The keynote speaker engages conference participants at the Innovations in Graduate Business Education conference.

In the digital age, the ability to deliver a speech remains a powerful skill

This is the first of three articles by Rutgers Business School instructor Marc Kalan to appear in the trade publication "Sales and Marketing Management." The other two, which also explore how speakers can manage their presentation experience and enhance their physical presence, will be published Jan. 9 and Jan. 11. Kalan is a full time instructor in the Department of Supply Chain Management.

By Marc H. Kalan

In the current age of emails, texts, tweets and social media, the importance of personal communication, whether one-to-one or in front of a group, has never been more important, nor more difficult to accomplish.  While the movement to digital communications channels provides speed and potentially broad reach, they generally fail to incorporate that which makes each of us unique, our personalities and human traits.  From my experiences in the business and academic worlds, whether delivering a business presentation, making a sales pitch, or over the past decade teaching business classes, the ability to engage colleagues, clients or students, has become more challenging and critical.

For the business executive, manager, sales representative, in fact from virtually every functional area, this vital skill set is often overlooked in favor of analytic analysis, or the creation and utilization of the next ”hot app” for our ever-increasing reliance on the individual’s smartphone or tablet.  There is no argument that texting, tweeting (with its 140-character limit), posting on social media such as Facebook and Linked-In, and other digital options, are rapidly becoming our modern “lingua franca.” PowerPoint, with its disengaging format of slides rather than speech, has become the preferred “modus operandi” of the business world, supplanting the individual as the focal point of corporate communication.

Yet none of these communications mediums delivers like a personal address. From hybriding the words of communication, to eliminating human characteristics such as body language and voice usage, modern digitized communications falls short. No matter how technology changes there will always be situations where a personal presentation is the most effective way to reach someone and convince them of something. The simple fact is there is nothing more powerful than one’s ability to forcefully deliver a speech, presentation, lecture, address or other personal communication. An individual’s presence is that unique element that differentiates these from a written, or in today’s environment tweeted, communication.

A major part of any lecture is without question the material you are sharing. Yet we all know that a good presentation goes well beyond the material. So what makes one presenter more interesting, engaging and successful than another? We’ve all experienced both excellent speakers who make time fly by, as well as dreadful speakers, who make every minute seem to last forever. So what makes the difference? Here are some tips I’ve picked up during my career that might help your presentations be more engaging, impactful and memorable.

Organization Balanced with Flexibility – Be organized, be prepared, know what you want to cover and in what order. Yet also be flexible. Be comfortable allowing your presentation to flow with the interests of your audience, which may not be immediately evident. And while you exercise the option to follow an unplanned path, always remember what you intended to accomplish and bring your audience back to that destination. You are in control of the flow and pace. Don’t feel so constrained to “stick to your script” when opportunities to expand beyond present themselves. Take advantage and capture your listeners by speaking “to them” and not “at them”.

Introduce Yourself - Always introduce yourself as well as all of those who will be presenting you so your attendees are aware of your full team. Be sure to consider your relationship with the audience (do you have an existing relationship or are you a new face to them).  Your introduction has several objectives:

  • The first objective is to begin the relationship with your listeners, if you are already familiar to them, this is a chance to remind and renew that familiarity.
  • A second objective is to begin to build rapport and trust – don’t assume these already exist. Trust especially needs to be earned. Audiences are skeptical; it’s a normal human characteristic. The ability to read your audience and gauge levels of trust as well as skepticism provides valuable insights towards building strong bonds. Generally audiences are warm and inviting. They are there because they anticipate a valuable experience.  Understanding this expectation is important.
  • Third, we all like to know about others, especially those talking to us as experts, or peers, or subordinates. Let the audience know who you are and why you are there. If you are being introduced by a third party, provide them with a few key facts that are relevant to the audience as well as the subject material (after all they are here to learn from your expertise so remind them of just that).
  • Fourth, audience member names: while it may not be practical in every situation if you are able to learn and utilize individual names this often enables those participants to feel more of a personal connection to you, stimulating rapport and reinforcing that trust. If practical consider having name signs for audience members – keeping in mind you need to be able to read those names easily and clearly from your presentation location. I now require this simple act in each of my courses and I find it a great method for rapidly building and enhancing my ability to interact with individual audience members, while drawing each member of the audience in.
  • Fifth, if you are wearing a name tag, place it on your right side (not left which seems logical to a right handed person). Not only do people read from your right to left (their left to right), but if you are shaking hands this places your name tag out in front and avoids forcing those you are greeting from being forced to look “across your chest”.

Cell Phones and Other Electronic Devices – Audience members texting, emailing, tweeting, surfing the net, etc. are not engaged in your presentation. These behaviors are distracting both to you and those in the audience. Other than for taking notes, I always ask for electronic devices to be turned off while I’m speaking. In my classes, I have been known to ask those breaking this request to leave the room.

Bring a Passion – It starts right here, right at the beginning, the opportunity to win or lose your audience. Your personal commitment to your presentation is paramount, and nobody can or should care about your subject more than you do. Your audience will read this from word one, and once lost it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.  A comment I often hear these days is that I bring a passion to each of my classes, a passion that is seen and appreciated by my addressees. So bring your passion and grab your audience with it.

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