My previous post focused on that oft-abused crutch of Defense professionals, Microsoft PowerPoint. This one will focus on the arguably more important, more fundamental skill of public speaking. Like many of my posts, this subject has been driven into the ground elsewhere on the internet, and you might ask why anyone needs yet another rehash of Public Speaking 101. The answer is simple: Because JOs screw this up every day. I think other websites are boring and stupid, so here’s my take on it.
When you walk on stage to take command of an audience, you’re stepping into an arena. The audience may be five or six peers who have the dubious honor of enduring your first Officer Training, or it might be a roomful of Admirals receiving an intelligence brief. While the magnitude of the consequences may differ, their substance will be the same in all cases: You will either look incompetent, or not. You don’t want to look incompetent, even if its just to your division or a few buddies. Prepare yourself before entering the arena.
1. Look great. Pressed uniform, shined shoes, fresh haircut; no dip, chewing gum or pens sticking out of pockets– the usual stuff. Your audience may or may not notice the effort you’ve put in, but they certainly will notice if you look like a bag of ass. Either way, though, you will notice, and it will dramatically impact your delivery. If you know you look great, you’ll feel great, and you’ll be better prepared to take command of the room. You can never be too professional.
Never apologize for something you intend to do
2. Do not self-deprecate. It’s not going to win you any points to excuse yourself for being nervous, and it eliminates the off chance that someone may be impressed with your confidence. Promising to be brief only tells your audience that your topic is unimportant (and by association you are unimportant). It also invites criticism of how long you take– it’s like promising your waiter a good tip.
Convincing the audience that your topic is important is one of your duties, even if you don’t believe it, because someone above you does think its important. Your audience understands this, and will lose professional respect for you if you undermine yourself or the authority who tasked you. Never apologize for something you intend to do.
What if the topic is some required training that’s so impossibly stupid that nobody could legitimately see its value (never happens, right)? Don’t want to lose your modicum of street cred? Then overplay the part– your audience will recognize that you’re doing your job, and your enthusiasm (even if contrived) will help to energize the room. Somebody might even learn something.
3. Dominant Body Language. Don’t roll your eyes at this– nonverbal communication is a real thing. Intentional or not, your posture is constantly communicating something, so you might as well control the story. Stand tall. Chin up, chest out. Shoulders broad. Weight evenly distributed on both feet– ready to fight.
Carrying yourself in this manner communicates authority, and is a component of what is commonly known as “commanding presence”. What is less commonly known is how forcing dominant body language affects the individual– the latest science shows that deliberately standing in “dominant” poses causes a spike in testosterone (the hormone associated with aggression, risk-taking, and pain tolerance) and a decrease in cortisol (the hormone associated with stress). You may think that pumping yourself up for a presentation by standing around in artificial “power poses” sounds ridiculous, but it doesn’t cost anything and you ignore the science at your own peril.
4. Avoid Humor. This is where I make a hard break from most public speaking advice. The conventional wisdom is that you should always open a speech or presentation with a joke, to break the ice and get the audience on your side. This conventional wisdom does not apply to briefs or training, which are 99% of the public speaking you’ll do aboard ships. If you try opening with a joke, you’re going to be seen as wasting precious time, and its not going to be funny.
5. Look at people. You aren’t addressing the screen, so don’t talk to the screen. Instead look at the individuals you’re briefing– not the whole group. Pick out two or three individuals who seem to be paying attention, especially if they’re friends of yours or nodding in agreement– pick people who are on your side. Scan eye contact between each of them. Seeing their focused attention will help calm your nerves and boost confidence, which will improve your delivery to everyone.
6. Slow. Down. When you’re nervous you talk fast and make run-on sentences and it’s obvious to everyone that you’re nervous and its annoying. You have to fight that– speak deliberately. If it feels like you’re speaking too slowly, you’re probably just about right. If you can’t speak at an appropriate tempo without causing your presentation to go over your time limit, then your presentation is too long.
7. Make Handouts. Find reasons to use handouts– not just printed slides, but detailed amplifying information which reinforces your presentation. If you’re giving training, use handouts for detailed drawings and testable objectives (you do have testable objectives, right?). If its a brief, put the actionable takeaways on the handouts (you do have actionable takeaways, right?). Your audience will appreciate the extra effort and preparation this required, and will assume that what you’ve printed out is important. As an added bonus, printing handouts will aid in our war effort with the Navy’s real nemesis, the Trees.
8. Condense. As with most Naval communication, you should maximize the density of meaning in your words– an efficient, high-impact brief is clear, direct, and brief. As I touched on in the previous post, you’re not going to get credit for everything you know, and shouldn’t try. If it’s not critical to the idea that you’re trying to get across, leave it out or make it a back-up slide. If someone wants to know, they’ll ask, and you’ll score huge credibility points every time you authoritatively rebuff a stump-the-chump attempt (especially if you can cite a reference).
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Disciplined application of the above won’t come naturally, but even a modest effort will improve your presentation. Public speaking is an acquired skill which can take a lifetime to master– your goal should be to improve with every delivery. Don’t get discouraged if your first few presentations bomb– you’ll have lots of opportunity to practice.
One final point: All of the public speaking tricks in the world will not save you if you don’t know your stuff. Subject matter expertise is the foundation from which the entire presentation is built– without it, the presentation implodes, and your professional reputation with it. Usually this the hardest part of preparation, but it is the one most worthy of your attention.