Getting your message across

by Nicole Wong

A confident attitude and structured delivery ensure effective presentations

Mark Loasby, managing director, director of training, CONNECT Communication Limited

The ability to deliver powerful presentations and speeches is an essential attribute for any executive, though many will admit that the preparation and pressure associated with facing an unfamiliar audience is one of the most difficult things they have to handle. That is why Mark Loasby, managing director and director of training for CONNECT Communication Limited, has developed a series of practical tips on building self-confidence and being a better public speaker, many of which he shared in a recent seminar on persuasive communication.

With 28 years' experience in international education, Mr Loasby is considered a leading consultant in the field and, since 1996, has specialised in designing and facilitating programmes to enhance presentation and selling skills for both teams and individuals. In recent years, he has been actively involved with some of the largest IPOs in Asia and, for the third time, headed the team voted the best training provider in Hong Kong.

In his view, good pacing and pausing are crucial for successful delivery. While speaking quickly conveys a sense of decisiveness and enthusiasm, it is important to slow down when explaining any of the main ideas or themes. "Most pauses come at conjunctions, when you want to indicate a transition in or continuation of meanings," Mr Loasby said. "In each sentence, the first pause is to let the audience anticipate your next message, and the second is to allow them to think in silence."

Since eye contact is essential, Mr Loasby advised speakers to practise a specific technique. They should say their first few words, pause to look at the audience, then glance down to read the next four or five words before pausing to look up again. When practising, each pause can last approximately three seconds, until the speaker is familiar with the technique.

As people communicate best in a relaxed setting, Mr Loasby believes speakers should let their body language show their personality. Any premeditated or rehearsed movements, such as opening and closing one's hands to emphasise a point, may come across as unnatural and fail to trigger the desired response from the audience. "When you sit down to have a meeting with strangers or new clients, stop thinking about your attitude and be yourself," Mr Loasby recommended. "Make sure you look at your listeners most of the time, but avoid staring at any single person."

Effective structure
Conventional thinking says that any presentation should be structured to begin with an overview, followed by individual points and a conclusion. However, Mr Loasby pointed out that we should in fact start with the conclusion. "It is particularly important, for example, when you want to convince a company how your business proposal can benefit them, or when you are the last speaker at a meeting and others have overrun," he explained. In addition, he noted that humour can make a speech or presentation livelier, but cautioned that jokes need to be chosen carefully and that many speakers lack the flair or timing to tell them in an entertaining way.

In choosing the right language and shaping sentences, Mr Loasby believes there should be a fine balance between being straightforward and creating some suspense. This is the key to holding the audience's attention. It is, though, essential to use simple language and to remember that not everyone in the audience will necessarily understand technical terms or industry jargon. "Such phrases do not differentiate you; instead they will just make you sound like everybody else in the industry," he added. Also, a speaker should not introduce complications or uncertainties by saying something like "Everyone has performed well in the last few years, with a few exceptions." This can give rise to questions in the minds of the audience, who either expect further information or are left to puzzle.

Visual impact
While visual aids can enhance a presentation, they may also create pitfalls and prevent the speaker from delivering the main message effectively. A PowerPoint slide with graphs and charts will attract attention but also has the potential to distract from what the speaker is saying. Complicated data or statistics will not be remembered and may even lead to misunderstandings. "The single purpose of visual aids should be to reinforce what you have already said," Mr Loasby emphasised. "Always present your main points before you use any visual aids, since people cannot look and listen at the same time."

If visual aids are considered necessary, the speaker should take care with the design and the amount of information included. The audience will only glance through the information made available on a slide, so the speaker should list a few key points to focus on, rather than seeking to cram in too much detail. As Mr Loasby noted, it is a common mistake for speakers to rely on their visual aids to make the greater impact. They then step to one side and let the audience focus mainly on the images used rather than on what is being said.

"Sort out your content and the outline before deciding what points you want to reinforce with visual aids," Mr Loasby concluded. "In any presentation, be natural, don't worry about making mistakes, show your passion, and maintain a tight structure. By doing that, you will succeed."

Taken from Career Times 09 December 2005
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