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How to Be an Engaging Speaker

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Great speakers have three things in common: (1) something useful to say, (2) a well-planned presentation, and (3) the ability to keep people's attention. You'll have to figure out the first one for yourself, but the suggestions below can help you become more organized and interesting.

Step 1: Putting Your Presentation Together

Rambling monologues seldom hold people's attention, so your presentation needs to be organized. When the speaker is "all over the map", the audience has trouble linking one idea with another and absorbing the information. Here are some suggestions for creating a presentation . . .

Know your audience. First, assess your listeners. How much do they already know about your topic? Why will they be interested in it? Did they choose to come to this meeting or do they have to attend? What are the relevant demographics (age, gender, education, occupation, etc.)? How will they use this information? Even if you've given the presentation twenty times before, you must tailor it to this group's needs and interests.

Clearly define your goals. Next, determine what you want this audience to learn. Complete the following sentence: "At the end of the presentation, I would like the audience to . . ." To what? Understand something? Know how to do something? Have a different attitude about something? Applaud? (Of course!)

Think of an attention-grabber. At the beginning of your presentation, you must engage the audience quickly. Use a story, a question, an example, a quiz . . . or anything else that will immediately make them listen.

Group your material into topics. A brief presentation may focus on one simple subject, but a long one usually has three to five major ideas or topics. Think of each one as a separate section with a lead-in, major points to cover, and a way to engage the listeners.

Involve the audience. People learn best by actively doing, not passively listening. The activities you choose will depend on your topic, the length of your presentation, and the nature of the audience. For a short speech, you may simply ask people to share their opinions, think of a recent experience, or have a brief discussion with the person sitting next to them. In a lengthy workshop, you will have more complex exercises, such as surveys, case studies, or role plays.

Order your information and activities. For each topic, list the order in which points will be covered and audience activities will be done. This is the road map that will keep you on track.

Step 2: Keeping People's Attention

Almost any topic - no matter how compelling - can put people to sleep if delivered by a boring speaker. If you want to induce slumber, just dress in a gray suit, stand behind a podium, and read your material from notes with no visual aids. But assuming that you actually want people to listen, you need to focus on stimulation. The more brain cells that people have firing, the more awake they will be. So here are some suggestions for keeping attention:

Wear colorful clothing.  Men who must wear dark suits should at least use a bright tie.

Use slides, handouts, video.  When people hear and see, more senses are stimulated.  Use color and pictures to make slides more interesting.  Just be sure to coordinate your color scheme.  Put handouts on colored paper.  Don't cram them full of text.

Don't succumb to PowerPoint mania.  Limit the text on your slides to talking points.  Font size should be at least 18. Don't use more than two fonts.  Minimize special effects, particularly sound and animation.

Move around.   Never stand behind a podium unless you are so nervous that you might collapse without it.

Let your audience get to know you.  Speak in a conversational tone.  Do not read your material. Ever.  Include brief and appropriate personal examples.  Maintain a dialogue with your audience.  Ask questions. Inquire about their experiences.

In a long presentation, keep the lecture portions brief.  Be concise.  Long, rambling monologues cause audience attention to drift.  Tell true stories to illustrate your points.   People find examples more interesting than concepts. 

After 10-15 minutes, engage people in an activity.  Use group discussions. Even in a short speech, you can have people briefly talk to each other.  In a longer presentation, use a variety of activities. People will eventually get bored with any type of repetition.

Never skip the breaks during a long talk. You are the only one who will feel that the material was more important.  During a lengthy workshop, give people something to fidget with. But it must not make noise.

When possible, seat people in small groups.  Angle the tables so everyone can see you. Avoid rows of tables.  If people are in small groups for a long time, switch the members periodically.

Finally, to really sharpen your speaking skills, join a Toastmaster's Club in your area. They'll give you lots of practice! You can find the nearest chapter at www.toastmasters.org.

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