Being an executive raises both the stakes and the necessity for public speaking, but competence doesn't necessarily come with the job.
Dale Fallon, president of The Communication Gym in Susquehanna Township, knows cases like that. One involves a successful, internationally known organization.
"One of their partners did a presentation about four months ago," Fallon said. "Halfway through the presentation, the audience just started to get up and leave."
The problem is precisely what Fallon's program is designed to solve. But, he said, it's not just for those who are panic-stricken at the thought of speaking or who are clueless about how to effectively prepare for a presentation.
"The quality of your life is directly related to the quality of your communication skills — not just how you communicate with others, but how you communicate with yourself," Fallon said. "If I'm a sales rep and every time I walk out of a meeting I say to myself, 'Oh, you did it again; you're just not good at this,' that's bad intrapersonal communication, and it sets us up to put limits and barriers on ourselves."
Fallon has a background in martial arts, and he coaches communication the same way, with pins representing each level of mastery. It's a dive-in approach, he said, with lots of practicing and videotaping and assessment: "Our brand is, when you're ready to get that type of feedback, that's what we're here for and that's what we do."
By contrast, he said, Toastmasters International — another staple of the speech world, which he calls "a wonderful organization" — is known for its take-your-time ethos.
"My experience in Toastmasters was that there were people who came from all walks of life who just wanted to improve their public speaking," Williams said. The organization and program are highly structured, he said, with a clear progression of skills to tackle.
Both The Communication Gym and Toastmasters emphasize preparation and practice, which are key to becoming a better speaker with or without joining a program.
April Bailey, associate professor of information technology and business education at Shippensburg University, makes it a point to tell her students that getting ready for a presentation isn't just about learning what to say and how to say it.
"We're all aware of the death by PowerPoint," Bailey said. But used properly, and carefully planned, PowerPoint can add to the effectiveness of a presentation.
"The main thing is that we want to make it easy for the learner," Bailey said.
That entails everything from making sure the content is easy to see to checking the equipment ahead of time to having video clips pulled up and ready to go. Then, when the PowerPoint is perfect, the presenter needs to work with it long enough to be able to use it while maintaining eye contact with the audience.
Williams has a related caution about data and engaging the audience. Handouts, such as PowerPoint presentations, can be helpful, but too often he sees people reading them instead of paying attention to the speaker. One solution is to tell people the notes are available but they will be handed out after the presentation; another is to keep the notes very basic and structure them as an integral part of the presentation, so the audience can take notes with ease without ignoring the speaker.
"Start with what you want the outcome to be, and then reverse-engineer the presentation," Fallon said. "Your audience wants you to succeed; they want you to be successful. They're not sitting there looking to poke holes in what you're doing."
Top tips for presentations
Here are some helpful pointers to keep in mind for your next big speech.
Dale Fallon, president of The Communication Gym
1. Know your audience completely.
2. Know your desired outcome.
3. Practice with honest, candid feedback.
4. Be flexible in your style.
5. Pay attention to breathing.
Dale Williams, vice chairman of the Lancaster County Speakers Bureau
1. Proper preparation prevents poor performance.
2. Slow down.
3. Look at the audience. If eye contact is too uncomfortable, focus on chins or hair.
4. Be confident; speak about things you know about.
5. Don’t put a lot of text in PowerPoint, and don’t read from PowerPoint.
April Bailey, associate professor of information technology and business education at Shippensburg University
1. Have a Plan B, Plan C and a hard copy of your notes.
2. Don’t steal content. The legal standard for fair use is only about 20 percent.
3. Manage your time so you cover everything you need to without running long.
4. Silence is OK; if you need a moment to collect your thoughts, don’t fill it with unnecessary words.
5. Keep your PowerPoint simple and easy to read.