After years of speaking to groups of all sizes, I still do not think I have it down completely. I am not nervous generally, but I still obsess while preparing and I am sometimes left wondering if I really hit my target.
I had to really think hard, therefore, when a friend asked me recently how I gave such good talks (she has obviously not seen all my presentations) and if I would mind sharing my "secrets."
I am not sure if there are any secrets or even if there is a formula. I therefore turned to a few of the experts (highly paid professional speakers) to see what they had to say on the matter. Sifting through the emails I received in response to my query and drawing on my own memory, I did see a pattern.
1. Know your subject. While you do not have to be nationally ranked as an expert it helps if you know more about your subject than the intended audience does. Preparation might include interviews with experts and doing your own independent research (so much is available online these days). Preparation means reading a lot; getting information and points of view that support as well as disagree with your thesis.
Once you are prepared, decide on the message you want to give. You cannot cover everything so restrict the speech to a few main points. Come up with three to five learning objectives. Then make a plan and write it down: Introduction, Body (topic 1, topic 2 etc.) and Conclusion.
If you are using slides, create your slides from the narrative you have written down. Sticking to the script (and then adding graphics and facts to back up your points) keeps your talk tight and coherent.
2. Answer WIIFM. I use this device a lot. Your audience should be able to see fairly quickly (within the first few minutes of your speech) "What's in it for me (WIIIFM)?"
One way to ensure they see the value in your speech is to tell them. What's a problem that medical laboratorians have? Guess what, here is a solution to one of those problems. Have you ever wondered about XYZ? Well, here is a primer on what you need to know. Are you grappling with meeting a certain regulation? Good news! Here are some tools to make your job easier. You are swamped with lots of options? I am here to help you prioritize.
3. Open decisively. We have all heard speeches with long introductions thanking everyone from parents to third grade teachers, the meeting planners etc. Boring! Snooze-city.
Open with a decisive statement that catches everyone's attention. Grab their attention so they stay awake and wait on the edge of their seats.
Even if the speech is free, they need to know why they need to spend their time with you as opposed to being with someone else.
This can be done by making a bold statement of fact, make a promise, give a tease, or offer a reward. Grab their attention. Make them afraid to fall sleep or leave the room in case they miss something really, really valuable.
4. As you speak, tie key points together. Speeches can get long and complex, leaving the audience at sea or bored. A speech should not be a series of facts strung together or (worse) some disjointed, boring, or complex facts. It helps to tie key facts back to your opening promise or WIIFM.
5. Use PowerPoint Only as prompt. There is a tendency of some speakers to sit and read PowerPoints to the audience. Resist that temptation. Don't fall for that common practice. Use your slides to remind you what to say on each point. Use words on the slide sparingly. Some successful speakers use a rule of seven -- each line has a maximum of seven bullets per slide and a maximum of seven words per line.
Remember, the audience is there to learn and to hear you. Glitzy slides and cute graphics; or slides that twirl and fly are a poor substitute for your expertise. Rarely will audiences fall for that cheap trick. In fact an important point can be lost or underestimated if overwhelmed by the colors and razzle-dazzle of your slides.
6. Do not drag out your conclusion. At the end of your talk, it's sometimes good to review what you just said. But most adults will already have got it. You don't have to recap everything. If it's time to end, just end. Whenever possible, end strongly and emotionally. What feeling, what call to arms, do you want to leave the audience with?
The Gettysburg Address is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric ever uttered. "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Wow. How do you feel hearing that?
But can you imagine if old Abe Lincoln had ended with a wimpy "Thank you" instead? I think you get the point.