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Big Waves. Powerful Presentations.

By December 4, 2014 January 8th, 2020 News & Viewpoints
Roy Miller, National Weather Service

Greg Long surfed massive waves, some nearly 70 feet tall. Yet the three successive waves that nearly drowned him deep under the pounding water were “only” about 25 feet high. After his near-death experience, he vowed to quit, but ultimately came back to win his sport’s biggest title. My family and I saw Greg speak as National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year” and were blown away by his gripping story … and his gifted storytelling.

What began as a mere “presentation” quickly morphed into an experience where the audience became immersed in the storyteller’s journey. When Greg fought to breathe, blacked out just before breaking the surface, and was ultimately hoisted up to salvation by a Coast Guard helicopter, we were right there with him. Most of us, of course, have far less dramatic material to work with when speaking publicly. The manner in which Greg shared his story, however, showcased several best practices for public speakers everywhere.

Convey a Clear Point of View. 

When speaking to a group, you should have a goal in mind: what do you want the audience to think or do when you are done? Draft your remarks around that call to action. Greg’s clear and consistent theme was about fear. He espoused the counter-intuitive view that fear is a good thing, to be harnessed as fuel for individuals to reach higher goals they may have otherwise thought unattainable. It’s also good to end your remarks with “if I can leave you with one thought” or similar comment. Sum it up in a single sentence for your audience and they will be far more likely to both remember and act upon your stated goal.

Lose the Podium, Kill the Text, Cue The Visuals.

A podium can be a crutch, a barrier and make you far less accessible to your audience. Nobody wants to read words on a screen, they want to hear from you. Pictures, charts, graphs and short headlines should complement your remarks, not serve as the basis for them. Greg Long came to center stage and simply talked (moving around at times to connect with all sides). Behind him a large screen displayed compelling photos to complement his words. Never once did he lose eye contact by turning behind him to look at or read a slide (use a laptop or tablet in front or to the side to mirror the big screen, so you can avoid turning away from your audience).

Consider Props With Purpose.

Framing the screen behind Greg, like tall bookends, stood two colorful surfboards. They literally set the stage. When Greg’s story climaxed as he was drowning 30 feet down, he motioned to one of the boards and told how it saved his life. Tethered to it at his ankle, he pulled himself up the leash toward the board in a struggle to reach the surface and refill his lungs with air. The board then took on new importance for the rest of his remarks. Where appropriate, find a way to hold something relevant up to be seen, or even to pass it around the audience, if it makes a point or underscores your theme.

Pace and Cadence Matter.

Greg spoke at an even, smooth pace. He did not rush. He paused at key points to let his words hang in the air or otherwise sink in. Cadence matters and a well-placed pause can have strong effect. Tone and inflection matter, too. If you say you are thrilled about a certain piece of news about your organization or industry, for example, your words and body language should reflect that excitement! When addressing a group, project at 50 percent more than usual.

Be Genuine.

From the podium, it can be tempting to hold back your true personality, to play it safe or otherwise try to model someone you are not. Audiences see through that and they get uncomfortable when you are uncomfortable. Greg Long addressed the mostly Washington, D.C. after-work crowd wearing black Chuck Taylors, faded blue jeans and an untucked plaid shirt. A few times his language was a bit salty, like the sea he surfs. He also opened himself up to reveal his deeply personal fears and motivations. Every step of the way he was true to himself, which I suspect not only made him more comfortable and confident on stage, but also made him more credible and compelling to his audience.

With preparation and adopting best practices, most anyone can excel at public speaking. So jump in, the water’s fine.

John Fitzpatrick is co-managing partner at Stratacomm, where among other offerings, provides presentation coaching services. The biggest wave he ever surfed was in the 2-foot range, and these days he’s more likely found under the umbrella.