Better Business Speech: An Interview with Paul Geiger

10/16/2017 11:16 am ET

If I had a nickel for every lousy presentation I was forced to endure, I’d have quite a few nickels. I’ve seen in my years from countless speakers no shortage of horrible slides such as this one, ridiculous business jargon, and a general lack of concern of whether an audience was even paying attention.

As I write in Message Not Received, it shouldn’t be this way.

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Paul Geiger, senior associate instructor at New York Speech Coaching. His new book is Better Business Speech: Techniques and Shortcuts for Public Speaking at Work.

The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing this book?

PG: My motivation for writing Better Business Speech came from several of my speech clients. They asked all the important questions: “Why do I feel held back at meetings?” “Why do my presentations fall flat?” “Why do I never know what to say at a job interview?” My answers resonated with them and gave them the tools they needed to communicate successfully. I put all of those answers into a book so that every aspiring business professional could know the key strategies to use in every kind of business speech: I’ve included the 80/50 rule for persuasive eye contact, how to shine in business meetings, and the best way to tame the 3-headed public speaking monster. Speaking is a skill just like any other. My goal is to share my insights and empower everyone to speak with authority and authenticity.

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PS: You advocate limiting yourself to a three-idea explanation. Why is this a good idea?

PG: The urge to overstuff is very strong. Most speaking topics have many moving parts, and trying to corral too many detracts from your goal of being persuasive. In reality, every message should purposefully support an overall insight you’ve gleaned from your information. The three-idea explanation helps you define this insight. It’s crucial to building your hierarchy of ideas. Think of your three ideas as your perspective from the 20,000-foot level. The overarching insight, your “bumper sticker” as I call it, is the 40,000-foot view. Your bumper sticker is the concise phrase that describes why your presentation matters. It may not be the title of your presentation, but it encapsulates the three ideas that explain your perspective. Below the 20,000-foot level, the details start to get “into the weeds.” Only go down to this level of detail upon request. The three-idea explanation gives you a hierarchy of ideas and a framework so that your listeners can process what you’re saying. Most listeners can only absorb three ideas in one presentation. By the way, structuring your talks in this way also helps keep you on track.

PS: What is the biggest mistake that most public speakers make?

PG: Most public speakers don’t know to anticipate and prepare for the “energy of attention” that consumes them during the first moments of their presentation. Think about the awareness you have of another person’s attention when you’re talking one-on-one. In a presentation, increase the amount of attention by the number of people focusing on you, and it compounds substantially. Not preparing for this rush of energy causes a terrifying “fight or flight” response: your muscles grip, your breathing becomes shallow and your mind races. In this desperate state, negative thoughts thrive. You might perceive the audience’s judgment of you taking a negative turn. Fear and panic escalate as you think of the consequences if you fail in your performance. You need to recognize the nature of the energy of attention and use deliberate breathing to keep your mind and your body grounded. Let your measured breaths create the forward momentum that helps you push through those crucial opening moments.

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PS: Talk to me about the importance of gestures.

PG: Gestures serve two very important purposes: they project a sense of commitment, and they keep you connected to your body. Public speaking is a full-body experience. The timing of your gestures and your ease and spontaneity with using them will show your listeners you’re invested in your storytelling. Watch out that you don’t repeat the same gesture over and over. There’s no default place to rest when you’re in the speaking spotlight. Begin with an initial, supportive gesture, then hold that gesture until the impulse for the next gesture comes along. This will provide your unspoken continuity and your physical forward momentum. The connection of your body to your words transmits a sense of flow and it will definitely elicit a positive response from your listeners.

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