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The Three Keys to Great Presentations
by Ed Barks


I’ve seen it all too often. Business and association executives who enter presentation skills workshops confused about how to improve their speaking abilities. Worse yet, they seem overwhelmed by past advice that offered only a scattershot approach.

This impression that there is too much knowledge to absorb poses a real barrier to learning for today’s leaders. If you are afraid to take the public speaking plunge, the sad fact is you have lots of company. The good news is there is a common sense tool you can use right now to help you stop that quiver in your voice and knocking in your knees.

It is called The Three Keys to Great Presentations™, a straightforward method that charts a course toward a sharper communications edge. This intuitive and easy to remember system works to your benefit by concentrating on three basic factors:

  • Preparation
  • Performance
  • Assessing Feedback

What Are the Three Keys?

You can put The Three Keys to Great Presentations to work for you, too. Let’s take a mini-lesson, beginning with an examination of the first key, Preparation. This starts with some basic research into your audience. For instance, are you addressing a technical gathering or a general audience? Are they senior executives like you or less experienced managers? With these insights, you are in position to decide upon your main messages and weave them throughout your remarks. Once you develop a razor sharp message, commit to delivering it. Then remember to anticipate any tough questions you might be asked and develop a response strategy.

Next, bring your words to life by sprinkling your talk with quotable quotes. Talk in stories that employ vivid words, anecdotes, numbers, and the like.

Here is the bottom line when it comes to Preparation: Practice, practice, practice! Clients in my presentation skills workshops recognize this as their mantra. Practice your remarks in front of trusted advisors, colleagues, or family members. For an even more powerful experience, videotape your rehearsals and critique yourself.

It’s Showtime

Now let’s move on to the second key, Performance. Stride to the front of the room with self-assurance, bearing in mind that you are the expert. This gives you an added shot of confidence, and helps you shake those jitters that all of us—yes, even CEOs—experience at moments like this.

Your nonverbal performance counts, too. How can you judge your body language? Let’s take a rapid review to get you moving in the right direction.

First take stock of your Video Tools:

  • Action: Hand gestures, a nod of the head, a slight forward lean, and other actions make a positive difference. Also, make a conscious decision whether you will sit or stand. If you stand, will you be free to roam among audience members or must you speak from a lectern?

  • Facial expression: Smiles, frowns, and widening of the eyes all help you boost the magnetism of your message. Just be sure your expression matches your message.

  • Eye contact: Distribute your eye contact among your audience. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on only the center of the room; that alienates a large percentage of your listeners.

  • Wardrobe: Appearance counts, so dress appropriately. I aim to dress one notch better than my audience to lend a greater air of legitimacy. Avoid distractions like loud colors, funny ties, and jangling jewelry.

  • Props: Anything you need to handle physically falls into this category. Decide ahead of time when you plan to display them and how you will gracefully get rid of them.

Next, we’ll review your Audio Tools:

  • Pitch: It doesn’t matter so much if your voice is high or low. But to sound interesting, you need to change things up by varying your inflection, register, and modulation.

  • Articulation: Many audiences in today’s global business climate include members who do not speak English as a first language. Be sensitive to the need for others to grasp your words in order to understand your message.

  • Volume: As with pitch, contrast is what matters here. Occasional changes in volume make your voice easier on your audience’s ears.

  • Emotion: If you don’t care, why should anyone else? Bring an appropriate level of passion to bear.

  • Rate: As you want to vary your pitch and volume, so should you fluctuate your rate of speech. Speed up for a bit, slow down for a bit, and toss in the occasional pause.

We have talked about Preparation and Performance. Now let’s shine the spotlight on the third of The Three Keys to Great Presentations, Assessing Feedback.

The Missing Key

I am always amazed by the number of otherwise smart executives who ignore this step. You can put yourself ahead of the pack if you take the effort to measure your performance, then act upon it. There are formal methods, such as evaluation forms. While numbers crunchers love such paint-by-number responses, the fact is most evaluation sheets don’t tell you a lot. If you do opt for them, be sure to ask open-ended questions. Avoid asking for numerical responses from 1 to 5; that stale approach provides little in the way of useful feedback. And insist upon reading all the comments yourself.

Over the years, I have found informal methods invaluable. Some examples: Call the sponsoring organization to ask how you did. Also, mingle with your audience after your remarks, ask some targeted questions, listen carefully, and absorb what they have to say.

Some examples of other feedback possibilities: Bring a straight shooting colleague with you, someone you can trust to give you the unvarnished truth about your performance. It is also a good idea to videotape or audiotape your presentation whenever possible. And don’t let that recording gather dust. Review it and learn from it.

Real time feedback also provides a bounty of information. Are your listeners attentive, nodding, and full of relevant questions? Or are they sitting with arms folded, texting on their mobile devices, or (horror of horrors) leaving the room in droves? Gauging the audience’s temperature in real time allows you to act on their signals immediately, changing things up if need be, and rescuing your presentation (and your reputation).

Of course, the best measurement comes when the same group asks you to speak again, or when they give you referrals for other speaking opportunities.

Pace Yourself

Gathering feedback is worthless unless you put it to use in future presentations and business situations. At the same time, don’t overload your circuits by trying to fix everything at once. Commit to working on one or two items at a time. When you have those in hand, move on to another. If you try to do too much at once, you risk discouragement and might find yourself giving up altogether.

Whether you deliver a speech to the National Press Club, pitch a client on a new service, or are asked to say a few words during a networking luncheon, the Three Keys to Great Presentations—Preparation, Performance, and Assessing Feedback—can help you shore up that trembling voice and those wobbly legs.


The Author

Ed Barks

Ed Barks works with corporate and association executives who need a magnetic message and sharp communications skills, and with public affairs and public relations experts who counsel their bosses and clients. He is also the author of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations and President of Barks Communications.

Learn more at . Contact Ed at (540) 955-0600 or .

Many more articles in Presentations & Public Speaking in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2009 by Ed Barks. All rights reserved.

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