The Coach: Secrets of Presenting

by Nick Mills on April 8, 2011


My first post discussed the importance of storytelling in spoken-word presentations.  Human history and tribal lore were passed from generation to generation stories.  Stories are remembered.

However, there are limits to what stories can do. Think of the presentation as a medium, just like radio, television, books, plays, photographs, magazines, movies, telephone, and the Internet are media.  All are tools for delivering information.  But just as a book is not a TV show, a presentation is a unique medium with its own strengths and limitations, and the skilled storyteller recognizes the limitations of the medium and works with them to maximize the effectiveness of the presentation.

The following are my secrets of spoken-word presentations:

1. The spoken word is a lousy way to transmit information.

That’s right. The more information you try to transmit via a presentation, the less information your listeners will remember. Lots of factoids and numbers, backed by charts and graphs and slides is information overload.  Remember that the purpose of your presentation is to move information from one place to another – from you to the audience.  Think of information as a cargo, like a load of bricks.  Think of the medium as a cargo carrier, like a truck.  Here’s what the Wall Street Journal would look like:

giant truck loaded

That’s a big carrier, and would haul tons of information from one place to another. Now think about a spoken-word presentation trying to carry the same load of information:

donkey cart overloaded

It just can’t do it!  Your carrier breaks down, and the information does not reach its destination.  Presentations need to have brief, clear and memorable messages.  Your listener will only be able to carry away a couple of small nuggets of information from your presentation, nuggets he will be able to pass on to friends.  It is up to you to decide which nuggets are most important and deliver them in a way that will stick.  More about that in a later post.

2. Seventy-five percent of the information you deliver is non-verbal.

You are the message, more so than the information you try to deliver. Your audience will pick up many clues from the way you look, stand, gesture, smile and speak, and the credibility of your words will be judged by the non-verbal elements of your presentation.

One of my clients, a government official, had a habit of pacing as he spoke.  He would take three steps to the right, then turn and take three steps to the left – over and over and over again.  The effect of the pacing was to distract the audience from what he was saying. The non-verbal trumped the verbal, and the message of the non-verbal was negative:  This guy is not comfortable, he is so nervous he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

Many forms of non-verbal communication are universal. One of the most powerful is right in the middle of your face – your smile!

In upcoming posts, I will talk about the ways to plan and prepare a spoken-word presentation and how to make the non-verbal stuff work for you.

Nick Mills is a Professor of Journalism at Boston University, and an international media consultant and speech coach.

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