22 Feb Ask the expert: delivering a great presentation for a live audience
Modicum sat down with Columbia professor and presentation consultant Jesse Scinto to learn how to create and deliver a great presentation. We discussed how to get up in front of an audience and crush it.
Modicum: I know before becoming a communications strategist, you were a professional musician. Does that experience inform your work now?
Jesse Scinto: After college, I decided I wanted to be a musician, so I started playing out in blues clubs in Chicago. Eventually, I formed my own band, and marketing that band was my introduction to the marketing world. On stage, I definitely learned how to connect with an audience, and that’s the important thing for a communications strategist. You have to identify with the audience first and understand them before you can start selling to them or playing them the blues.
Mod: Some people seem to be natural public speakers. How much of delivering a great presentation is innate and how much is something people can learn?
JS: I think most people can learn. And I would venture to say that people who are naturals at public speaking are a rarity. In fact, what looks natural to us is usually the result of tons of experience. The reason most people struggle with public speaking is just they have no practice at it. It’s like playing a sport or an instrument. You have to practice regularly to be good. And the best public speakers I know do it two or three times a week.
A great presentation is a great performance
Mod: Delivering a great presentation seems to require both being well rehearsed and being entirely spontaneous. How do you do both at the same time?
JS: Your ideal as a presenter is for the presentation to seem conversational. One of the pitfalls people run into is they treat it too much like a performance. On stage, they talk about “the fourth wall”—the wall between the stage and the audience—and some people feel like they can’t cross that barrier. But if you can break through that wall, you’re going to be so much more human, and the audience will feel like they are part of what is happening.
However, I will say in public speaking there is some aspect of performance. In order to get your point across to an audience, you have to shape your sentences and add contour by adding vocal variety and using pauses. The main challenge of presentations is that it’s hard for an audience to remember what they hear, and unlike a book, they can’t flip back if they miss something. So, as others have said, you have to be a little bit larger than life when you’re making an important point—emphasizing and repeating it. A lot of times, I see people who don’t speak loudly enough. When you’re up there, you feel like you’re speaking plenty loud, but the words dissipate the further back they get. You should always feel a little bit larger than life when you’re presenting.
Mod: How can people practice being larger than life?
JS: Kind of a funny exercise to do is to turn on the nightly news and try to repeat what the anchors say with the same intonation. What you’ll discover is they will go way up high and come way down low. And it seems like a much wider range than what we use in conversation. But that starts to give you an idea of the kind of range you need to connect to the audience.
Something else to practice is pausing. One of the reasons I love listening to Barack Obama speak is that he has these great pauses. There’s actually been research done on pauses, and I think over four seconds is the point at which the audience will start getting anxious to fill the void. But you can pause 4 seconds or longer. When you’re in front of the audience that seems like an eternity not to be talking, but that pause gives the audience time to reflect on what you’re saying and prepares them for what you’re going to say next. If you’re in the early stages of working on your public speaking, you can go through and mark your script where you want to pause and where you want to add emphasis. Mark it in the script and practice it that way. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’ll be able to do it more naturally or you won’t need a script at all.
Preparing for the presentation
Mod: When you speak, do you usually use notes? What are your notes like?
JS: I usually have a basic outline of what I want to cover. I often don’t refer to it at all unless there is something very particular like a quote. It’s really tricky to use notes. I know that people have to use them from time to time, but audiences are so used to direct eye contact. It’s because of how much TV we watch where it looks like a newscaster or the president is speaking directly to you even though he’s reading off teleprompters. Most people on TV are reading off teleprompters. Or they’ve rehearsed a lot. But we don’t see that. That’s what audiences are used to, so when you use notes too much, it’s obvious to the audience and can become distracting. If you do use notes, one tip would be to not to speak while you’re looking down at the notes. Try looking down at the notes and then looking back at the audience and then speaking. You’ll see politicians do this. It can seem like an eternity while you’re looking down, but really, the audience won’t notice.
BR: How do you prepare for getting up in front of an audience to speak?
JS: My preparation has evolved over time. When I first started giving presentations, I would typically write out everything I was going to say and work on that draft a lot. One of the risks, when you write things out completely, is that you start to sound too literary. Written English is different from spoken English, and our ideal when presenting needs to be spoken English. It should be conversational. Now, I tend to talk it out.
BR: Do you mean literally out loud?
JS: Yes, out loud. I’ll sit in my office, and even though I’m by myself, I’ll talk through what I want to say. Just to feel the words in my mouth and hear what they sound like. Maybe I’ll bring some notes but not often. If I’m using a PowerPoint, that will spark my memory. You don’t want to be reading right off of the slides. Ideally, the slides should be mostly visual, mostly graphic, and not word heavy because anytime you fill the slide with text, you divide the audience’s attention. They’re listening to you speak and trying to match it with what’s on the slides but are not really remembering what you’re saying.
BR: What are the best ways to improve your public speaking and presentation delivery skills?
JS: I think real practice in front of audiences is the single biggest success factor. That’s the only way you’re going to get better. If you don’t have the opportunity to practice at work, what you have to do is seek out other opportunities like Toastmasters. It’s an international organization of public speaking clubs. In New York, there are 180 clubs. It’s just a place to practice in front of real audiences with other people who want to practice public speaking. Speaking in front of any group helps, even reading at church. You can also take an improv class at someplace like the Magnet Theater of any number of theaters that offer classes.
BR: How can improv classes help?
JS: Improv training is all about being spontaneous. If you don’t have a lot of experience speaking in front of a group, you get up there, and you’re nervous. Maybe you’re able to deliver your lines, but you’re not comfortable enough to be funny because you’re lacking the spontaneity. Improv helps you get over yourself. It gets you up in front of an audience saying really ridiculous things. You’re not going to be saying really ridiculous things in a work presentation, but you can’t be so uptight during a presentation that no one laughs. From time to time, you have to be spontaneous and make a joke.
Jesse Scinto is a communication strategist who provides presentation consulting services to leading organizations worldwide, including the United Nations Foundation. He teaches The Critical Mind and Dynamics of Persuasion at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. Previously, Jesse was a professional saxophonist who toured with well-known blues artists.