"It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
In my training career, I have helped dozens of people with their public speaking and presentation skills. The work has given me some of my most fulfilling -- and unintentionally entertaining -- moments. Under the glare of the spotlight, my producer trainees have delivered some surprises that, well... let's just say I didn't expect. I often see the same mistakes, from the same producers, over and over again -- even after several hours of coaching. Considering the monetary investment workshops and seminars require, such missteps can be expensive. During this short series of columns, we will discuss these common errors and how to fix them.
Rule No. 1: As a presenter, you are now in show business -- and the star of the show.
Think about a compelling, memorable presentation or speech you've seen. Maybe it was delivered by Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple; or Ronald Reagan, staring down the Berlin Wall; or Martin Luther King Jr., inspiring thousands in front of the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C.; or maybe it's another great speech that's gone down in history. OK, do you have a memorable presentation in mind? Good. Did it start out like this?
"Before I get started, I just want to take care of some housekeeping items... Now, the bathrooms are down the hall to your left, right there near the waitress station... that's right, down there. And see this? This cell phone? Turn yours off right now, please. Now, you all have a folder in front of you. Does everyone have one? If you don't have one, raise your hand."
Let me see a virtual show of hands: How many of you have said something exactly like this before your program?
Great presenters don't start the show with the administrative details. They understand that their job is to entertain, educate and inspire their audience. In this sense, great workshop and seminar producers are similar to professional performers like actors or musicians. They know that a good presentation is like a good show -- it grabs their audience from the beginning and leaves them eager to hear more. The details above, necessary to convey but tedious to deliver, should be handled by your staff when your guests check in.
Rule No. 2: The successful follow a proven opening formula... and so should you.
Bill Walsh, the mastermind behind the San Francisco 49ers dynasty, was famous for scripting his first 12 plays of every football game, featuring an intelligent mix of the run and pass. Best-selling authors such as Robert Ludlum, Stephen King and James Patterson use tactics such as flashbacks, short chapters and mystery characters in the beginning of their novels to engage their readers. Successful screenwriters often feature elaborate action sequences at the beginning of their scripts to ensure the moviegoer is paying attention later, as the plots of their films take shape.
High-income producers do the same thing. They follow a field-tested script repeatedly because it has been proven to work -- especially at the beginning of their workshops.
Remember this: You are presenting to an adult audience and an adult's attention span is razor thin. As we grow from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, our minds become less like a sponge and more like a sieve. As we process information later in life, we simply have less room to store that information; our brain's "file cabinet" has become full. Therefore, under the best of circumstances and most controlled listening environments, your audience's attention -- and retention -- will be limited. And, as we all know, we producers don't always present in the best of circumstances or environments.
That's why it's so important to take advantage of the first few minutes with the audience: it is during those moments when an adult listener is likely to pay attention. The beginning of any event represents a moment of change and, in that moment, anticipation will set in and you will, indeed, have the floor's full attention.
When you evaluate your presentation's opening formula, keep the following important elements in mind:
Explain the benefit to the listener early. Just as you would in a sales call, the audience needs to hear what benefit they are going to receive from your services. In other words, you need to give them a reason to listen. That benefit statement should contain elements to build curiosity and heighten interest.
For example: "Before you leave tonight, you're going to learn at least two new things that can save you money, time and a lot of irritation. If I haven't accomplished that, I haven't done my job. Sound good?"
The above example isn't specific, but your benefit statement can be more detailed depending upon the makeup of your audience. Before you speak, you should have a general idea of what they want to hear, so be sure to gear the benefits toward them. Better yet, ask them -- some producers add qualifying questions to their pre-workshop confirmation calls to get a better idea of what the audience wants; others will actually ask the audience to open the show and write those topics on a whiteboard for everyone to see before they launch into their content. Both are good ideas.
Tell a story to which the audience can relate. Some of the best presentations I've ever seen have begun with the producer telling a compelling personal story. Anecdotes often grab the audience's attention because they create a visual image for the listener. And, as any trained salesperson knows, when a prospect can visualize something, they are more apt to buy something.
For example: "Before I get started, I noticed something as I pulled into the parking lot here today. My first job ever, when I was a kid, was right over there in that drug store. I earned a lot about money from that job on one day in particular..."
The most effective and entertaining stories are those that sound spontaneous; but this is a skill, ironically enough, that must be practiced. A good producer should have at least three or four true stories to tell. Each one should convey an important financial or life lesson -- one that the producer may have realized too late. When stories such as these are well-told, the workshop participants are drawn to the producer instantly and look forward to the information to follow.
Tell them how long it will take. We live in the age of the cell phone, the PDA and the nervous glance at the watch. Prospects today multi-task in their personal and professional lives more than ever before. It doesn't matter if the allotted time is on your invitation or program folder; it's always a good idea to mention your timeframe at some point during your first five minutes.
For example: "As noted on your invitation, we'll cover this material in about 45 minutes or so, including questions. Sound good?"
When you ask this question, look around and nod your head. The effect is immediate and surprising: Many people in your audience will nod back and smile slightly with relief. Everyone has been to a presentation that lasted too long. This small tactic is your way of reassuring them that won't happen. There's just one catch -- you must end on time.
These are just a few key elements to a successful opening, but in my coaching experience, they are the most important. It's essential to plan each step, practice them, and measure each workshop to find your winning formula.
Check back in for Pt. 2 of this article series: "Keys to engaging your audience."
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