Speak Easy

Conquer your fears and nail your next speech or presentation.

By Amy Thomasson

FRM 005 MasterClass

While public speaking may not have the dubious distinction of being the most common fear, it still ranked highly enough on Chapman University’s annual “Survey of American Fears” to beat out kidnapping, zombies and even the prospect of an apocalypse. However, unlike battling a horde of zombies, delivering a speech or presentation is a challenge you have likely faced and will continue to encounter throughout your career. As association management professionals, we must also address unique demands of not only conquering our public speaking fears, but conveying compelling stories that move our members, volunteers and staff teams to action. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to move from a novice to a polished speaker, effectively tailor your story to your audience and appropriately address feedback. Your peers are here to tell you how.

Getting Started as a Novice Speaker

1. Nerves are normal.

According to Mark Twain, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars.” Anyone who has had the privilege of meeting the indomitable Jacqualine Price Osafo, membership and development director, Water Quality Association, would be surprised to find that nerves are still part of her pre-presentation equation. Yet she has learned to harness that energy productively. Price Osafo says, “The key is getting some of the nervous energy out of your body prior to stepping in front of an audience. I am obsessed with the Wonder Woman pose for confidence. One must stand in the Wonder Woman—or for men, Superman—pose for five minutes. The purpose of the pose is to increase your self-confidence. I learned about this pose in Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Year of Yes’ and Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, ‘Your Language Shapes Who You Are.’ My second act of preparation is to exercise my mouth and body by singing one of my favorite tunes or dancing it out to a favorite song.”

2. Observe and apply your learnings.

Scott Oser, President, Scott Oser Associates, partners with associations to deliver customized solutions and strategic expertise. This line of work has resulted in exposure to countless speakers, presenters and facilitators, enabling him to learn by watching others. “I have watched speakers within the association space and outside of our space to see what they do well and what I can incorporate into my presentations,” he says. While observing and learning from the successes and stumbles of other speakers is important, Oser also emphasizes making your presentations your own. “Be confident and make sure you have your own presentation style. Audiences can sense when speakers are unsure of themselves. Speakers get selected based on their knowledge and experience, so let that shine through.”

“I always try to learn as much as I can about who the audience is and tailor my focus accordingly.”

–Scott Oser, President, Scott Oser Associates

3. Prepare to go off script.

Jon Kinsella, senior marketing strategy manager, Association Headquarters, has also spent his career serving an array of association clients. The needs of his clients are as varied as the members they serve, which has afforded Kinsella the opportunity to speak at annual meetings, deliver online educational programs and more. Since he functions as a representative of the organization he is serving, Kinsella has learned that advance preparation is critical to success. “Confidence comes from preparation. Being a subject-matter expert on digital marketing has given me the confidence to pivot off my script and venture into spontaneous streams of consciousness that have produced some of my most compelling content,” Kinsella says. “The level of presence that confidence produces helps me get out of my head and pay attention to my audience. From there, I can key in on what they are responding to and what isn’t hitting home, which helps determine what to expand upon and what to quickly glide over.”

Once you’ve moved from nervous novice to comfortable communicator, you’ll next want to tackle adjusting your presentation based on your audience.

Personalizing Your Message and Delivery Style for Your Audience

1. Understand the organization.

Oser says, “I always try to learn as much as I can about who the audience is and tailor my focus accordingly. When it comes to association audiences, there are many things that can be triggers for changes in my message, but a few key ones are individual membership versus trade associations, level of experience and size of the organization. Based on that information, I will go more strategic versus tactical, as well as tweaking my talking points to be applicable to a larger portion of the total audience.”

2. Know who is in the audience.

“If possible, I ask for a registration list ahead of time. I look at registrants’ titles and associations. I often visit participants’ websites to evaluate services related to the presentation. For those times when this information is not available, I try to have an in-depth conversation with the event organizer. I also take a quick poll related to the topic of discussion, experience level and association tenure,” says Price Osafo. This polling methodology can be especially useful when presenting to a new audience, such as when she recently presented to her first international audience at the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE).

3. Make your content applicable and actionable.

“In a field that changes as quickly as digital marketing does, theoretical knowledge must be supported by practical use of action plans. This is always top of mind when I prepare for a speaking engagement, whether the audience is small business owners or association executives,” Kinsella explains. “Context is just as important as content. Each audience has different pain points and challenges, so I make a point to provide real-world, tactical case studies specific to their day-to-day that complement the overarching theory or strategy.”

Finally, a good presenter knows that a presentation isn’t a one-way communication. Your audience is constantly communicating with you, and there are some quick ways to understand what they’re saying and make simple adjustments to reflect their needs.

Recognizing and Responding to Audience Feedback

1. Pay attention to nonverbal cues.

“I pay attention to facial expressions: A confused look translates to the need to adjust my explanation. The body language of your audience may be an indication of boredom. This is a great opportunity to get the audience engaged and/or add humor to presentation. Sometimes, I will call myself out and say, ‘I’m not capturing your attention,’ which serves as a cue to reengage. Audience engagement is key,” says Price Osafo.

2. Ask questions before the presentation.

“If I don’t know who is going to be in the room before I arrive, I often begin my talk by asking a few questions about the audience or their organizations. If there is a large percentage of attendees from a particular segment or category, I will tweak my presentation points if possible,” Oser says.

3. Wrap up with more questions and answers.

Kinsella says, “Audience feedback and Q&As are always encouraged because they provide insight into what topics I need to dive deeper on and what isn’t working. They also provide me with ideas for future topics and spin-off presentations, which helps me constantly alter and enhance my offerings.”

Although speaking up in the form of a speech or presentation may not be your preferred work or volunteer assignment, with practice and these tips, you can make the experience more pleasant and effective. At minimum, it’ll be less intimidating than a vampire, active volcano or shark-infested waters.

If all else fails, I’ll leave you with my personal mantra whenever my pre-speech discomfort is setting in: “This is what growth feels like.”

Further Training Online: Visit the Association Forum Speaker Resource Center to get additional advice on how to keep your audience engaged.

About the Author

Amy Thomasson is the Marketing Director at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. 

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