My high school classmates and I were really lucky. We had this one teacher, Mr. Ries, who insisted we learn how to present ourselves and speak well. He taught us that if you wanted to be more confident in front of an audience, you had to get out of your seat, get away from your desk, get up on your feet—and work it. He took us through countless exercises and drills designed to rein in our gangly teenage bodies and hesitant, self-conscious voices.
I learned to hold my hands just so when gesturing (fingers together, thumb at a 45° angle). After delivering the introduction to a speech—making sure I projected my voice to the back of the classroom—I’d take three steps to the right and deliver the First Main Point. I made sure my eye contact settled first on someone on the left side of the audience, then someone in the center, then someone on the right—then I sca-a-a-nned the full group, returning to the left, not unlike a lawn sprinkler.
Of course, we novice public speakers looked a bit robotic at first. But the point of these drills was to make us aware of how physical and vocal delivery should support and enhance—not distract from—what you’re saying. In order to eliminate distractions (like constant pacing or “ums”) and learn some general principles (“gestures are typically most effective kept above the waist), there’s no substitute for standing and delivering in front of someone who can help you learn what’s working and where there may be room for improvement.
But there’s another important key to strong delivery skills we learned in Mr. Ries’ class that is more about psychology than it is physicality: confidence and clarity of purpose lead to confident, clear delivery. And that begins at your desk—in the first moments of planning your presentation, facilitation, or training.
Clarity at the start pays off in the end
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed this scenario: a client comes to me asking for help with her delivery skills, like what to do with her hands, or how to get more power behind her voice. Before jumping into general principles about gestures or breath support, I typically ask about her preparation process—how she goes about putting together a presentation or talk. And 90 percent of the time, that’s where we find the root causes of her delivery challenges: in inadequate preparation that doesn’t allow for her best, most confident self to come out.
When you don’t feel confident or clear about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it, your body and voice show it:
- Pacing and other distracting movements often indicate a wandering mind; your body, literally, joins you in the search for the next idea.
- When you’re uncertain of who the audience is and you’re wary of their responses, it’s hard to maintain strong eye contact.
- Not sure if you’re covering the right material, in the right order? Expect hesitant “ums” and “uhs” to creep into your speech.
One sure way to strip away that first layer of less-than-effective delivery is to start your planning process with four key questions. Whether I’m delivering all new content or a talk I’ve given a thousand times, this is where I always, always start.
The essential first questions
Before you decide what you’re saying, before you think about what visuals you’ll use, before you pick out your training day outfit…plop yourself down and force yourself to answer these four questions as completely as you can. Write or type them out, save the file, and refer to it throughout your preparation.
- What are your goals? What, specifically, do you want to achieve with this audience by the time you finish presenting? The key here is to get as precise and specific as you can from the very start. Don’t settle for having your audience simply “understand.” Think about what you’d like them to think, do, and feel. Do you want them to “buy in to,” “apply,” “change their minds about,” or “feel more confident”?
- Who is your audience? While it’s safe to say you can never know too much about your audience, you rarely have the opportunity to survey or meet everyone before you speak. But you can ask and answer these key questions about your audience in relation to you, your presentation, and your topic:
- What is our relationship? How do I want to be perceived? Am I colleague, expert, trusted resource, instigator?
- What are their top-of-mind concerns or pain points? Are they concerned about job performance, money, a meeting they’re preparing for next week?
- Are there multiple audiences within this group, with varying concerns or needs?
- What is their familiarity with or understanding of the topic and content?
- What is their level of interest in this topic? Is there any sense of urgency—or should there be?
- What is your arc? This is an important step because it has less to do with what you say and helps you begin to focus on what kind of experience you want to create. What is the journey you are taking this audience on? From where to where? How should their understanding, attitude, or mindset change over the course of the presentation? What’s their current situation and how will that alter? From skepticism to buy-in? From nervousness to calm? From frustration to confidence?
- What’s in it for them (WIIFT)? What are the specific benefits your audience will experience as a result of your presentation? Again, be as specific as you can be.
We all could use a Mr. Ries at some point: someone who can tell us how our physical and vocal delivery is enhancing or distracting from our content, and offer suggestions on how to improve. But confident and clear delivery begins with the very first steps in your preparation: knowing why you’re here, what you want to accomplish, who you’re speaking to, and what experience you want to create. Being secure in that knowledge throughout your preparation process can have a huge impact on how confident and clear you are in the moment.
Where do you begin your preparation?