POSTED Thursday 19-05-22
How to Influence Outcomes with Expert Presenter Barbara Moynihan
You may remember our previous blog, Does Public Speaking Get Any Easier?, where we went over proven tips to calm your nerves before a presentation, interview, or team meeting. However, thanks to the expert advice of the brilliant Barbara Moynihan, Director of On Your Feet and recent chair of the Irish Region Professional Speaking Association, we’re able to build on this advice so that you can really start to influence outcomes through public speaking. Our very own Donogh O’Brien, a founding director of Aspen, recently interviewed Barbara in order to capture the power of her advice, having followed her work for some time. Donogh is passionate about helping leadership candidates make the most of important interview situations and sharpening their pitch, something Barbara’s expertise facilitates and strengthens.
This blog is for when you’re about to deliver a presentation that may influence decision-making, give a life-changing interview for a job or at a conference, close a huge sale, or pitch for evolution and change at a board meeting. More than just calming your nerves, these pro-tips go even further to show how to win an audience over and make an impact in influencing outcomes when the stakes are high, especially at leadership and executive levels.
- Know your audience
This is so important for influencing outcomes that it should come before any conception of the presentation’s content or aesthetic. Barbara noted that people frequently first ask her what they should put on their slides, despite not having done any research into who they are presenting to. If the presenter clearly doesn’t know the business or addressed any of its ideals or goals, this is reason enough for an audience to tune out, she explained. Before even opening PowerPoint, doing some research into your audience and their business/industry is absolutely vital to ensure you’re delivering a presentation that’s worth their time.
Part of it is making the content accessible (does your audience know the acronyms you’re using, for instance?) but even further, it’s about understanding how your audience is feeling. What’s going on in their business and/or industry at the moment? Where do they want to be? Are you boring them by focusing exclusively on what you offer, rather than what they want or need? Recognition that professionals have personal lives, too, has only increased over the pandemic and working-from-home structures, Barbara explained, so don’t be afraid to consider how they are feeling personally as well as professionally.
Barbara suggested for international presentations to engage with what’s going on in their country to further show interest in your audience and a level of care that you’ve put into your research. Even if you’re the only one who will be speaking, making active efforts to know and engage your audience will ensure your presentation is more of dialogue, which in turn will open up the audience to your ideas and decisions.
- Know your purpose
This is something people have better intuitions about than knowing their audience, as they are aware their presentation should have a point. But nonetheless, Barbara advises writing down two questions, and asking them both before getting started with designing your presentation. The two questions are: ‘What’s the purpose [of this presentation] to the people I’m communicating to?’, and ‘What’s the purpose from my point of view?’ The answers to these questions should entail what you bring to the table in terms of ideas, solutions, decisions, etc., but it should also be to demonstrate that you have particular assets that others (and in the case of a job interview, other candidates) don’t. Beyond what you’re offering in the moment, take any presentation as an opportunity to show off your unique capabilities, and in particular, your personality and self-conviction.
Knowing your purpose will lead you directly onto your content, and you should be asking yourself: what needs to be in the presentation to fulfil this purpose? Barbara also recommended having a variety of different types of information, including statistics, facts, stories, testimonies, quotes, and anecdotes. She noted how many presenters rely on just one type of information – frequently either just stats or just stories – but with only one type, your presentation becomes one-note and misses out important context. Variety here is key to fully inform your audience as well as keeping the presentation engaging.
- Always choose images over text
In terms of engagement, Barbara could not emphasise this enough. ‘We think in pictures’, she explained, using an example of asking someone to think of their favourite drink. You don’t literally think of the word itself – for instance, a big pint of Guinness – you think of the pint glass, the colour, the drops of condensation at the sides and the foam on top. Imagery is more effective as it reflects how we think and remember, whereas text can easily elide our eyes and our attention.
Being as visual as possible is more memorable too, as Barbara recounted the time she advised someone giving a presentation to be considered for a high-level position. The purpose of the presentation was for the presenter to prove she had the confidence it took for the role, and her slides were entirely pictures – no text. For her final slide, she had an image of herself white-water rafting, giving a sense of her personality as well as showing herself to be confident and a risk-taker in her personal life. She got the position and received the feedback that her presentation was really memorable because of the images she used. Barbara therefore recommends not to be hung up on the number of visuals (as long as they’re relevant!), especially as a ‘slice and dice’ approach will keep your audience engaged. This is even more so for virtual presentations, as your face will likely be much smaller than your slides. Having images and switching to new ones often will keep your audience’s attention, especially in those virtual settings which de-emphasise your physical presence and confidence.
- Use a persuasive structure
In terms of structure, Barbara promoted a ‘book structure’ approach with chapters and subchapters, in order to sensibly organise your presentation. If you’ve never written a book before, then fear not; an easy way to achieve this is to choose five main headings, under which you can write any pertinent subheadings. Whereas some presenters forego a neat structure, Barbara recommends it so that you can introduce your presentation at the start and summarise more coherently at the end.
Furthermore, being able to provide context, address a specific issue, and then offer a solution is a more effective structure for audiences to be able to follow than chaotic rambling. Barbara advised recording yourself on your phone to practice your presentation, and if it contains any waffling or non-sequiturs, consider restructuring and trying again. Practice will vastly improve not only your delivery, but will help ensure your presentation’s concision and coherence in terms of structure.
- Be real/yourself
As mentioned earlier, the Covid pandemic has exposed more widely than before the intersection between our professional lives and personal lives. As such, people value more than ever that presenters be themselves. This is not the same as winging it, Barbara warns: it takes a lot of work to get to the position where you are so well-prepared and familiar with your own content that you can relax, and especially in high-stakes situations, it’s easy to stiffen under the pressure.
Of course, practicing your presentation is part of becoming familiar with your content. But even further, Barbara gave a key piece of advice, addressing something that many of us are guilty of without even realising: don’t put on a presentation voice! Recently, Barbara has been working with a member of the clergy, who had two different voices when reading verses and when speaking to the audience; the former was very lively and enthusiastic, and the latter timid and quiet. The dissonance between the two was distracting enough. But crucially, Barbara says in order to demystify yourself and come across as personable, the solution is easy: use your normal speaking voice. A conversational tone is already more listenable than a clinical one; you will come across as real and likeable, and again, it sets the stage for a dialogue that means you will progress further with your audience than simply giving a presentation and then leaving.
In order to hone in on this, Barbara often asks her clients what attributes they want their audience to describe them as. Generally, she says, they answer with the same kinds of words: knowledgeable, competent, articulate, etc. Then she asks them the same question, but how their family or friends describe them. The answers change: fun, relaxed, down-to-earth, kind. Barbara then asks, which of the attributes that your family or friends describe you as are appropriate for professional environments? Striving for these instead helps you be yourself under pressure, and reveal yourself as a fellow human being. This already puts you in a position to be more influential than someone who is professional, but clinical.
- Let go of perfection
As above, not knowing the answer to something is absolutely part of being human, so don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’ Barbara advises to write out any possible questions your audience might have, including what she calls ‘ADQs’ (standing for Absolutely Dreaded Questions, a play on FAQs). Almost always, when ADQs come up, the worst thing you’ll have to say is, ‘I don’t know’, and the key is to say it comfortably rather than umming and ahhing. Another tip is to say ‘I don’t know yet’ if it’s a question about the future, or to say ‘I’m not sure and I don’t want to give you misinformation’, as it shows you have your audience’s interests at heart and that you’re not overly concerned about appearing perfect. Not knowing is a humanising feature, so embrace it and don’t let ADQs shake your conviction.
Furthermore, audiences aren’t aware of what your presentation was meant to look like, so even if you miss something important (like introducing yourself, or a point you were going to make) then don’t beat yourself up. ‘Never fear perfection, because you’ll never achieve it’ is a quote by Marie Curie that Barbara enjoys, because it helps presenters let go of the impossible standards they set for themselves. After all, if you forget to give your name but still get the gig, then it’s still a huge success. The most important thing is to up the conviction; this will prove far more influential rather remembering every detail.
With these tips in mind and with the hard work that accompanies implementing them, you’ll soon to be ready to influence outcomes even when the stakes are high. We’d like to give our profuse thanks to Barbara for speaking with us and providing this excellent and practical advice. We are keen for more future collaborations between herself and Aspen, so be on the lookout for those.
For more info, find Barbara on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/barbaramoynihan/.