On the way to a recent speaking engagement and without my knowledge, my computer needed for the presentation was being baptized in water in the trunk of the car from a water bottle whose top must not have been screwed on tightly. Needless to say, when I reached the conference and discovered the mishap, it wasn’t pleasant. But I didn’t panic. I said a prayer and plugged in my computer. After testing it, it all seemed to be miraculously OK, so I went on stage thinking I’d avoided a disaster since my entire talk was centered on the pictures that illustrated my presentation.
But there was another problem. As I was being introduced, the tech crew incorrectly plugged in the video feed from my computer which distorted the pictures, and since I was already on stage, they had no way of letting me know. As a backup, I had thankfully put my slides and presentation on a thumb drive for security and given it to them. As the crew scrambled to plug my thumb drive into another computer, I had to stall. Eventually, they brought the presentation up on the screens correctly and I was able to teach.
This is never the way you’d like things to go and there’s never a dull moment when you speak professionally. You have to plan for the unplanned because there are always challenges to be confronted. As a woman, I’m often asked to speak for impromptu events, last minute gatherings, and conferences without a trained tech team. And honestly, as many of us know, in some cultures female speakers aren’t always treated with the same respect male speakers are, and aren’t taken as seriously by some conference leaders. As a result, I’ve learned some key things that I’d love for other women speakers to know.
The first thing? Being prepared. I always put my presentations on a thumb drive as a backup and also have a copy of the full written script with the slides included within the outline ready to give to the technical team. If I can’t change my own slides during my presentations, (which I prefer to do) then my back up plan is to have a full script ready to go so someone else can.
In the worst cases, always be ready to speak without slides at all. While illustrations of your points can be a great help, I’ve experienced plenty of situations where the video projector or other key presentation equipment doesn’t work.
So be ready to go solo if necessary.
Second, I practice, practice, practice. You should never think that once your speech is written, that you’re ready to present. An important key here is that you’re speaking to be heard, not read. As a result, I’ve tweaked my talk many times after hearing it out loud. Hearing yourself say it out loud also helps adjust it to your own unique personality. The way I write isn’t necessarily how I speak, and I don’t want my presentations to be preachy, un-relatable, or dull. Transitions from one thought to the next should be fluid and those often come when you hear it out loud as you rehearse it. It also gives you clues as to when audiences might react with a laugh, clap, or a moment of reflection and where you need to take a pause.
Third, be logical. Clarity is more important than ever today. Think about your focus or theme and the points you are trying to make and be sure your conclusions add up. Although you may be sharing facts, the truth is, audiences want to hear stories. They want you to be relatable. You can “wow” them with statistics and research (much of which they won’t remember) or you can tell them a memorable story. That’s how Jesus taught and why His stories are still retold today. Always remember to make it real, personable, and spiced with a good memorable story.
Fourth, be yourself. I love to talk about the places I am honored to visit and the people I am blessed to meet but I am also keenly aware that it can be intimidating to audiences. Anything that keeps me separated from them or places me on a platform (no pun intended) is not what I want to present on stage. My goal is for people to find that what I talk about is relevant and applicable to their lives and hopefully to make a positive change. Using a sophisticated vocabulary that needs to be translated or sentences that sound ultra-intelligent creates walls and resistance to those goals. So I try and speak the language of the group I am talking to in a vocabulary that connects.
Fifth, be careful with humor. My husband is a humorous man and when he gives a speech, he knows how to use humor brilliantly. Me, not so much. I am the serious one. But I still look for places to bring in some levity, especially at the beginning of my presentations. To a great degree, even serious audiences today want to be somewhat entertained when they hear speakers on stage.
However, make sure the humor you use is culturally on point. Whenever I have jokes or slides in my presentations outside my own country, I always run them by a translator to make sure they are culturally relevant and sensitive. There have been many times the translators have let me know they don’t have the same meaning in their country and I have deleted and re-written those sections.
So, use humor but don’t abuse it and make sure the joke translates. Humor will allow audiences to connect with you faster and to stay connected but do so cautiously.
Last, be confident. The people in your audience have gotten out of bed, dressed, traveled to the event, and may have bought a ticket to come hear you. You need to deliver on your presentation, but don’t let that expectation undermine your confidence. Your countenance matters. Your knowledge and delivery style are important. So videotape yourself if possible – even if it’s just for a few minutes with your smartphone to take a look at yourself. Look at your gestures and quirks.
I once had a teacher who would close his eyes whenever he talked to the class. I don’t think he ever really realized it, and we students would make faces at him to see if he would catch us when his eyes were closed. It was a huge distraction from his lectures. So watch yourself from the audience’s point of view. It’s important for you to understand what the audience sees.
But as you gain in confidence, I would also recommend that you never stop being somewhat nervous. When you stop being nervous you stop caring about your work and what you are communicating. Everyone gets nervous – even the most experienced speakers. So, embrace it and defeat it by being prepared. The beauty of who you are will always come through and people will like you and invite you back.
Now, go out there and use your God-given skills and talents to change the world.
Oh…and don’t ever put water bottles next to your computer in your backpack!