From the February 2005 issue of Startups

At one point or another, you're going to have to speak in public. This could mean a formal presentation in front of hundreds of potential customers contemplating the value of what your business offers, or it might be an informal discussion with a few financiers who are thinking about elevating your business to the next level. Regardless of the situation, though, at some point all entrepreneurs will find themselves in front of an audience.

Tom Colonna, a public speaking professor and consultant in Baltimore, has been providing advice to his students and clients for almost three decades. Here he offers suggestions on how to improve the results of your next public speaking engagement.

Entrepreneur.com: Do you think anyone can become a good speaker or are some people just born with the ability?

Tom Colonna: I do think it's easier for some people more than others to be good speakers. From my experience with teaching public speaking for almost 30 years, I've found that anyone who makes the effort to properly research their topic, organize their material in a logical sequence, and practice their delivery to a conversational level can be a good speaker.

Entrepreneur.com: After years of public appearances, do you still get nervous or does it get any easier?

Colonna: Hopefully, with experience, public speaking situations get easier. I'm a firm believer that with proper organization and practice any public speaking experience can be successful. Actually, the speech experts say there should be a certain level of anxiety in any public speaking experience--this keeps you on your toes, concentrating on the task at hand.

Entrepreneur.com: Are there any public individuals you particularly admire for their ability to speak?

Colonna: Our former president, Bill Clinton, was a talented public speaker. He always had the best mix of verbal and nonverbal attributes--he had a tremendous vocabulary, backed up his statements with understandable research, and had wonderful eye contact that always made the audience feel like he was having a conversation with each one of them individually.

Entrepreneur.com: Are there any significant differences between speaking in front of a large audience as opposed to an intimate presentation?

Colonna: Most of the real differences here have to do with nonverbal behavior and the ability to be seen and heard well. All audiences, large and small, want to be talked with, not at. Time is also a factor with large audiences--most large groups want information to be to the point, understandable and [provided] in the least amount of time.

Entrepreneur.com: Do you have any pointers, to help relieve the stress of public speaking?

Colonna:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Choose a topic that will be both interesting to you and your audience.
  3. Do your research and try to anticipate possible areas for questions.
  4. Organize your speech in such a way that the audience is anticipating where the speech is headed.
  5. Practice your delivery both verbally and nonverbally to the point that the presentation appears conversational and relaxed.

Entrepreneur.com: What's a good way to break the ice with an audience?

Colonna: Telling a story that has relevance to both the audience and the topic is a great way to break the ice and ease the audience into the topic of your speech. The attention-getter builds your audience's first impression of not only the speaker but the topic of the speech.

Entrepreneur.com: Is there anything specific business owners should keep in mind when giving a speech in a professional environment?

Colonna: The success factor here is vocabulary: you need to have a working, professional level of vocabulary at your fingertips so other business associates know you know the subject at hand and speak their language. This is crucial for optimum understanding.

Entrepreneur.com: Do you have any advice on using visuals during a presentation?

Colonna: Whenever you use visuals in public speaking, they need to be evaluated in terms of size, placement, accuracy and neatness. Audiences want visuals to be large enough to be easily seen, in a position that's visible to everyone in the room, accurate in terms of spelling, numbers or statistics, and pleasing in appearance. If you're using PowerPoint, don't just put the text of your speech onto slides--that's boring. Concentrate on giving your audience interesting graphics that complement and enhance the text of your presentation.

Entrepreneur.com: What should a speaker keep in mind about their body language?

Colonna: You want to concentrate your practice sessions on maximizing your facial expressions, gestures, eye contact and posture while giving your presentation. The goal is to appear professional but [to] keep the delivery conversational. The most crucial part of body language is eye contact. Audiences like to see your face most of the time you're addressing them. That means you have to know your material well enough to keep your eyes on your audience while only referring to your notes periodically. As far as gestures are concerned, keeping your hands on the edge of the podium looks natural and relaxed. And no hands in your pockets or behind your back--that looks restrictive and unnatural.

Entrepreneur.com: Many businesspeople use seminars to sell something whether it's a product, a service or themselves. Do you have any useful tips for making the sale?

Colonna: The key here is to persuade audiences by giving them essential information backed up by research or testimony and to let the audience make an educated decision. As the saying goes, "An educated consumer is your best customer."

Entrepreneur.com: Do you have any examples of where a person's business success has been greatly advanced because of their public-speaking ability?

Colonna: The best example of this was a former student of mine who went on to become an architect and commercial space planner. He had considerable research and design skills but quickly realized that the only way he was going to be a successful architect was to have the ability to convince prospective clients that his design was the one they wanted. He worked very hard on improving his presentation skills in addition to impressing the clients with his design visuals. I can't think of a profession that couldn't be improved by having good speaking skills, whether it's telephone talk or public presentations.


Joshua D. Bateman is a freelance writer and entrepreneur in Baltimore.