Someday, it is going to happen. You may be eating dinner, you may be attending
a party, or you may be enjoying a luncheon; and someone will interrupt
your serenity by asking you to say a few words.
What do you do? Here are tips to help you bring success to the event and
credit to your role as a leader.
Recognize that if you are the supervisor, manager, or top executive attending
a company event, there is at least a 99.9% chance that you will be called
upon to speak. This includes retirement dinners, company picnics, service
award banquets, conferences, management retreats, holiday luncheons, and
(even) informal parties.
Begin by contacting the person organizing the event to ask if you will
be called upon to speak. If the planner seems uncertain, you may want
to volunteer. This puts you in control of what follows. Then ask key questions,
- What is the theme for the event? (You
will need to refer to this during your presentation.)
- How long do you want me to speak? (Speaking
for too long can ruin the event.)
- Who will be in the audience? (You will
want to tune your message to the audience as well as recognize any
- What type of presentation do you want?
(Let the planner help you identify what to say.)
- What types of presentations have worked
in the past? (Let the planner coach you on what leads to success.)
- What should I avoid? (This includes
topics that will offend, disturb, or upset the audience. It also provides
another opportunity to obtain coaching from the planner.)
You may know the answers to most of these questions. The value in asking
them is to initiate a dialogue with the planner to define your role.
If you disagree with the planner's requests, then counter with offers
to provide what you consider appropriate. The key here is to establish
a mutual understanding of what you will say and how it contributes to
the event. This avoids surprises for you, the planner, and the audience.
It also avoids embarrassing mistakes.
Of course, you may choose to decline to speak at the event. If the nature
of the event requires an official statement from a company representative,
then recommend someone else. This will protect you from hearing something
like, "Our president, Pat, is here tonight. And while Pat refused
to speak, we're sure you were just kidding. Ha ha ha. So, come on up
here anyway and say a few words!"
Some executives believe that they can skip this step. And maybe they
can. In many cases, however, their impromptu presentation creates a
very different impression than what they think it does. Even seasoned
professional speakers prepare for presentations that they have delivered
hundreds of times.
Once you know what is expected, then plan what you will say. What message
do you want to convey? What points do you want to make? What impression
do you want to leave?
Take the time to prepare an outline of your talk. If possible, write
out your first and last sentences. These are the most important parts
of your presentation, and you will deliver them best when you know them
If you write out your presentation, I recommend rehearsing without looking
at the script. Then make changes in the script to reflect what you are
actually saying. This will force you to present the ideas conversationally,
which sounds more natural than reading an essay. It will also free you
from the tyranny of trying to remember a written script. I have seen
speakers freeze when they missed a word or lost their place.
You can rehearse almost anywhere. For example, you can rehearse out
loud while you drive, take a shower, or stand in your office. You can
also rehearse silently while waiting in the airport or exercising at
a health club. And you can develop fluency with key points by talking
about these topics during conversations with friends, staff, and family.
Be sure to rehearse your complete presentation at least once with a
clock to make sure that you will finish within the allotted time.
If you must work from a written text (e.g. some formal events require
this), then practice reading it out loud. Memorize phrases and simple
sentences so you can glance up at the audience occasionally.
You may consider hiring a presentation coach or attending a workshop
on business presentations. These services can show you how to maximize
your impact while speaking. In fact, learning such skills serves as
a long term investment in your future as an effective leader.
Recognize that when you speak at a business event, you represent your
company and your office in that company. Use the event as an opportunity
to promote good will. Avoid complaints, criticism, or controversy. These
will quickly alienate the audience and destroy your credibility. Instead,
talk about what the audience wants to hear. Praise your host, honor
the occasion, and compliment the audience. Radiate success and optimism.
If corrective actions are warranted, save working on them for private
discussions with the appropriate staff members.
Humor is a wonderful technique for establishing rapport with an audience.
If you plan to use humor, be appropriate. Avoid making fun of anyone
or anything that might offend people in your audience. Often, the only
safe target of humor is yourself.
Jokes are the most elementary form of humor. People will know you are
telling a joke. And there is a chance that someone else has told the
same joke earlier.
The best types of humor are original stories that make a point. For
example, you might tell about the time that you left your luggage in
a hotel lobby, the struggles you encountered to retrieve it, and the
outstanding service you received from the clerk who found it. Such a
story also shows the value of great customer service.
Avoid all admissions of inadequacy, such as "I'm not too good at
speaking." or "I don't know a whole lot about this topic."
or "This is my first time and I feel awful."
Just do it. Let the audience decide for themselves how effective your
presentation was. Most likely, they will appreciate your sincere efforts
to communicate. In addition, if you have prepared and rehearsed, your
presentation will go quite smoothly.
Communication is a prime responsibility of every leader. When you speak
well, you inspire others. Start with a plan, rehearse your presentation,
and then be yourself. The audience is waiting for you to succeed.