Authentic Storytelling and Public Speaking

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy,” said Jerry Seinfeld.

One of the key aspects of a communications leader’s role is preparing your executives for interviews and keynote presentations. Whether it is a live broadcast interview, a business press interview, or getting the CEO ready for her big keynote, PR people try to think of every possible outcome to ensure our leader is prepared with the answers she needs and shows up well in any situation they are in.

So what happens when the tables are turned and the PR pros are asked to speak? I was recently thinking about one of my earliest keynotes at a Ragan Communications conference about 15 years ago. I felt like I was ready to take all the advice I had given and apply it to my talk. 

The event took part at the Microsoft campus in Seattle in front of a couple of hundred of my peers. My topic was focused on measurement in the communications field. Piece of cake, I got this. Well, I did not. The short version of why the talk failed was my story was not crisp enough and took the audience over a multiyear journey without clear key messages. I did not follow my own advice around sticking to three key points and giving prescriptive advice that anyone could implement when they want back to the office. Once I wrapped up my keynote, I knew I disappointed my audience and myself. My presentation was mediocre at best and the scores reflected this. 

Before I do any public speaking today, I think about this conference and reflect on where I went wrong and how I can improve in each subsequent talk. Here are my five takeaways that I always keep on top of mind, so you can deliver a memorable keynote by taming your fears and telling your authentic story on stage. 

  1. Emphasize Your Main Point Emphatically

A Yale study found that audience members remember 60 percent of your presentation after 20 minutes, 40 percent of your presentation within half a day, and 10 percent within a week. Think of all the work you have put into the keynote and only 10 percent will be remembered within 7 days of giving it. People are awash in data and information, so you need to be very focused on your message. Have no more than three messages. Are you able to answer this key question – what action do I want my audience to take after listening to me? Be very clear and emphatically emphasize your point. You need the listener to absorb what you presenting, remember what you shared, and be motivated to take the action you have suggested. Make sure your messages tie to your call to action and what you want the listeners to do after your talk. Practice your keynote in front of a trusted friend or partner. If they cannot easily pick out the key point and the action steps you are suggesting, go back to the drawing board and refine your messaging. 

  1. Know Your Audience 

Storytelling is one of the key ways each of us connects with one another on a deeper level. By knowing your audience, you can tap into their emotions and motivations. Will they generally be supportive of you or are they skeptical of the topic you are presenting? If you are talking to sales leaders versus engineers versus marketers, they will likely have different mindsets and motivations. Understand what they want to gain from this talk – gain a new skill, education about a new product, or be motivated to give their money or time to a charity. The one commonality is that audience will remember stories more than facts, figures, and data. Weave in anecdotes. It is also nice to relate to people with humor. You can get the crowd engaged with appropriate lighthearted comments, which will put a smile on their face and have them leaning into the talk. Building connections within your presentation that are clear, concise, and compelling are keys to winning over the audience and being memorable.

  1. Be Authentic

You are likely a leader in your field and on the subject you are talking about, so make sure to share your story. Personal anecdotes go a long way. When you find a topic that people can relate to, you will see nodding of heads and facial expressions from your audience that show they are engaged and are on this journey with you. When you present with passion the audience can feel your enthusiasm and that goes a long way in motivating them to take action. Matching your words with your expressions and movement on stage makes you look comfortable and engaging since you are able to look people in the eyes and have one-to-one contact. Make sure to be big on the stage, meaning you can walk and talk across the entire space. There is a fine balance between using the stage to make eye contact with the audience members versus nervously pacing and walking back and forth. Finding the right balance is key. Use facial expressions and hand or arm gestures. Ensure these movements are natural and not overly rehearsed or your audience will see right through this.

  1. Being Nervous is Okay

Even the best keynote speakers’ hearts race, develop sweaty palms, and experience anxiety before they walk on stage. But they take that nervous energy and channel it for the positive. Admitting that you have anxiety is fine and can often put the audience at ease. While you want to be comfortable with your material, a minor misstep here or there is fine. Know your key points, but do not memorize your keynote, since that will feel rehearsed to the crowd. Remember to pause on stage. Sometimes it will feel like everything is coming out of you quickly and your mind goes blank, just breathe. Slow down and recenter yourself to get back on track. Just like conversations have a flow, you don’t need to have every line be perfect. Use minimal notes to guide you on key points, but don’t script out that talk.

  1. Visual Aids are Only for Support 

We’ve all seen slides that try to do too much – too many words, visuals that are busy, and animations that distract us. As you create your slides have them supplement your story, not be used as replacements for your story. Channel Steve Jobs when you create your slides – simple and stunning. These are just the backdrop for your keynote. Less is more but in terms of your slides and words. Instead of filling up space and time, think about impact and simplicity.    

Once your keynote is over, congratulate yourself. It’s never easy to go on stage and speak, whether the audience is 50, 500, or 5,000. Hopefully, the keynote is recorded and at the right time, you can watch it and write down what worked and what you would improve on. Look at the feedback forms. See how the audience rated you. Talk with colleagues who are willing to give you honest feedback. 

Now that you have the event behind you, put yourself in situations where you can continue to practice. It will get easier and easier to get up on stage with each talk. To conquer any fear, commit to getting better, and work on this craft. Enlist professional help through your company or third parties that can help you build your story and tell it in the most compelling way. There are great resources out there to help you. create your keynote, perfect your delivery, and develop your visuals. As you take positive steps forward on this journey, people will start to seek you out to speak, which is exciting and flattering. 

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