How to Become a More Persuasive Speaker: A Systems Approach

There is no surer way to get ahead in business than to be a persuasive speaker. However, because public speaking is normally found at the top of lists of fears in the United States, many business people, especially engineers and other technical specialists, fail to make the effort to become better speakers, and thus fail to reach their potential.

In my judgment, as one who has delivered hundreds of presentations and trained thousands of business and government executives, there is no skill easier to learn, with greater payoff, than mastering the art of persuasive speaking.

So how can business people and technical specialists add the weapon of persuasive speaking to their business skills arsenal? By developing a systematic, not haphazard, method to plan, practice and present--the same systematic method they use in their day-to-day work.

A systems approach is the ideal way to draft and deliver a presentation or speech.

Surprisingly, however, few people apply the very discipline they use in their business when it comes time to stand and deliver. In this article, I want to share with you the systematic method I teach in my executive workshops and in my book, "The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations."

Why should engineers, IT specialists and other technical experts bring the same systematic approach to speaking that they bring to their work projects? For the simple reason that being able to express yourself is the best way to stand out from the crowd. The famed management expert Peter Drucker once wrote that

"The ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all the skills a person can possess."

Effective, persuasive communication is the transferring of information from your brain to the brains(s) of your audience in such a manner that this audience - one or many - accepts your information as its own, and now realizes the benefits of accepting the information you are presenting.

This requires focus and an in-depth knowledge of what motivates your audience so you can direct your message to hit these hot buttons. It also requires the ability to anticipate objections and questions the audience may have, and the discipline to practice realistically.

An imperative for any oral presentation is structure. The presentation must be logical and easily followed by the audience. Thematic unity, useful in a written essay, is absolutely necessary in an oral presentation. The young Winston Churchill, in his 1897 essay, "The Scaffolding of Rhetoric," emphasized that the audience must know where they were being taken by the speaker on this oratorical journey. His famed speeches in World War ll suggests he followed his own advice.

To be an effective speaker, you must certainly know your stuff. That is almost a truism, although there are many people with more audacity than judgment who stand before a group with far less knowledge than prudence would dictate.

The majority of people who are called on to present, however, are substantive experts, and therein lays an essential problem. They believe that their knowledge is sufficient, and they need not devote any attention to delivery skills. Big mistake

In my "Presentation Skills in Nutshell" workshop for executives, I teach an easy-to-learn-and-internalize system to develop and deliver a coherent and persuasive presentation. I call it the S3P3 System. Turn on you mental PowerPoint and visualize three Pillars supporting a Pyramid. The Pillars are labeled Substance Structure, and Style, and the Pyramid is divided into three parts-Planning, Practicing, and Presenting

Let's first examine the Pillars, and then we'll climbk the Pyramid.

Mastery of the subject is an vital for any speaker. You must have a clearly defined objective and focused research. This does not mean only compilation of factual data. You need an active and comprehensive knowledge of the subject at issue in order to respond to challenges from the audience, especially if the audience may be predisposed to disagree.

Only a solid grasp of the subject matter can save a presenter when confronted with an unexpected question or objection from the audience. However, Substance without Structure or Style can make the presentation an incoherent, boring recitation of data.

The human mind possesses a certain data-processing logic. The speaker who is aware of how people process information, and how new data are either accepted or rejected, can learn to structure a presentation so as to facilitate comprehension.

The knowledge of the audience's self-interest, or "What's in it for me?," is an essential tool for structuring a presentation so it hits the target of the collective mind of audience members.

This is the most frequently-ignored pillar of the speaking art by substantive experts, possibly because it has the connotation of show business. By Style, I mean word choice, body language, eye contact, movement, and vocal quality.

Style is that almost indefinable quality of a speaker that causes audience members, even those opposed to the issue being "sold," to listen, not be bored, and to open their minds. Another word of caution: Style without Substance can expose the speaker to the charge of being shallow.

Now, let us take a look at the three levels of the Pyramid:

Planning is the wide base required of any stable structure and any good presentation. It is the single most important building element of any presentation. Unfortunately, most presentations are done with an inverted Pyramid as the model, with the narrow base indicating little planning, thus placing all the weight on the presentation. This lack of planning frequently results in poor presentations.

Good business sense dictates that the same effort which goes into the development of a product, policy, or service be devoted to the presentation whose purpose is selling this product, policy, or service. The planning stage is where the presenter develops a game plan and point of view for the presentation.

An important part of the planning process is gathering Audience Intelligence - information about the concerns, problems, attitudes, and expectations of that group of people you are about to face in your presentation.

Because the speaker needs to mesh his or her objective for the presentation with the audience's needs and concerns, the more time spent on strategic planning, the easier will be the actual presentation.

If planning is so important, why is it frequently ignored? Perhaps because time is the enemy of all, and there are such demands on our time that few people are ready to literally sit down and think. If they do so, however, they gain maximum advantage from a minimum investment of time.

After you have completed the planning stage, you are now ready to start practicing. This is an orderly means to internalize the presentation. You will take some of the apprehension out of the experience by anticipating reactions, comments and questions and developing appropriate responses.

An important tool in practicing is conducting a "Murder Board," a realistic simulation of the presentation in front of a suitable audience, e.g. colleagues, relatives, friends, who can put your knowledge to the test. (I have posted other articles on this extremely important aspect of practicing. I bring it to the field of presentations training from the military, where it is a staple of briefings.) In this simulation,your mistakes won't count because if you fail you can go back to the planning stage and make the necessary corrections.

Your confidence zooms when you have gone through a practice phase that enables you to say: "I know this subject better than anyone in the audience. I want them to take their best shot, because I'll be able to answer any question thrown at me!" That is the attitude you want to carry with you to the presentation.

Finally, you reach that apex, the actual presentation. This is the payoff for the time you have spent assuring you have included all the required substance, placed within a structure that facilitates audience agreement, and comprehension of the position you are advocating, done with the style most appropriate to make your presentation memorable and successful.

If you have (1) done the planning, to include audience intelligence collection, and developed a focus that meshes with audience members' needs and concerns, (2) then practiced with focus, to include an intensive simulation enabling you to anticipate questions and objections, you are ready for "show-time."

Always keep this model of the three Pillars supporting the Pyramid in mind when drafting a presentation, and you will be able to deliver logically structured substantive knowledge with persuasive power.

Copyright 2005 Larry Tracy

This article is excerpted from Larry Tracy's book, "The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations," available for purchase through PayPal at his website. A retired Army colonel, he was called "an extraordinarily effective speaker" by President Ronald Reagan. He has been cited in numerous publications as one of the top presentations trainers in the US. His website is #1 on Google for "persuasive presentations, and he will be on the cover of the July 2005 American Speaker magazine.

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