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Talking points, start with a splash

The first time I stood in front of a large group--about 1,200 people--to hold a seminar, I felt so exhilarated! Now, after years of giving seminars, beginning with small groups at business luncheons, I can honestly say it's done more for my career than I ever dreamed.

As a start-up entrepreneur, you've probably gone to a lot of workshops and seminars on all kinds of business topics. But have you ever thought about offering a seminar of your own? It's a great way to position yourself as an expert in your field or expose prospects to your product or service. At the same time, you get to meet and build positive relationships with members of your target audience.

Even if your public speaking skills are somewhat shaky, with a little practice, seminars can be an excellent public relations tool for your business. Here are six quick tips to get you off to a flying start:

1. Speak to the right audiences. Carefully identify the organizations in your area whose members match the profile of your primary target audience. Groups that have regular lunch meetings are excellent candidates, since they're constantly looking for speakers who will provide helpful information to their members for basically the cost of a lunch or small honorarium.

Depending on the type of business you have and the product or service you sell, groups to consider include business and professional groups, civic and religious organizations and social clubs. The main rule for selection is simple: The majority of the attendees must have the ability to make a buying decision about what your company offers.

2. Provide information they can use. To create a successful seminar, tailor the content to include unique or insightful information your audience will find particularly useful. A workshop should never be confused with a sales pitch, and your audience will quickly tune out unless you put their needs first. When you provide clear and interesting information, they'll think of you as a helpful expert. Resist the temptation to use jargon or provide too much technical information. Keep your talk on the appropriate knowledge level--never talk down to your audience, but don't talk over their heads, either.

3. Follow a logical structure. When it comes to workshops, careful planning pays off. First, outline your talk with bullet points for each important fact or area of content. Then flesh out each point. Structure your seminar so it flows logically from one topic to the next and has a clear beginning, middle and end. Keep your structure simple and straightforward.

For preparation purposes, it may help to write out your entire talk--just don't read from that script. If you must refer to notes, use your outline to stay on track.

4. Get the audience involved. As you prepare your seminar, note any points that are likely to inspire the audience to ask questions. At first, it may seem scary to consider stopping during your talk to take questions. But remember, questions are better than stony silence. They let you know your audience is listening. And an engaged audience shows your seminar is going well!

5. Polish your presentation style. One trick that has worked for countless new and experienced speakers alike is to set up a videotape recorder and tape yourself rehearsing. It's amazing how many distracting behaviors you'll spot--and eliminate--by practicing this way. Watch out for signs of nervousness. Are you grimacing or smiling stiffly? Be on the lookout for visual tics such as repeating the same word--like "well" or "um"--throughout your presentation.

Your body movements should be natural and animated. If you find yourself standing stiffly with hands folded throughout the whole presentation, work on adding gestures. Don't hide behind a podium or desk; walk back and forth on the platform or on the floor in front of your audience. Getting closer to your audience in this way helps you make eye contact with everyone in the room. That establishes a bond that can become the foundation of future relationships.

6. Use professional-looking handouts. Always provide at least one sheet of information attendees can keep, such as a tip sheet or outline of your presentation. At the bottom, include a paragraph of information about your business, with contact information and your logo. If you're a software consultant, for example, include a few sentences from your bio and an overview of the kinds of services your company offers, followed by your phone and fax numbers and e-mail address.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to publicize your workshops. If you're planning to speak to a professional group that encourages additional attendees at its meetings, ask if you can invite your list of current clients and prospects to the event. And don't overlook the opportunity to invite local media if your talk can be considered newsworthy.

Eventually, you'll find that using seminars as a public relations tool opens doors to increased sales and builds an expert image for you and your company.

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Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.
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