This article enables you address audiences confidently and successfully, minimising your nerves and stage-fright.

Plan Your Content

The first thing you need to look at is what you have to say and how long you have to say it.  The latter may be imposed on you, for example if you are one of a series of speakers who has to keep to a fixed ten-minute allocation.  It is wrong to exceed this as it compromises both your audience and other speakers and can incur the wrath of the Chairman.

So decide what you have to say and at what level you wish to pitch it (this may also be imposed on you according to the forum in which you are speaking).  Plan and organise it, and once you have it in a shape in which it will fit comfortably within a bit more than the time and level constraints simplify it.  This means saying what you have to say

  1. Allowing for the time for any preliminaries (drawing attention to fire-exits, requesting turning mobile phones off etc.)
  2. In the simplest, clearest and most direct way
  3. In terms that your audience will understand easily. 

The last point means choosing your points and examples to fit the audience.  For example, if you have to cover statutory regulation to an audience of accountants, choose you content from examples relevant to accountancy regulation.  If your audience is engineers, choose your content from examples concerning regulation of engineering projects.  This taps into knowledge your audience already understands and stops them “unhooking” from what you are presenting to them. 

Remember that once unhooked it will be hard to get your audience back and the impression you create will be unduly boring and negative, even if the concepts are ones with which your audience deals with daily.

Structure your content to have a clear beginning, middle and end, with ideally no asides.  This will make it easy to follow and understand.  If you must have an aside, make sure that once it is finished you clearly reconnect with where you were in your speech before the aside.  Ensure there are no loose ends; if there are, somebody in the audience is bound to find and expose them which is embarrassing for you and avoidable.

Prepare the Ground

Before delivering the talk you need to make sure you know exactly what you are doing and where you are doing it.  Rehearse the content according to the structure you have defined.

Firstly memorise the outline of your structured content.  Write the outline out on an index card and make sure that you are confident to talk around all the outlined concepts.  That way, when you deliver it your speech will be far more spontaneous than if you were to read out every word from a manuscript.  You must be confident enough to a) present your content and b) field questions.

If you have materials to present, for example slides, you should make sure that these are of a high and consistent quality with any dates, backgrounds, logos accurate and professional.  Make sure that slides function as a set, rather than a collection of disparate individual slides.

You should also visit the venue in advance and make sure that you know how to use the equipment (microphones, volume controls, pointers, computers, light-dimmers) so that when you do the presentation you are not held up.  Know how you will cope with glitches – for example hitting the wrong button in the dark, inadvertently returning to your first slide – practice recovery strategies beforehand so that if the worst happens you handle it smoothly and confidently.

Make sure you are well turned out, appropriately dressed for the venue and audience.

Delivering Your Speech

When the time comes, stride up to the podium confidently.  Put the index card with your outline of the speech discreetly on the podium where you can see it if you forget what comes next.

Start your talk forcefully, grabbing attention immediately.  You only get one chance at this, and losing your audience before you have started creates a very bad impression. 

Signpost your delivery – something you must have planned in advance.  Start with a summary, for example:  “I am going to present a report on some experiments our group did.  I’ll start by describing the experiments, then tell you the results and then the conclusions we drew from them.  There will be two minutes at the end for questions and discussion – please keep any questions for then”.  This tells the audience both what to expect, how you have structured it, and approximate timings.

As you move from one section to the next (description to results to conclusions in the example above) you need to indicate clearly that you are doing so.  “We’ll now move from the experiment to its results”.  This tells your audience to tune to a different type of relevant content (which from your summary they have been expecting).  Execute each link briefly, smoothly and corresponding to what you said in your summary.

Once you have got through the all the sections indicate you have done so and sum up what you have said.  Follow it with a crisp concluding message that you wish your audience to take away.

The pre-planned summary-signposted content–recapitulation-conclusion format gives structure to both you (to maintain continuity) and your audience (to follow). This greatly reduces your chances of losing your way due to nerves or interruptions and increases your chances of recovery if anything goes wrong.

Once you have finished and any questions are answered depart confidently to make way for the next speaker or for whatever follows.

Longer Talks

The rules above apply to longer talks as well, but the maximum an audience can comfortably take is 45 minutes.  So if you cannot put everything you have to say into that time, you should break it up into several shorter talks with intervals for comfort breaks and refreshments in between.  Each of the talks should be structured according to the rules I have described and each should cover one topic rather than being a single long talk broken into pieces.

Psychologically people are most likely to remember the thing you said first and after that the things you said last.  The impression of what you said first is about twice as strong as that of what you said last.  So capitalise on this and make sure that what you say first and last are things that you wish your audience to remember and take away.