Tuesday, March 11, 2008

women execs share speaker secrets, woes

Speechwriter Jeff Porro and I spoke yesterday to the Executive Women's Forum at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Va., about "speaker secrets for executive women." Our audience was a seasoned group, with many of them frequent speakers. Still, over the course of lunch and our discussions, a wide range of tips, advice and concerns emerged about situations professional women face as speakers. Here's a sampling of what I shared with (and learned from) the audience:

  • Getting started is tough: Several participants noted that they clutch right at the start of a presentation or speech--even when well prepared. It's that "face the music" moment where your anxiety takes over your throat, gaze or ability to stop gripping the lectern like a liferaft. I advise thinking ahead about the situations you most fear in the speech and planning how you'll handle them--then make sure you've taken care of the physical things, like rest, adequate nutrition, drinking only water an hour before your speech, and deep breathing and stretching beforehand (duck into the restroom or a stairwell if you need to). Two participants say they put reminders that make them smile in front of them--a humorous text message from a spouse or a child's drawing in with your speech script--as a tension-breaker. But don't go off your script at the start--a common mistake. It's harder to recover, and you're wasting a moment when the audience attention is at its highest.
  • Balancing data and emotional connection--is it impossible? One speaker who works at the national level in risk management posed this challenge. She speaks annually at a conference with a "mixed" audience of data-hungry researchers who want all the details, and policymakers looking for trends and broad-brush analysis. Her concern: Alienating or boring one group or the other as she tries to meet both needs. (Similar concerns were raised by a sales executive who needs to gain credibility with financial executives on a regular conference call.) Jeff and I had emphasized connecting with your audience through anecdotes, personal stories, humor and the like--and we reminded the group that even the driest data-lover likes being approached as a person, too. But we offered this way to strike the balance: Announce at the start that you're going to give topline data, and leave the details for the question-and-answer session, after you've reviewed trends first. That way, the audience knows what to expect.

Those are just two of the many situations we discussed with this lively group. How do you handle strained starts and data-rich presentations? Let us know in the comments.