Talkin’ Ugly

By David Thill

Your presentation is less about your product than it is about serving your audience.

Editor’s note: Whether selling a product, training hospital staff, or presenting to the board of directors, the quality of the presentation matters just as much as the content. Chris Anderson, president of TED – the nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading innovative ideas, and sponsor of worldwide TED conferences – recently published the book Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. In this continuing series, we offer some of Anderson’s main ideas to help make your next presentation an effective one.

fi-oct16-2They say that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. But with TED president Chris Anderson’s tools for public speaking, we may once again be able to fear death more than public speaking, and even learn to give a successful talk, whether selling a product or demonstrating a piece of equipment.

Here are what Anderson refers to as “ugly talk styles”: styles to steer clear of so that speakers can best benefit their audiences.

Number one: The sales pitch
“The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them,” says Anderson. He recounts an instance at a TED conference when his guest began by telling the audience of a series of businesses that found success because of an action they took. That action? “They had all booked his consultancy services.”

Reputation matters: “You want to build a reputation as a generous person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious self-promoter.” Furthermore, as he notes, that sort of obvious plea for business often results in the opposite of what the speaker hopes for.

Even when sales are a key part of the presentation – such as in the medical distribution field – “your goal should be to give,” says Anderson. The most successful salespeople place themselves in their listeners’ shoes and “imagine how to best serve their needs.”

Number two: The ramble
At the first TED conference Anderson organized, one speaker began his talk by saying, “‘As I was driving down here wondering what to say to you…’ There followed an unfocused list of observations about possible futures….But no one really learned anything.”

Not preparing is one thing, but “to boast” about not preparing is insulting to the audience. “[I]f 800 people are planning to devote 15 minutes of their day to your words, you really can’t just wing it.” No matter how much or little time a rep has with their audience – and no matter how big or small that audience is – the task is to use that time as well as possible. “Rambling is not an option.

“As it turned out,” he continues, “this particular rambling speaker did give TED a gift of sorts. From that talk on, we redoubled our efforts on speaker preparation.”

(In fact, the book contains an entire section devoted to the preparation process. That process will be covered in a future segment, but in the meantime, here’s a preview: “Every word you speak that someone has already seen on a [PowerPoint] slide is a word that carries zero punch. It’s not news anymore.”)

Number three: The org bore
“An organization is fascinating to those who work for it – and deeply boring to almost everyone else,” says Anderson. No matter the structure of the company, “the fabulously photogenic quality of the astonishingly talented team working with you,” or the success of your products, the point, once again, is to give and not take.

“[F]ocus on the nature of the work that you’re doing, and the power of the ideas that infuse it, not on the org itself or its products,” advises Anderson.

He provides two examples of a hypothetical speaker from which to learn:

Example A: “Back in 2005, we set up a new department in Dallas in this office building [slide of glass tower here], and its goal was to investigate how we could slash our energy costs, so I allocated Vice President Hank Boreham to the task…”

Example B: “Back in 2005 we discovered something surprising. It turns out that it’s possible for an average office to slash its energy costs by 60 percent without any noticeable loss of productivity. Let me share with you how…”

“One mode is a gift,” says Anderson. “The other is lazily self-serving.”

Number four: The inspiration performance
While this one may be less of a threat in the medical sales industry, it is worth noting. “The intense appeal of the standing ovation can lead aspiring public speakers to do bad things. They may look at talks given by inspirational speakers and seek to copy them…but in form only. The result can be awful.”

At the heart of this trap is what Anderson describes as a cliché the TED team tries so hard to avoid: “All style, very little substance.”

“Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity, courage, selfless work, and genuine wisdom. Bring those qualities to your talk, and you may be amazed at what happens.”

It’s probably easier to pinpoint why a talk doesn’t work than to pinpoint why it does. But Anderson maintains that the trick is for each individual to find what works for them, and always, most importantly, to have passion about the idea they want to convey. He offers several tips and tools. Repertoire readers can learn about these tools in upcoming issues, or pick up a copy of Anderson’s book to go even more in depth.

David Thill is a contributing editor for Repertoire.

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