, I really didn’t spend a whole lot of time practicing my presentation. Because I legitimately didn’t have the time to practice. So in the 11th hour, when I was pacing around in a lather believing that I would fail and be rendered incapable of explaining things that I’ve taught every day for 17 years, I decided that it would be okay this one time to not be perfect. To not be super polished. To make a mistake. To stutter.
I’m sure I did all of those things, and I definitely will again. The perfectionist in me cringes, but the human in me that has responsibilities outside of the 45 minutes I’m asked to speak sighs in relief.
Perhaps you’re reading this as an inexperienced speaker. Nervous that you’ll sound nervous. Or that you won’t be perfect.
You will be nervous. You won’t sound perfect. Accept the speaking engagement anyway.
Unless…You will be nervous. You won’t sound perfect. Accept the speaking engagement anyway, says @missEmitche11. Click To Tweet
Work in Progress #3: Sometimes It’s Time to Say No
There have been several times this spring that I’ve said “I’m tired of speaking. Tired of the travel, stress, and preparation. After this next clinic/podcast, I’m taking a break until (insert arbitrary date).” And then the call, email, or text comes in…“we want you to speak, are you available?”
Of course I say yes. Because I want the industry to grow. Because I understand the importance of representation at clinics. Because speaking allows me to scale my impact to more athletes than I could ever possibly hope to coach.
But, sometimes, I need to say no. So that will be my next evolution: being more selective with when and where. (Readers: if you’re having a clinic by the beach, the answer is ALWAYS yes.)
Again, I’m not a speaking coach. If you’re someone looking to really level up your game, I’d give Jenny a call, or take an Art of Coaching course. Instead, my purpose in this article is to highlight a few really simple things coaches can do to make an immediate positive impact on their presentation style without any formal training.
It’s also a call to action. All too often I hear of individuals turning down speaking engagements due to fear of failure. But that same person will demand that their athletes step outside of their comfort zones daily during training sessions. The irony is overwhelming. Also gross. Don’t be gross. Practice what you preach. Do hard things. Stand up and speak. Grow.
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