In her Harvard Business Review article, “How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea,” Elizabeth D. Elsbach, an associate dean and professor of organizational behavior at the University of California – Davis and someone who has extensively studied how projects are pitched in the motion picture industry, cites research suggesting that humans categorize others in less than 150 milliseconds.
That’s right. Long before you’ve uttered your first words, your audience may already know something about you, could have spotted you before the event began, listened to your introduction, and watched you walk the stage to take the podium. They practically know everything about you! Or at least have developed some opinions.
In the previous blog, we noted the importance of knowing that you’re “on stage” before you reach the stage, learning what to do while being introduced, and being mindful of the way you walk onto the stage. Here are some more tips on maximizing this crucial part of your presentation.
Get ready and set before you go.
Too many speakers are so ready to go that they forget to get ready and set before they do so.
They jump into their presentation too quickly and their voice cracks and they have to clear their throat. Or they start their remarks before they get to the microphone and have to repeat their words for those who missed them the first time. Or they launch into their PowerPoint and discover a technical issue.
A better plan would be to take a moment to assess your situation and set up operations once you reach the podium. Think of it as a home base for your presentation. This is your chance to settle into a firm stance with your weight evenly distributed on both feet, not slumped to the side or leaning against the podium. Take a moment to get your bearings, place any notes or visuals in front of you, and make any necessary adjustments to any equipment you plan to use.
Of course, especially if you’re using technology, everything should have been tried and tested long in advance. Whether you realize it or not, the person (or persons) in control of your presentation at this point is emerging. Make sure it’s you.
Here’s looking at you.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the opening seconds of your presentation as you first stand before your audience. This is when they formally size you up and decide whether you’re someone worth listing to. A presentation is a conversation with your audience and if you want to effectively connect, one of the best ways is through focused and meaningful eye contact. The eyes are indeed the windows of the soul.
What does your eye contact say about you? Do you gaze across the room with confidence and composure? Or do you quickly glance here or there, looking at but not really seeing your audience? Do you have a pleasing, engaging look or do you cast a stern, menacing glare?
Since your presentation is a conversation, the challenge is to have as many meaningful interactions with as many members of the audience as you can. Of course, in a crowded room you can’t converse with them all. The key is to pick several members of the audience in different strategic locations across the room and connect with them directly and sincerely.
Don’t drop the baton.
If your presentation were a relay race, you would be the next leg running around the track. You’ve been given the baton—in this case, the stage—by your introducer, you’re now the center of attention, and you need to finalize the handoff with your opening remarks.
Opening remarks are just that: remarks. This can be a time to acknowledge your introduction, the occasion, or the significance of your topic. Or you may compliment the audience or make a personal reference or pertinent observation. Above all, avoid opening clichés that make you sound insincere, mundane, or mediocre. Short, sweet, and sincere beat long-winded, profound, and scripted every time.
After all the many other smaller “introductions” your audience has had concerning you, this one is perhaps the one in which you have the most control. Your opening remarks should be rehearsed, pre-planned, and poignant. The anecdote, the compliment, the amusing story should all be flawlessly delivered and memorable. And if you’re quick-witted and a keen observer, you may refer to an incident, a comment, or some occurrence from earlier in the program that relates to your remarks. Such an impromptu delivery will impress your audience and endear them to you.
Just do it.
So you’ve researched your topic, developed it into a logical and persuasive presentation, and practiced it until it flows smoothly. And you believe in your message and have a captive audience waiting to hear your thoughts. It’s time to step up to the plate, swing away, and interact with your audience.
Even if you’ve delivered the same presentation may times, each instance is a unique situation, entirely its own. And as any theatrical actor can tell you, every performance is different. Expect its uniqueness, accept it, and enjoy it.
Considering all the nuances that precede your presentation—your arrival at the site, your approach to the podium, your introduction—and mastering at all the aspects you can control—your eye contact, your opening remarks, and your opening thoughts—will give you the confidence and intensity to engage with, connect to, and thoroughly impress your audience. In so doing, there will be no doubt that you have taken the stage and are in complete control of your speaking opportunity.