Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tough Topics, Tough Audiences. Part II: Prepare, prepare, prepare!

As environmental professionals, Bren students and alumni are often tasked with communicating complex environmental problems and solutions to "non-environmental" audiences. These audiences can sometimes be unreceptive or even hostile, and speaking to them can be quite a challenge. On February 26th, the 2010 Doris Duke Fellows hosted a workshop entitled 'Tough Topics, Tough Audiences' where public speaking coach Lisa Braithwaite helped Bren students prepare for these difficult situations. The following is an excerpt from her informative presentation. For more on Coach Lisa B., visit her website or blog. You should also check out the excellent resources page she set up for Bren students.

Prepare, prepare, prepare!
Preparation is the number one thing that people don’t spend enough time on. Start by thinking about how you will you open and close your presentation. Openings and closings are an area that are highly neglected by speakers and are the only part of your presentation that you should memorize. While memorizing your whole presentation word-for-word can make you sound stiff or canned, your opening is important and memorizing it helps make you less nervous and lets you get started.

About 99% of all speakers begin with “Hi, my name is so and so, and I do this.” Don’t start by talking about yourself, because your audience probably doesn’t care that much—or they’ve already read your bio in a handout or on a website. Try to jump right in with something that is more engaging. You want to get the audience on your side immediately and the way you do that is by coming across as a human being immediately. Make a connection with the people in the room. When you start out being human, using humor or trying to lighten environment, people start connecting with you right away. Potential starter ideas: use a question, quiz, story or shocking statistic.

How many of you have gotten to the end of a presentation, and then you just didn’t know what to say? So you just say “Oh OK, thanks, that’s it!” or you talk in circles because you don’t know how to end. That’s not a great last impression for your audience! Try to plan a strong closing that emphasizes your main point or your take-home message. Leave your audience with a sense of closure and a good impression!

More specifically, DON’T end with Q&A! The energy in the room dies during questions and you could also end on some random question that had nothing to do with your presentation. You need to be in control of the room, and when you end on Q&A, that is not the case. If possible, take Q&A before your closing. Say something like, “I have about five minutes for Q&A, and then after that, I’m going to wrap up.” At end of the Q&A say, “I’d like to take a few minutes to wrap up or recap.” Using this technique will make your presentation so much cleaner—what sticks in the audience members’ minds is your big idea or call to action; not the last random question.

If you have a strict format for your talk, avoiding the ending Q&A can be difficult, but at least ask the organizer beforehand, “Can I just say a few words after the Q&A to conclude and to wrap everything up that we’ve been talking about?” It’s hard to imagine someone saying no to that.

Determine your main points
Don’t put everything you know into your presentation! Showing everything you did or know on the slides isn’t about the audience—it’s about you and your presentation isn’t about you! The audience doesn’t want or need everything you know. Three to four main points are ideal. That number depends a little on the amount of time you have to present, but for longer presentations, think about how you can flush out you main points more, rather than adding more points. Your audience will only retain so much.

How will you organize your ideas?
There are lots of ways to structure and organize your ideas (chronologically, big picture to small picture) but have a structure of some kind and think of what’s going to work best for your audience.

How much time do you typically give to practicing your presentations? How many of you only practice the night before? You put so much time into creating your presentation, when it comes to delivering it, do you really want to wing it? Do you want it to be just OK? Your audience is giving up their time and sometimes their money to come see you; make it worth it for them.

Bren students practice giving mini-presentations to their peers during the workshop.

What to do if you have limited time to prepare
Determine the three critical points you want to make and think about how you can open/close it with a bang. In addition, being prepared in your work—even if not for a specific presentation—will make it easier to do a presentation on short notice: read your journals, your blogs—be up on that stuff. Don’t slack off on the homework part of work. The more you keep up on your professional development, the more you’re prepared to speak.

Remember, the most important thing is to meet the needs of your audience. It’s not about you; it’s about getting your message across to your audience and anyone can do this with proper preparation.

--Audrey Tresham

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