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Speak Up!

Avoid the 10 deadly sins that will ruin your presentations.

By Rob Sherman

Every day you have opportunities to make presentations that demonstrate your leadership abilities. You are constantly involved in client and staff meetings. Competition also demands that you present to outside groups such as service and professional organizations and seminars. In essence, you are always selling yourself and your company based on your presentation skills.

Here are the 10 biggest mistakes executives make when they take the floor to speak. Eliminate these errors from your next presentation and you will not only set yourself apart from the crowd, you will also strengthen your leadership influence on your entire organization:

1. Starting with a whimper

In any presentation, the first 30 seconds are the "make or break" time. Unfortunately, many presenters begin with an irrelevant joke or a comment about the weather. Weak beginnings are missed opportunities to capture your listeners' attention and demonstrate that your information will bring them real value. Begin with a provocative statement, a rhetorical question, a surprising fact, an interesting quote or a story related to your topic. Make a powerful statement that demands the audience's full attention.

2. Imitating other speakers

One of the most widely accepted myths of public speaking is that a speaker must take on a different persona while on the platform. Effective executives adapt their own style and do not attempt a wholesale conversion of their personas. You cannot connect with an audience without authenticity, and your authenticity is lost when you aren't yourself.

3. Failing to "work the room"

When you speak to external groups, make it a point to "work the room." Don't arrive two minutes before your speech and leave immediately after. Use the time before your presentation to mingle with the crowd; it enhances your credibility with listeners. Even if you are speaking at a staff meeting, arrive early and greet those entering the door. By doing so, you help put your audience at ease and let them know that this topic is important to you and the firm.

4. Forgetting to relax

Every speaker has some anxiety before taking the platform. Use your time before the presentation to relax. One common technique is to breathe deeply from your diaphragm for two minutes. If that doesn't help, try some simple exercises such as shrugging your shoulders, doing head rolls or stretching your arms and legs.

5. Reading a speech word for word

What glues so many presenters to the written text? Fear. They write out every word of their speech and then cling to it like children clutching a mother's skirt. Great presenters have learned how to use "keywords" to jog their memory. After they write out their speech word for word, they create a keyword outline, which prompts complete thoughts as they speak. When you know your material, a keyword outline is all you need.

6. Using someone else's stories

Any concept is easier to understand if it is punctuated by your own experiences. Professional speakers know that what they've learned from life's lessons will help them bond with the audience. A personal story from your own experience helps you connect with your audience and illustrates facts better than any other presentation tool. Everyone has remarkable stories that are there for the telling.

7. Speaking without passion

Powerful, memorable addresses are the result of the speaker's deep passion for his or her subject. It is virtually impossible to inspire others if you are not personally committed to your topic. Always speak on a subject that excites you; otherwise, it will be difficult to get your audience to do something as a result of your presentation. An added benefit: your fears will dissipate as you speak about your subject matter.

8. Ending with Q&As

Most presentations end with a question and answer session. This is the equivalent of ending with a whimper. Instead, tell the audience that you will take questions and then say, "We will move to our closing point." After the Q&A, reiterate a point made during the presentation, or conclude with a quote or call to action. Whatever you end with, whether a story that ties into your main theme or a summary of the main points, make it memorable.

9. Failing to prepare

Before you begin, you must know what your ultimate goal is. Do you want to inform people? Entertain them? Change their attitude? Motivate or inspire them? Whatever your objective, you need to fine-tune it before you reach the podium to speak.

10. Failing to practice

Were your business skills perfected after your first day on the job? Are the greatest sports figures the ones fresh out of high school? Just like any other learned skill, becoming an effective presenter takes practice and a commitment to learning.

Rob Sherman, founder of Sherman Leadership Group based in Columbus, Ohio, is an attorney, speaker and author. He can be contacted at

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