How to Talk the Talk

Public speaking is an act feared by many. But in business, it’s often a must-have skill.

This is especially the case in today’s hyper-sensitive business communications environment, where the ability to stand before a crowd and present a clear message can sometimes be the skill differentiating one executive from another.

To Carmine Gallo, author of the book “Talk like TED,” effective public speaking comes down to a few vital elements: Cut down on words, don’t speak too long and be authentic. 

Talent Management spoke to Gallo on the topic. Edited excerpts follow.

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Carmine Gallo

How has today’s business environment changed how leaders approach public speaking?

 I recently read a survey of people who deliver presentations in the workplace, and it found 20 percent of people in a typical audience are doing something else while you’re delivering a presentation. They’re emailing, texting, posting updates on social media. In the same survey, 65 percent said traditional slide-based or text-heavy presentations leave them bored. You’ve got a real challenge to cut through all of the distractions from your audience — whether it’s two people or 50 — and try to engage them.

What techniques do talent leaders need to advance HR strategy in organizations?

A great presentation is going to do three things: inform, educate, inspire. One, inform, that’s traditionally the tactical role HR people have done: to deliver information. Second is the educational part. It’s the second part where HR people have an opportunity to set themselves apart — to educate people on their roles and how important that role is in the context of the larger business and strategy.

A lot of people forget the question that’s on the mind of everyone in your audience: Why should I care? I don’t see a lot of that in corporate presentations today, especially by HR people. They’re very good at delivering information, very good at creating a ton of bullet points and a lot of pages on slides. But it’s still delivering new information. They’re very good at updates, but there’s plenty of room to inspire their audience to take action.

What are some common mistakes leaders make when communicating in a public forum?

Putting people to sleep. The dullest way of delivering information is to put content into text form, headlines and bullet points, maybe a table or a chart from time to time. People have to start thinking differently about how to visualize their story. Create your story first. Outline your story on a whiteboard, on a separate sheet of paper, but create a story that you want to tell about HR: your initiative or your update; how it fits into the overall strategy of the company; how it answers the why should you care about what we’re doing in HR.

Then, visualize. Use the slides to complement the story. Most presenters begin by opening the tool they’re using and they start writing. That’s one of the least effective ways to deliver information and guaranteed to leave your audience bored and ready to get out of the room the first chance they get.

And they speak too long, delivering too much information. Neuroscience literature shows if you give me too many points to remember — typically a good number is from three to five — I’m going to forget the whole thing. It’s like cognitive overload. I travel to a lot of countries. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve been to Europe, and it’s funny because they all say the same thing: You Americans are so much better at giving presentations than we are. I think it’s because they don’t see everyday presentations in America. They see people like Steve Jobs. That’s who they associate with the American style of presentation. I remind them that death by PowerPoint is an American term — and there’s a reason for it.

How else would you advise people to fine-tune their presentation skills?

Start watching great presentations. You cannot go on YouTube and watch Steve Jobs deliver the iPhone presentation from 2007, go back to your traditional PowerPoint and think it is any good. You just won’t.

Use other people as a model. Never before have we had such an opportunity to see great presenters. Every Steve Jobs presentation is online from 1984. TED Talks are downloaded or streamed two million times a day. A lot of very famous business people have delivered TED Talks. Take a look at them; learn how great speakers do it. Start noticing what works and what doesn’t.

Second, I’ve developed this technique called the “10-40 rule.” When I was doing research for one of my first communication books, I came across a piece of research that showed the average PowerPoint slide has 40 words. That’s too many. The 10-40 rule basically means in the first 10 slides no more than 40 words. That forces you to really tell a story. They can be personal stories, case studies, give me the reasons behind what we’re doing and bring it to life.

It doesn’t mean no text; it’s about balancing visuals and text. The minute you put 40 words on your first slide, you’re dead. You’ve lost your audience. Neuroscience clearly shows you cannot read a slide and listen to somebody at the same time.

In an interview you gave, you advised those who want to master public speaking to “stay in their lane.” What did you mean?

Stay true to who you are. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. I meet a lot of executives who are working on their presentation style. They’re very different people when they get in front of a group. They stop smiling. They stop laughing. They’re not as interesting. It’s not about you as a person anymore; it’s about the slides and information.

Cisco actually ranks executives based on their presentation skills. They give surveys to people in the audience. The CEO sees those ratings. It makes an impact in terms of career advancement. The differencebetween presentations that are rated highly and those that are less so? Authenticity. You have to ask yourself what is my connection to this topic? Why am I excited about what we’re doing? Don’t be afraid to wear  that passion on your sleeve. Connect the information to who you are.