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Nightmares about public speaking typically involve showing up naked, completely forgetting to prepare, or having your audience cackle and hoot as you sweat and stumble through your lines.
Real-life presentations are rarely so dramatic. But they can still – and often do – go poorly.
“Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time,” by Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman, is designed to help rescue readers from that mediocrity – the kind in which you’re (thankfully) fully clothed and relatively prepared, but half your listeners still take a power nap while you’re speaking.
McGowan is an Emmy Award-winning correspondent turned communications coach, whose trainees include Jack Welch and Sheryl Sandberg. In “Pitch Perfect,” he and Bowman distill his years of experience into practical tips for becoming a more compelling speaker.
Below, we’ve rounded up five of McGowan and Bowman’s most helpful tips, and how you can implement them in your daily life.
1. Practice – and then practice some more
The authors tell the story of the first presidential debate in 2012. Apparently, President Barack Obama dismissed advisors’ attempts to get him to rehearse, which likely explains why he didn’t perform as well as he did later on.
The lesson here is that even people in positions of power, who are well-accustomed to public speaking, can’t “mail it in.”
In fact, the authors write, if you’re a senior executive, your reports probably won’t tell you when you performed poorly, leaving you to imagine that you’re constantly wowing your audience – when the exact opposite could be true.
So come prepared with an outline for, or at least a general idea of, what you want to say. This principle applies even when you’re asked to “think on your feet” in a more casual setting.
Say you run into your boss unexpectedly. You should already have a few conversation starters on hand. Think: “Congratulations. I heard your daughter just graduated from business school. You must be very proud. What is she interested in pursuing?”
2. Use visual stories
You’ve likely heard before that you should incorporate some anecdotes into your speeches.
The authors write that the key to telling good stories – as opposed to boring ones – is to make them visual. He recommends “storyboarding” your anecdote, creating a box and a picture for each step forward in the story.
“If you can’t think of something to draw in a given box, your story is probably missing needed visual details.”
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3. Cut your content
McGowan writes: “Rarely do I come across a client’s presentation that isn’t improved by cutting it by about 25 percent.”
The key is to “sever your emotional ties to the content.” Sure, you worked all night coming up with the perfect fourth sentence – but if the presentation is too long, or if a trusted friend is skeptical that it will land well, it’s got to go.
One trick for meaningfully cutting your presentation is slicing from the middle.
Your opening and closing should be catchy and well-rehearsed; in fact, the authors write that the first 30 seconds of your presentation is when “victory or defeat is determined.”
But the middle of your presentation “should be expandable or collapsible, so it can grow or shrink, depending on time constraints and how your audience is receiving it.”
4. Use notecards – instead of reading from a script
McGowan writes: “My definition of perfect is not mistake-free. To me, perfection in communication is being real, casual, warm, and enthusiastic.”
Which means that you should avoid reading your speech from a script. McGowan offers a three-step process instead:
1. Outline your presentation on 5×8 notecards.
2. Practice giving your presentation from just the outline and record yourself.
3. Transcribe the audio you’ve recorded.
Note: This transcript is a back-up plan – not an exact script to read from.
Using the notecards is less awkward than fumbling with pieces of paper stapled together, and it’s a great way to anchor your hands in a resting position.
5. Prepare answers for tricky questions afterward
It’s always possible that one of your coworkers will raise their hand after your presentation and ask a tricky question.
“Part of nailing [this situation] lies in being prepared,” the authors write.
Addressing specifically what would happen if your boss asked you a question in the middle of a meeting, they write:
“And let’s be honest. If you’re in a conference room with your boss for a meeting in which you know the agenda ahead of time, is there anything you could be asked that truly blindsides you? Map out in advance what you would offer if asked.”
The same logic applies when you’re delivering a presentation – prepare for any and all tough questions you can think of. Again, it comes down to being prepared to think on your feet.