Attention, please

If the thought of giving presentations
or speeches leaves you breaking out in
a sweat, rest assured that you don’t have to be a natural to be an effective

“With preparation and practice, anyone
can give an effective presentation,” says
Heather Norton, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Fontbonne
University. “Presenting yourself well in
the workplace is critical, especially
because it is so difficult to build credibility, yet so easy to lose it.

Although good communication skills
have always been important in the business world, Norton surmises that expectations have grown during the last few

“Good communication skills are one of
the things employers look for most in
new hires,” she says. “Quite often, people
with good communication skills move up
more quickly through an organization.”

Smart Business spoke with Norton for
some tips and hints on getting and holding your audience’s attention.

What can be done beforehand to ensure a
successful presentation?

Too many times people think ‘good’
presentations just happen, so they wing
it, and then wonder what went wrong.
The key is to prepare and practice
beforehand, and to follow these tips:

  • Know your purpose. What message
    or main point do you want to get across?
    What is your ultimate goal?

  • Know your material. You will be
    much more persuasive and effective if
    you are familiar with the product, the
    research and your pitch.

  • Know your audience. Understand
    their level of familiarity with your topic
    so you can target your message effectively. You don’t want to tell them things that
    they already know, nor do you want to
    talk over their heads.

Consider the best way to convey your
information to a specific audience. Do
you really need to do yet another
PowerPoint presentation? Can you just be clear about the points you are making,
perhaps by using sign posts in your

Next, organize the material in logical
ways (e.g., steps they can take). Don’t
just jot down your thoughts. What information does your audience need first?
Finally, do a verbal run-through of your
presentation ahead of time. Practice it
out loud sitting in your office or talk it
through with someone not familiar with
the subject matter who can tell you if
there are any unclear areas.

What is the most important thing someone
can do moments before a speech?

You’d probably think it was to reread
your notes, but it’s not. Sit quietly,
breathe deep, and smile! How can the
presenter make sure he or she looks
comfortable? Nonverbally, fake it. Most
times no one can tell you’re nervous.
Move away from the podium. Walk
about, but don’t pace. Use natural and
fluid hand gestures. These things will
help you look confident and will also
help eliminate physical jittery nervousness. Verbally, have the confidence to stop on occasion to ask questions at logical points. Let the audience believe you
really want them to ask questions. Avoid
using filler words, such as ‘like,’ ‘uh’ and
‘um.’ Take audible pauses. Don’t read off
notes or a PowerPoint.

How can a presenter use verbal and nonverbal techniques to engage the audience?

Verbally, offer an effective attention
getter. Stating a quick fact is a good way
to begin — a fact that surprises them
and/or establishes the importance of the
topic will let your audience know that
the presentation is worth listening to.
The fact should be related to the topic —
don’t just come in and flip the lights off!
People don’t ‘come in late well’ to
speeches. You have to get their attention
from the beginning. Be careful with
humor. Don’t start with a joke unless you
really know your audience well, and you
really are funny. Use a clear tone of voice
and a volume that is appropriate. Women
tend to speak more softly than men.
Audiences tend to tune out people who
speak too softly.

Nonverbally, the most important thing
you can do is make eye contact. Don’t
look over their heads. You don’t have to
look at every person but look at segments of the audience. This will convey
that you care whether they are ‘getting
it.’ And if you are paying attention to
them, it makes them pay attention to you.

What’s a good way to end a presentation?

First, signal that you are moving to the
end, and then proceed. Don’t go on for 10
more minutes. Next, remind the audience of the main points covered. End
with a memorable statement or leave
them with something to consider. If it is a
persuasive presentation, provide a call to
action. In business, many times you want
the audience to do something (e.g. ‘take
these three steps’). Tell them what you
want them to do. Be specific.

HEATHER NORTON, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at Fontbonne University. Reach her at [email protected]
or (314) 719-3641.