This is the time of year when many of us have the pleasure or the pain of listening to commencement speeches. There is something about a podium, microphone, and captive audience of thousands that makes some people feel that their words are the most profound ever. We can all recall those commencement speeches, probably at our own high school or college graduation, that seemed to go on forever eventually sounding like the “wah, wah, wah” of the Peanuts gang teacher. These days, the best commencement addresses go viral on the internet – few haven’t seen the inspirational graduation keynotes of Steve Jobs and JK Rowling, for example.

They make it look easy. But public speaking is one of the most common fears of all for a reason. Drafting, revising, practicing, and delivering a powerful speech with confidence and connection is not a simple task. This recent blog post by Mary Civiello for CNN Money highlighted several brilliant commencement speeches from this year’s ceremonies – President Obama at Morehouse, Arianna Huffington at Smith, Steven Colbert at U of Virginia, and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo at Michigan – to offer insight to how any of us can develop stronger presentation skills and deliver messages that people remember. The lessons she shared from watching these dynamos in action were:

  • There’s no excuse for not knowing your audience – Arianna Huffington wove information she gleaned from social media about the Smith graduates into her speech.
  • People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care – President Obama shared his personal unfulfilled wishes about his father with the Morehouse graduates and spoke of how it motivated him to be a better man.
  • Acknowledge your weakness. It makes others stronger – Dick Costolo spoke candidly about his shortcomings and vulnerabilities in his speech at Michigan.
  • Keep it simple – a la Steve Jobs’ “three stories from my life” commencement address.

So the next time you are in front of a group, whether 5 people or 5,000, keep those lessons in mind and apply these additional points to make a real impact.

  • Tell stories – Good storytelling is key to great presenting. Instead of sharing information, bring the information or data to life by illustrating it, “painting a picture” for the audience, and making it real and relevant.
  • Be succinct – Notice I didn’t say “brief.” You may have a one-hour speech or a fifteen-minute one. No matter the length of time, be certain that you:
    • avoid wordiness,
    • offer a limited number of main ideas,
    • look for ways to grab attention and strengthen recall with catchy phrases and quotations.
  • Use your non-verbals – The words you use are important; however, audiences connect with non-verbals as well – tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, props (without being hokey). They are all part of a strong presentation package.

If developing stronger public speaking skills has been on your “To Do” list for a long time, commit today to actually doing something about it so that the next time you are called upon to deliver a speech you can stride to the podium with confidence and enthusiasm. And, who knows? It could be your amazing commencement address that goes viral next spring.

What can you do to strengthen your presentation skills? What techniques have successfully worked for you in the past?
Please leave a comment to share.

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