By Barry Sackin, SNS 2016-01-25 18:15:23
Speaking of Speaking A popular presenter offers simple tips to help you feel more confident in speeches, presentations and trainings. Not long ago, a friend commented on a presentation I had given on the subject of ethics in school nutrition procurement. She had seen me present on this topic on a number of occasions to different audiences, and she paid me the generous compliment that each time it seemed fresh, despite my repetition in delivering it over and over again. It got me thinking: What are some of the common “tricks” I use as a speaker so that the audience always leave with more knowledge and appreciation for the topic at hand? Many of you have opportunities to make presentations to different groups. You might be asked to explain menu changes to the parent-teacher organization or make a case for breakfast in the classroom to the board of education. Even if you don’t need to address an outside audience, it’s likely that many of you need to present different training topics to your team. How comfortable are you on these occasions? Do you feel like you’re just “winging” it or do you feel confident that you have engaged the audience to listen and retain your message? Perhaps my experiences can help you to improve your own delivery of presentations and speeches. Over the past 30 years or so, I have had the opportunity to speak at numerous meetings and conferences on a wide range of topics of interest and importance to me and my colleagues in the K-12 school foodservice segment. From USDA Foods to policy to marketing to program history and structure, I’ve enjoyed the process of sharing my observations and experiences with others. The goal is always to inform, educate and inspire. That may sound simple, but it’s not. Taking complex issues like procurement law or nutrition meal patterns and breaking them down so anyone can understand—and then apply that knowledge to their job or life—requires some careful preparation. Then, you need to present the material so that people are engaged and learning actually happens. These are the goals of all speakers. According to a blog article published on Brandongaille.com in 2013, fear of public speaking affects 19% of all people—that’s ahead of death at 16%, and spiders at 13%! There are all kinds of tips for overcoming this fear, but that’s not what this article is about. (And, no, imagining your audience is naked doesn’t work for any speaker I know.) What I’d like to do here is more personal, sharing my approach to planning and presenting persuasively. It’s my hope that these skills and tips are ones that you can use, too. Once Upon a Time… I started my school nutrition career with San Diego City Schools in 1980. Responding to the challenges of the day, we focused considerable time and energy on marketing to build participation and sales. (Sound familiar?) But these were fairly new concepts at that time for a business segment where the vast majority of funding came from the government and most kids had few options other than the reimbursable meal entrée of the day. Jane Boehrer, an incredible, visionary leader, was director and my boss. When she was invited to present a snapshot of our efforts at that year’s California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO) conference, she asked me to give the presentation! While I had been on stage in high school and little theater plays and programs, I had never given a professional presentation. Now, I was representing the district—and my boss. I spent a lot of time drafting and redrafting the speech, with Jane’s assistance in reviewing, editing and providing feedback. I was “ready.” Not wanting to miss any of the important points we had written into the presentation—and being beyond nervous—I read the speech from densely printed pages of text. It was a disaster. That particular failure led to several key lessons I learned to apply to my presentations ever since. Read It vs. Speak It. Don’t read a speech. Ever. If it’s better read than said, publish it as an article or distribute it as a memo or proposal. If you are really anxious about speaking off the cuff, then make the time to memorize your speech. You can and should draft notes, but use these as guides, rather than a script. And with today’s computer technologies, you can print out your notes in extremely large-size type so that your eyes can easily scan the document rather than hold it close to follow. Know Your Subject. This seems obvious, right? You wouldn’t be making this presentation if you weren’t seen as an expert on the topic. But for a good presentation, you want to be ready for questions and clarification. If you’ve ever visited your federal or state lawmakers as part of an organized grassroots lobbying initiative, such as SNA’s Legislative Action Conference, you probably rely on the official talking points documents provided by SNA or your state affiliate. In relying on these in your formal meetings, you may be prepared to add a little local color and context, but what if you get a question that’s “off script”? It’s absolutely appropriate to say you don’t know and that you will follow up, but the better approach is comprehensive preparation. When you know your topic inside out, you focus on the point of the meeting, not just the talking points. If the point of the meeting is to convince a stakeholder group to support a farm-to-school initiative, keep that goal in mind as you prepare. The more your presentation can be a conversation—even if you wait to take questions at the end—the more effective and persuasive you will be in relaying your message. Know Your Audience. Some topics are geared to certain audiences. Others are applicable to more than one constituency, but each has a different perspective and starting level of knowledge and understanding. For example, the American Commodity Distribution Association (ACDA) undertook a comprehensive review of value pass-through systems (VPT) for USDA Foods. A VPT is the way that schools get the full value of their commodities when they buy processed foods. It can get pretty specialized. When presenting the findings and recommendation at the ACDA annual conference, the audience consisted mostly of folks who had a baseline understanding of the USDA Foods Program, so the presentation included a number of technical details. But when speaking on this same topic at SNA’s Annual National Conference, where the audience was not as intimately involved in VPT-related details and regulations, my co-presenter and I took a much more basic approach, including a greater emphasis on jargon and terms. Always consider who is in your audience, what information they need to take away from the presentation and how best to impart the knowledge in a way that will be accessible and effective. Telling Tales. I frequently like to assert that I don’t give speeches or make presentations. I tell stories. A very effective tool in presenting is to include anecdotes from the real world that support your points. Personal experiences, which everyone has and most can relate to, frequently elicit an emotional connection. Learning and memory are very much tied to emotions. So presenting things that people respond to is a great way to achieve your goal. Many speakers begin a presentation with a joke or funny story. The theory is that you relax the audience by releasing tension through laughter. That’s great, although you should take care to ensure the joke is appropriate for your audience and won’t be off-putting in any way. Try to keep it out of a prepared script, but something that seems fresh and in keeping with either the topic, the audience or the environment of the speaking engagement. Take an H2O Break. Whether you are just about to begin or are well into your speech or presentation, if your mouth is dry and gummy, stop. Take a sip of water. Bring a water bottle of your own, if you are unlikely to have one provided to you by the meeting organizers. (Tip: Avoid the ice water placed by hotel and conference centers at the speaker’s table; it will dry you out even more. Pour a glass before your presentation so that it can warm to room temperature.) From the Heart. When I present on topics that are close to my heart, my audience finds me more believable and credible; this is true whether I’m talking about legislative issues in Congress or procurement rules for school nutrition programs. When you tell your stories, tell the stories that mean something to you. Your passion will come through. After all, if you don’t really believe what you’re saying, how do you expect your audience to believe you? There are two ways to approach the issue of sincerity and honesty when giving a presentation. One is to be a really good actor. When you see a movie with Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep, you believe the character, because of the talent of those well-regarded thespians who “sell” their roles. But few people have that kind of acting expertise! The second, and easier path, is simple honesty. Only say what you truly believe. A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words. I’ll be honest: I hate PowerPoint. Sure, I use it, because it’s important to remember that not all audience members learn and retain information by hearing it alone. In addition, some points need to be reinforced or explained with a visual to be fully understood by the audience—the proverbial thousand-word aid. But use PowerPoint or other visuals judiciously. Most people are there to hear what you have to say, not to watch a slide show. In addition, you want your slides to be useful. Tables of numbers are difficult for an audience to see and absorb, so instead you should convert the key data into a graphic presentation that is easy for anyone to grasp. You can offer the hard data behind your point to anyone who wants to request it separately. In general, if the circumstances call for it and the technology is available, I tend to use PowerPoint as an outline for my presentation, almost like a crutch. It keeps me from having to look down at a printed outline, which distracts from the relationship I’m building with the audience and keeps me on track and focused on the audience. Keep the computer in front of you or if you can’t, position yourself where you can read the screen yourself without awkward movements. Avoid reading the slides verbatim. These are visuals intended to grab attention, relay complex details or reinforce key messages. But you can count on most of the audience to be literate enough to read them for themselves. Keep Calm and Carry On. My final advice is to stop doubting yourself! You’ve been asked to give this presentation or speech because you are a passionate, knowledgeable expert on the topic. Remember the fundamentals: You are sharing what you know, what you think and what you love. Relax and enjoy the experience of teaching others something they didn’t know or helping them understand an issue in a new and helpful way. Barry Sackin is a K-12 school nutrition consultant based in Murietta, Calif., and a former SNA staff vice president of government affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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