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We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of being an audience member when a speaker is struggling to get through his/her presentation or, worse, doesn’t realize that he/she has lost the audience. Sometimes it gets so bad that the speech becomes unintentionally humorous, leaving the audience attempting to squelch inappropriate laughter.

If you are called upon to do any public speaking, no matter how large or small your audience, no matter how formal or presumably informal the setting, it is imperative that you prepare for your presentation. For your sake, as well as that of your audience, take the time to thoroughly consider what you are going to say and, as necessary, jot down your thoughts. Remember that your notes are just that — yours, created for your eyes only — so the format is not important. The content, however, is.

This past Monday, Memorial Day, I performed, as I do every year, with the local community band at a commemorative ceremony. It is always a lovely event, punctuated by patriotic readings, placement of wreaths by various organizations, a prayer or two. The master of ceremonies always asks that any veterans of various wars and conflicts in attendance stand and be acknowledged.

And that’s where this year’s ceremony hit an unfortunate snag.

The first rule of public speaking had already been violated by a reader who did not appreciate the composition of the crowd and, thus, spent far too long reading an obscure text that left the audience bored and restless.

When that gentleman finally wrapped up and the master of ceremonies again took the podium, it became obvious that he had also failed to think carefully about what he was going to say and, worse, had not prepared any notes he could refer to in the event that he became nervous and flustered.

So he announced that it was time to acknowledge the veterans in the audience. He began listing the various wars and conflicts in which the United States has been involved. This should have been a poignant, touching moment when all in attendance could show respect and gratitude to those men and women. And it would have been, except for the first words out of the speaker’s mouth:

“The Civil War.”

There was a millisecond of stunned silence while members of the audience turned to their neighbors incredulously. My eyes met those of a fellow band member. We had to immediately look away because we both started to giggle uncontrollably when I mouthed to her, “Did he say the Civil War?”

I looked over at my husband to see him looking at the ground uncomfortably, rubbing his forehead. I knew that he didn’t dare look at me lest we both laugh out loud.

Finally, the speaker mumbled, “Oh, I guess there wouldn’t be any of them here, would there?” The crowd snickered politely in an effort to make him feel better by pretending we knew all along that he was making a little joke.

And he might have recovered nicely had he not quickly moved on to “World War I.” Not an improvement. At that point, the audience had run out of patience. Worse, he had sacrificed much of the emotional impact that portion of the program could and should have had upon the audience and those recognized for their service to our nation.

A few months ago, I shared some tips about using written materials, including PowerPoint presentations, to enhance your public speaking. No matter how wonderful your written materials are, however, they cannot compensate for a failure to carefully plan what you are going to say to your audience — and how you are going to say it.

If you are not experienced and adept at speaking contemporaneously, prepare written notes in an appropriate level of detail, and use them. For instance, if you are going to read a list of items, make sure that you either have the list memorized — and will not forget it — or keep the list with you at the podium so that you can refer to it.

And before you write that list, think carefully about what items should be included.

Had that master of ceremonies spent just a few moments jotting down a list of wars and conflicts — and considering each item on that list — it would have been readily apparent to him that no veteran of the Civil War could possibly be present that day. (The last survivor died some 50 or so years ago.) Ditto World War I which spanned 1914 to 1918.

Of course, before committing any thoughts to paper, consider these points:

  1. What will be the composition of the audience you have been asked to address?
  2. What is the stated purpose of the presentation, i.e., what is your goal in speaking to this particular group of folks?
  3. What is the audience’s expected knowledge base? In other words, can you anticipate that they will know something about your topic or will you be presenting completely new material? Be careful not to over or underestimate the audience’s level of expertise.
  4. Devise ways to keep the audience engaged, if not entertained. How can you evoke empathy, sympathy or a “me, too” response, depending upon what is appropriate under the circumstances?
  5. Develop a compelling introduction. How can you grab the audience’s attention right at the outset — and hold it? Consider telling a true story or asking a series of questions that will surprise, startle or amuse the audience and immediately engage them.
  6. Give the audience a road map. After introducing your subject, summarize the material you are going to present and then assure that you make good on your promise by actually delivering the information promised.
  7. Tie it all together with an interesting, cohesive conclusion.

All of the above information can be written out in detail, but don’t read your script to the audience!

Preferably, you will be able to limit the written materials you actually us to mere bullet points. If necessary, write out the presentation, review it, practice it. Then rewrite it in less detail. Review it, practice it and refine it again. The more you practice, the more conversant you will become with the salient points and the fewer details you will have to include in your final written notes. Ideally, you will become so comfortable that you need no more than a few bullet points printed in large font with sufficient space between lines to allow you to find your place quickly and effortlessly — without using your reading glasses — in the event you need to refresh your memory while speaking.

But regardless of the methods or techniques you employ in order to prepare for your presentation, the important point is that you must prepare so that you can avoid making nonsensical mistakes that leave your audience feeling embarrassed for or laughing at you when they shouldn’t be, perhaps resulting in a great disservice to yourself — and others.

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