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Build Your Skills

3 Habits That Will Take Your Presentation Skills to the Next Level

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There are lots of articles on here that will help you build a strong foundation as a public speaker: articles to help you create a strong story, articles to help you build professional and engaging visual aids, and articles to help you connect with your audience as you speak. Mastering these three elements of presenting will help you stand out every time you stand up to share a message, but what can you do to build real flexibility and confidence when you’ve done that? In this series of posts, Jim Harvey will offer simple ways for the experienced speaker to move to the next level of skill.


Master the basics first – and keep on practising

A successful speech is based on three things:

  1. Understanding your audience
  2. Creating a message that works for them on that day, and then
  3. Presenting that message with belief and confidence to carry it to the people in the room.

It’s tough to do consistently well. The most gifted performer can ‘miss’ their audience on a bad day, misunderstand what the audience wants or needs, or simply misjudge their mood. Sometimes the audience isn’t ready to hear the message you have, however good you are as a speaker, and sometimes the audience is ready, the speaker is right, but the message is weak, or dull or, aimed at a different audience. There are many ways to get things wrong, the speaker goes home feeling like they’ve failed, the audience wishes they’d stayed in bed, and the opportunity presented by the occasion, to explain a product, sell an idea, raise the roof and send people away full of energy, is lost.

There’s no such thing as a brilliant speaker every day

This mercurial mix of audience, message and speaker means that there is no such thing as someone who is a brilliant speaker every day. Every speaker has their own blend of experience, skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Every performer has a favourite kind of crowd. One person I know is brilliant with a tough, business audience, but made a speech to 100 12-year old children and said it was the worst experience of his life. Probably theirs too.

Most speakers have a favourite subject, but are much less confident with a different one, and a ‘default style’ that they rely on to get them through most situations. Very few speakers are comfortable across all crowds, with all kinds of speeches, every day. The point is NOT for each of us to become brilliant with every audience, that’s not a realistic goal; but it is a realistic goal to become more flexible.

Develop Next Level Skills

The very best speakers are just more flexible than the rest of us. They have a wider range of ability in all of the areas I listed above. They have more ‘tools in their box’, more varied ways of telling stories, engaging the crowd, making messages stick. They can inspire and inform. They can work with the ‘C suite’ and connect with the factory floor. They can make the same point in many different ways and styles, depending on the day, the crowd and the occasion. How do they get to be so flexible? Simple. They work on their core skills and are always looking to explore the edges of their knowledge. If you want to develop to the next stage, to become a more flexible speaker, here are a few, simple ideas for you to explore.


If you want to tell more and better stories to illustrate and reinforce your messages

Storytelling is a core skill for all speakers. It’s not just the ability to tell stories that makes a difference; it’s having a wide range of stories, anecdotes and examples to illustrate your key points. One story that works with a group of middle-aged executives won’t necessarily work so well with a funky crowd of millennials. People often ask me where they can get stories from, and the answer is simple. Listen, read and remember the stories that you hear every day, and make sure that you’re actively searching for new ones.

Listen to as many podcasts as you can, and not just on public speaking

Podcasts offer a free and easy way to listen and learn from an enormous variety of speakers on an enormous variety of subjects. Here’s a great article on Wired Magazine that shows the very best of the 2019 podcast world from politics to language, design to comedy, food to foul words. Just give a few a try and find your mind expanding and your repertoire of stories, examples and fascinating facts growing too.

Once you subscribe to a podcast it’ll download to your tablet or phone every time a new one is published, so it’s there every time you have a moment spare to listen. My favourite at the moment is Desert Island Discs from the BBC – 60 years of recordings of brilliant people talking about their lives and their favourite music. It’s an archive stuffed full of moving stories, laughter and beautiful insights into all kinds of worlds that I never knew existed.


If you want to be better at persuading and influencing

Learn hypnosis

Hypnosis is a specific mental state that is distinct from our normal waking and sleep state. The precise definition of hypnosis is a hotly debated subject, even among hypnotists, though there are some characteristics of being hypnotised that are commonly agreed upon. I’m not suggesting that we use hypnosis in an underhand kind of a way (though great speakers do have a hypnotic quality about them) merely that if we think of hypnosis as a form of heightened communication, we might learn a little from it to help us. Specifically, we might be interested in the following 2 effects of ‘hypnotism’ on our audience:

  1. Narrowly focused attention – While in a hypnotic trance people simply become so focused on something that they ‘forget’ about the outside world. Stray thoughts and mental chatter are reduced or turned off completely and body awareness is similarly reduced or forgotten. Imagine you’re watching a brilliant film, you lose track of everything, suspend disbelief, and start to feel real emotions as a result of this completely fictitious, 2-dimensional projection on the big screen in front of you. That’s a trance. It’s the same when a speaker grabs your attention. Learning about hypnosis will help you get better at making sure that the audience narrows its focus to you. You might be able to see now how building your skills in inducing a trance in your audience will help you become a more powerful communicator.
  2. Increased suggestibility – When someone is in a hypnotic trance (really fascinated) they tend to have increased suggestibility. This means that suggestions made during hypnosis, either by a hypnotist or through self-hypnosis, will have a greater impact than if they were made during normal waking consciousness. Hypnosis training will show you how to use that trance-message routine deliberately to make sure that your audience understands what you’ve said, listens to your recommendations, and might just go away and do what you want them to do.

NB – This does not mean that any suggestion made will be obeyed automatically. It just means that people will tend to take in the idea or suggestion more deeply and more freely than in a ‘normal’ conversational state.

If you go on a hypnosis course, you’ll almost certainly find that you already know and use a few of the ‘tips and tricks’ of trance in your work, but unlike in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – that has drawn hugely from the field of hypnosis, but tends to focus on the tricks rather than the broader techniques – you will be introduced to the history, development and ethics of the clinical hypnotist and you will broaden your repertoire of things to help you in creating and giving your speech.

I went on a 7-day clinical hypnosis course about 15 years ago, and I found that it helped me to become much more sensitive to the state of the audience, more confident in building a connection, and better able to realise when I wasn’t really connected to them. It also gave me a whole range of tools and techniques to fix the issues that I found. It helped me:

  • Build a connection with the audience before, during and after the event by being ‘present’ with them.
  • Notice the individuals in the audience and how each one of them was responding to what I was saying.
  • Open my sessions by tuning in to their state of energy, honouring that and showing them that I was genuinely interested in their experience.
  • Tell better stories that impacted them much more at an emotional level.
  • Be more confident and suggestive in my language that showed certainty to the audience.

In short, I think that every speaker can learn a lot from hypnosis and Stephen Welch explains more about how hypnosis can help us communicate with impact in his compelling post ‘How to…Be Mesmerising’ from 2018.


If you want to add more flair to your language

Study great speeches on paper

There are many brilliant books available to help us write better words. My favourite is by my colleague, Philip Collins: Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter when he was UK Prime Minister from 1997 to 2005. The book, The Art of Speeches and Presentations, available from our store, is a practical guide for all of us on speech structure, rhetoric and language. One of his key bits of advice is that we should take the time to copy out the text of some of our favourite speeches from famous people. Why? Because in writing it out, we see and feel the tools, tips and tricks that great speechwriters use, and we practise our own skills at the same time.

Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech is one of my favourites. Try writing these words out by hand now, and see what happens to you as you do.

‘…we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old…’

Did you feel the emotion through the words that he chose? Did you notice the repetition of the simple phrase “we shall?” Did you feel the verbs that he used as you wrote them?  “Defend” and “fight” are defiant words used to inspire defiance in the audience’s hearts. Did you notice that he used long sentences to build the tension of the speech up to its climax “the rescue and the liberation of the old”, sweeping his listeners along in the power of the sentence and the rising tide of emotion?

Copywork, the practice of copying out the works of great writers as a way of learning from them, used to be a staple of our education system. It has gone out of fashion in most places now, but Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, George Orwell and many other greats, attribute much of their own writing style to the imitation of others.

Try it out

Ben and Kate McKay give lots of examples of famous writers who used this technique in this fascinating post. In it, they offer these simple tips to help get you started:

1. Choose a writer that inspires you. Don’t pick writers you think you should imitate. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these guys, so you want to pick someone who has a style you genuinely enjoy and that truly inspires you.

I also recommend choosing writers from both fiction and non-fiction. Because I spend most of my time writing non-fiction, I do copywork with non-fiction writers that I admire and wish to emulate. However, I do mix in fiction copywork from time to time. I feel like it helps give my writing a bit of panache.

2. Handwrite. Studies have shown that handwriting provides a myriad of cognitive benefits. We actually learn better and think clearer when we write by hand. To get maximum benefit from copywork, overcome the temptation to tap it out on your laptop and utilize pen and paper instead.

3. Start with shorter passages and slowly work your way up to longer pieces. Don’t start off by copying War and Peace. You’ll just burn out. Start with smaller passages and then work your way up to longer pieces. Poems, scripture verses, and aphorisms are good places to start. After that, move on to short stories and from there to whole books.

4. Set aside time each day for it. Make copywork a daily habit like journal writing. I try to do mine at the start of my writing sessions for the blog. It primes the writing pump.

In the next post I’ll look at three more suggestions to help the committed professional develop their skills. I’ll focus on doing stand-up comedy, improvisational theatre and making a speech in a terrifying place.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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