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Public speaking tips: Pause, punch, and color

If it's been a while since you spoke in front of a class or a group, here are some tips to help you knock the dust off your presentation skills.


Recently I was asked to critique and coach a colleague who was preparing a speech (with slide show) to be presented in front of 60 people at a professional trade show. He asked me to be brutal, and I was. Here are some of the highlights from the practice session I critiqued. Veteran instructors will find these tips pretty basic, but if you’re new to the training business, you’ll want to add some of these tricks to your repertoire.

How to greet an audience
When “Bob” first started his presentation, he came into the room and said, “HiI’mBobandI’mgoingtotalktoyoutodayabout…” He was off to the races, talking as fast as he possibly could. Our first lesson was how to enter the room. I gave him these tips:
  • When you enter the room, make eye contact with someone on the left, in the middle, and on the right.
  • Nod and smile. If you’re genuinely happy to be there, it’ll show.
  • Say, “Good morning, everyone. Thank you for coming.” Smile and then pause briefly.
  • Say “My name is Bob” last. Then smile and pause again briefly.

At this point, I told Bob to say just a few words about himself. You need to let your audience know that you’re qualified to be speaking to them. You don’t recite your entire resume; just say a few words about your background and briefly outline the topic for your presentation.

I made Bob practice the entrance five times. On the fifth time, he finally looked and sounded relaxed.

Acknowledge the time for questions and the tiny slides
After you’ve qualified yourself with your audience, I recommend that you establish any ground rules right up front. Mention things like, “After my presentation, we’ll have a question-and-answer period.” If you don’t mention that you’ll be taking questions, someone will invariably interrupt you at an inopportune time.

Two minutes into the presentation, I realized that Bob’s slide show was going to be illegible to everyone in the room, except perhaps the front row. There was a lot of good information on the slides, but the text was simply too small and too dense to be legible, even on a big screen.

I asked, “Are you planning to distribute a printed copy of your presentation?” Since he was, I told Bob he should go ahead and say something like, “I realize some of these slides will be hard to read, but bear with me, because I’ll be handing out printed copies at the end of the presentation today.”

Slow down; you talk too fast
I made Bob start and restart his presentation about 15 times. We never got past the second slide. Bob’s delivery was simply too fast. Bob had already rehearsed his speech in front of several small groups, and based on the feedback he received in those sessions, he had written the word “SLOW” in large letters in all the margins of his printed outline.

Even so, he was still delivering in a high-speed, monotone fashion. I said, “Are you nervous?” He said he wasn’t.

Based on the machine-gun delivery Bob was using, I was absolutely certain he’d memorized a script. So I asked, “Can you pull up the script you memorized on your laptop?” I was going to suggest that Bob print a copy of the script, underline the words he wanted to punch, and mark the copy where he wanted to pause for effect.

Bob laughed and said, “I haven’t memorized any script.” So I said, “Then clearly you know your subject matter very well, but you’re not coming off that way. If you go that fast on Saturday, no one’s going to understand a word you’re saying, and they’ll tune you out.” That comment got Bob’s attention.

I said, “The most important thing about public speaking—“

And then I looked Bob right in the eye and made him wait while I paused for about three beats.

“—is letting your words sink in.” I punched the words letting, words, and in, and I paused briefly, immediately after those punched words.

Pause, punch, and color
Pauses are just as valuable in public speaking as rests are in music. When you pause, you give your audience time to absorb and process what you’ve just said. Pauses can underscore something you’ve just said or something you’re about to say. If you don’t pause occasionally, you’ll wear your audience out, and they’ll stop listening.

Punching a word—saying a word with extra volume or enthusiasm—is another tool a speaker can use to underscore an important point. “It’s okay to shout every now and then,” I told Bob. “Let your audience know you’re fired up about what you’re saying.”

Here’s a good exercise for practicing your punches: Pick any sentence from your speech and read it aloud a dozen times. Each time, punch a different word. Listen to the difference in meaning you convey simply by accenting a different word.

The notion of “color” in public speaking refers to using a different tone or inflection in your voice to accentuate a word or phrase. For instance, many American English speakers raise the tone of their voice at the end of a question. We sometimes think when we’re speaking that we should sound businesslike and monotone because it’s such serious business. But audiences will respond better if you include some emotion in your speech by coloring important words and phrases.

I told Bob to pay careful attention to the radio and TV announcers on his favorite stations. I challenged Bob to listen for pauses, punches, and variations in pitch and volume, and to ask himself why the pauses worked and why certain words or phrases were being punched or colored.

Make it a dialogue, not a recitation
The final bits of advice I gave Bob were some tips on making his presentation an interactive experience for his audience (and not just a reactive experience). “Ask the audience questions,” I said. “If you get a good answer, acknowledge it. If you don’t get any answers, don’t worry. They’re thinking, even if they aren’t speaking up.”

Here’s the example that came out of our practice session. Bob was going to refer to some of the activities leading up to the running of the Kentucky Derby. Bob had been practicing “RightnowinLouisvillewe’regettingreadyfortheDerby…”

I said, “Whoa! Don’t blow an opportunity to get your audience involved,” and I gave him this advice. Before you dive in to your message, stop and ask the group, “So, how many of you have ever been to Louisville?” Then if a few hands go up or a few people nod their heads, you can say, “Well, then you may have been to Churchill Downs, and you know all about mint juleps!” You’ll get a laugh, and the audience will feel like you’re involving them in a dialogue and not merely lecturing to them.

And if no one has been to Louisville? I told Bob to say, “Well, let me tell you what it’s like this time of year.” Basically, every time you have a chance to ask a question that only requires a show of hands, ask it. Get your audience involved in your presentation.
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