A few weeks ago, my wife and I were among the hundreds in attendance when Stephen King addressed an audience at George mason University as part of Fairfax, Virginia’s Fall for the Book Festival.
By way of full disclosure, seeing Stephen King live is to me analogous to what I imagine it would be for a classical actor to see Kenneth Branaugh. Or Laurence Olivier. While many of King’s stories don’s appeal to me anymore (I read Pet Sematary when Joy was pregnant–‘Nuff said?), he works the English language exactly the way I wish that I could.
He also worked the audience with supreme grace and skill. The fact that he was entirely at ease on the stage confirmed for me that his spontaneity was well-rehearsed. If that read as snarky, please re-read. I meant it as a statement of supreme admiration. As one whose Big Boy Job requires dozens of speeches a year–a few to standing O’s, I hasten to add–I can attest to the importance of hard work to making things easy.
Sooner or later, we all find ourselves alone on stage–or something like a stage–and I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade when it comes time to entertain an audience.
First, notice the E-word. Embrace the fact that successful speakers are first and foremost entertainers. I don’t care if you’re delivering a eulogy or a paper on astrophysics. People will remember you if you’re entertaining. And they will forget you if you are not.
We all work too hard to be forgotten. So, how can we be memorable?
Step One: If you truly hate public speaking and are not willing to work for it, turn down the public speaking gigs. Your audience and your replacements will both be grateful.
Step Two: Remember that ain’t none of this about you–iy’s about the audience. Give thme a good ride, and they’ll love you forever. Turn to navel-gazing bullshit about your muse and your struggles, and you’ll turn everybody off.
Step Three: Have something to say. This is where preparation and rehearsal pay dividends. And remember that making feel good is better than making them feel bad. Know where your laugh lines are and wait for them. If you don’t know how to do this part, sign up with your local chapter of Toast Masters and learn how to structure and deliver a decent speech. (See Step Two above.) Every person in your audience gave up the sure thing entertainment option of watching a Seinfeld rerun for the ninth time. You owe them at least as good a ride as that.
Step Four: Talk to your audience, not at them. Make eye contact. Smile. Invite input. The fact that this is the 4,784th time you’ve delivered this speech doesnt change the reality that it’s the first time for each of your audience members.
Step Five (and this one’s a personal bugaboo): Yes, you need a microphone. I don’t care if you’re James Earl Jones on crack; you’re easier to hear in the back of the room if you’re amplified. (See Step Two–again.)
Step Six (actually, it’s 5-A): The microphone is a voice amplification device. It is not a pointer, a magic wand, or an extension of your Italian gesticulation hand. To work, it needs to be pointed at your mouth. We’re talking straight-on. Ninety degrees. If you’re speaking from a podium, think in arcs as you look from one side of the audience to the other. As your head moves, the mouth-to-mike distance should remain constant.
When using a lavalier microphone (always my preference), take time to hide the cord and the transmitter. Having that black cord swinging around gets in the way and looks ugly. Neatness matters to the audience. If you have an audio technician working with you, trust his advice. If you don’t, put the microphone a fist’s width from the underside of your jaw. For guys, that will be between the second and third buttons on your shirt. For ladies, that means that you have to dress in anticipation of a microphone.
There’s more, of course, but I think these are the basics. What do y’all think? What are your tricks or cardinal rules for presentations?