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    Your definitive guide to giving superb presentations

    My experience in listening to thousands of presentations as a communication professor and coach has taught me that having an engaged audience makes all of the difference in the world. Yet, getting your audience involved can be very challenging. Your audience expects you to both invite and help them to participate. This post will illuminate two best practices for facilitating audience participation.

      Step up to the mic! How to successfully use a microphone.

      Giving yourself one more thing to do can certainly make you more nervous. Nowhere is this more evident then when you start using a microphone for the first time. The microphone makes many nervous and novice speakers super sensitive about their nonverbal behavior. It doesn't have to be this way. By following some simple principles, you can be very confident knowing that your voice will be projected effectively using a microphone. As a microphone refresher, their purpose is to amplify your voice so others in the room or those listening remotely (be they live or recorded) can hear you. To maximize the effectiveness of a microphone, you need to keep it six inches below your mouth, regardless of if you're using a handheld or lavaliere (lav) microphone. If you are using a handheld microphone, then you should root the elbow of the arm holding the mic next to your body. This positioning will keep the microphone at the appropriate distance from your mouth. A lav mic will be attached to your clothes at the proper distance. With both types of mics, the trick is to make sure that when you turn your body to connect to your audience that your head does not turn alone -- You must turn your entire body to keep the distance from your mouth and the microphone the same. If you simply move your head and the distance between your mouth and mic increases or decreases, your voice will sound as if a train is rapidly approaching and then moving away. For a handheld mic, it's important to switch hands every once in a while for gesture variety. When switching hands, bring the hand not holding the mic to the hand that is and then release the mic as you switch. For lav mics, the tricky part has to do with snaking the mic cable in your clothes so it's not hanging out in front of you. Also, you must make sure that you are wearing clothes that you can clip a battery pack onto (e.g., pants or belt). I highly recommend that you ask in advance of your presentation what type of microphone you'll have. When you practice your presentation, mimic having the actual microphone. A paper towel roll makes a nice stand in for a handheld mic, where as a tie clip or bobby pin can be used as a stand-in for a lav mic. If possible, get into your room with a sound technician prior to your presentation to be sure to get wired up and actually hear what your voice will sound like on the speakers projecting it. With a little forethought and practice, you can become an expert at using a microphone.

        Structure Helps You Scaffold Your Audience’s Understanding of Your Presentation

        Routinely, when I visit my eye doctor, I am flummoxed by the puzzles she places in front of me. These multi-colored, spotted circles (technically called Ishihara plates), reveal pictures and numbers to those who see properly. Unfortunately, I don’t see properly… I am colorblind. I struggle to see certain reds and greens, which not only lead me to see nothing in my eye doctor’s tests, but upon occasion, have led to some pretty interesting fashion choices on my part. I am not alone in my color blindness. Approximately 8% of people (mostly men since it is a sex-linked genetic trait) are colorblind. Much like the way people differentially perceive color based on their genetics, people vary in their ability to perceive the structure of information they are hearing from others. According to Dr. Morton Gernsbacher’s “structure-building theory,” some individuals are better at creating initial mental frameworks based on the information they receive from others, which later allows them to build upon their initial foundation. These “skilled structure builders” not only understand information better, but they also retain it longer and more readily apply it. New research by Dr. Dung Bui published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition has shown that less skilled structure builders can improve their understanding of the information they are hearing when they are exposed to pre-communication maps and diagrams. Specifically, by providing his subjects with outlines or agendas (these could be simple bulleted verbiage, images, or process flows) of upcoming lecture content, his subjects recalled more and were better able to apply the information learned to novel situations when compared to control subjects. Speakers would be well served to make sure they structure their presentations and then take time up front to set their audience’s expectations for what is to come in their presentations. There are many presentation structures on which you can rely, including: −Past-Present-Future — good for providing a history or stepping people through a process -Comparison-Contrast-Recommendation — good for showing the relative advantages of your position 
 -Cause-Effect-Results — good for helping people understand the underlying logic of your position 
 Additionally, having a structure not only helps your audience to understand and remember your words of wisdom, but it helps you remember what you plan to say, because even if you forget the specifics, you can use the general framework to stay on track. Early in the beginning of your presentation, you should make your structure known to your audience. By setting their expectations and mapping out your course, you will empower your audience to build mental frameworks of your content. Simply previewing your Problem-Solution-Benefit talk by saying “today I intend to walk us through the problem we are facing, how we can solve it, and the benefits we will reap” is enough to scaffold your audience. While there is not yet a viable, ubiquitous solution to color blindness, there are readily available techniques for helping both you and your audience with structure building.

          Business Buff Entrepreneurs podcast

          I was recently interviewed for the Business Buff Entrepreneurs podcast. If you tune in, you’ll learn some specific tips for managing presentations anxiety and being compelling when presenting. Enjoy! Listen Here

            Invoking a Positive Stress Mind Set to Manage Speaking Anxiety

            It turns out that how you approach stress might be more damaging than the stressor itself. Let’s say you have just been asked to deliver a major presentation in front of a hesitant or reluctant audience. You might immediately spiral into a stress response that has you imaging amazingly awful outcomes with horrific long-term consequences for you, your career, and your company. Your body instantly initiates a cortisol cascade that invokes the flight or flight response. Alternatively, you might view this speech as a learning opportunity where you have a chance to share something you are excited about. In this latter situation, you actually feel a mix of excitement and mild trepidation. The key distinction here has to do with what psychologists define as your stress mind set. Stress is most damaging and debilitating when we feel helpless and hopeless. In her new book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal suggests the following three approaches to a positive stress mindset: (1) Reframe your body’s stress response as helpful, not harmful. Evolution designed our stress response to help us cope. (2) Appreciate that you are not alone -- others experience the same stresses your do. With regard to presentation anxiety, 85% of people report feeling nervous prior to their public speaking. (3) Know that you have the tools or can learn the tools to handle most stressors that you are confronted with. In the case of nervousness around presenting, you can read my book Speaking Up without freaking Out to learn academically verified techniques to manage both the sources and symptoms of your speaking anxiety. Two specific speaking anxiety management techniques that help establish a positive stress mindset come from work done on mindfulness. First, when you experience negative physical arousal associated with presenting (e.g., your heart rate increases, you begin to sweat), remind yourself that these reactions are normal and typical. This is called relabeling. These sensations do not show anything beyond your body’s normal response to something that is displeasing. In other words, avoid giving these natural responses special significance. You can go a step further and greet or accept these natural responses by saying to yourself: “Here are those anxiety feelings again. Of course, I should be feeling them. I am about to give a presentation.” Second, when you are feeling negative or nervous about speaking, say to yourself, "This is me feeling nervous about speaking." This kind of assertion takes you out of the nervousness and instead allows you to observe yourself being nervous. To be outside yourself affords you the opportunity to calm down. You can gain a sense of control. Further, by thinking of a positive emotion—such as calmness or happiness—once you have distanced yourself from your negative feelings, you will more quickly reduce your feelings of anxiety. Developing and maintaining a positive stress mindset can comfort you as you confront stressors in your life. Nowhere is this more useful than when speaking in public.

              Seducing better communication from your team

              Please enjoy my most recent podcast interview for Art of the CEO where I answer a number of questions on how to be an effective corporate communicator as well as establish a "culture of confidence." The podcast episode is called: Seducing better communication from your team. Listen Here

                Everything You Need to Know About Making Virtual Meetings Less Awkward

                This piece was originally published by Inc. Remote meetings come with their own unique set of etiquette guidelines. It seems like we're all spending more and more time communicating virtually with our colleagues, friends, and family. Yet while these conference calls and web presentations allow us more frequent interactions across greater distances than ever before, often they're missing something. Because we lack visual clues and a sense of connection, we are left feeling frustrated, unsatisfied, and perhaps even unfulfilled with our virtual communication. So, how can we become better virtual communicators? In the absence of visual cues, the two most important factors we can leverage are what are known as prosodic behaviors and vocal quality, says Joshua Feast, the head of Cogito Corporation, a spinoff of MIT's Media Lab, which focuses on technology that helps people understand what transpires during virtual interactions as well as how to improve the quality and satisfaction with those interactions. Prosodic behaviors, he says, include actions such as turn-taking, interaction-pacing, and listening. By intentionally incorporating these behaviors into your interactions, you can create a more balanced two-way conversation in which everyone involved feels more connected, invested, and, ultimately, satisfied with the outcome. Vocal quality refers to the tonal variation in what you say as well as the perceived strain in your voice--that is, does what you say sound forced and rehearsed, or natural, spontaneous, and authentic? Feast's cofounder at Cogito, Sandy Pentland, calls these clues "honest signals" because they are largely unconscious and uncontrolled. And Feast adds that we often focus exclusively on the content of what we say and not the manner in which we say it. This explains why an excited entrepreneur nevertheless can come across as flat when he delivers his well-rehearsed WebEx pitch, or the seasoned executive is perceived as disinterested when she presents her earnings conference call. In both situations, they are likely so focused on their content, they aren't even aware of their delivery. One-to-many Communication Cogito's research suggests that presenters communicating in a one-to-many manner (think web meeting) should consider two best practices: First, focus on the variation aspects of vocal quality--variety in tonal dynamics (e.g., controlled vs. excited) and pace (e.g., faster vs. slower). This type of variety is what makes you sound interesting and engaging and helps your audience avoid habituating to your speaking style, which in turn keeps them focused on what you're saying. Second, Feast says, it can help even in one-to-many situations to employ prosodic behaviors to connect with you audience. "It's on you [as the presenter] to take time to check in with your participants," he says. "It's going to be one-sided, but the less one-sided, the better. Stop and let people in to ask questions, etc." Collaborative Communication Interactions For collaborations, such as conference call meetings with a virtual team of four to seven members working together, Feast suggests that you strive for equal (balanced) participation over the course of the interaction. This means you need to be disciplined about allowing others to contribute. Additionally, you should value the contribution of others to let them know you care about their experience. He recommends three ways to show your gratitude for contributions:
                • Acknowledgement: verbally recognizing the contribution (e.g., "thank you for your input")
                • Feedback: commenting on, extending, or replaying a summary of someone's contribution (e.g., "that reminds me of what we discussed earlier when..." or "so what you are saying is...")
                • Non-verbal confirmations: sounds like "uh-huh," "ah, yes," and "mmmm"
                Often virtual communicators have a goal for how they want to be perceived -- you can modify your behaviors to help achieve that goal. For example: If you wish to be seen as caring and compassionate, try mirroring the tone and speaking rate of those with whom you are communicating. Additionally, listen actively by paraphrasing and confirming what you are hearing. Feast says these behaviors give your audience the feeling that you are "in tune" with them, which breeds connection, liking, and trust. If you wish to come off as competent and "in command," speak concisely with even pacing and a steady tone. Specifically, try to say less and avoid rushing to get your points across; this makes you appear more confident and comfortable being in charge. Also, allow others to put forward their ideas, too. In the end, with a little bit of careful thought about how you use your voice--including demonstrating vocal variety, active listening, and turn-taking, as well as acknowledgement--you can make up for the natural deficiencies of virtual communication. Plus, you will benefit from the added bonus that your communication will be more efficient and more satisfying--both for you and for others.