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“Ladies and gentlemen….”
Food for thought on speakers and audiences!Quazi M. Ahmed

“Once you get people laughing, they’re listening and you can tell them almost anything.”
– Herbert Gardner

A research conducted many years back in the US asked close to a thousand people this simple question: “What are you most afraid of?” The answers, among many others, were: darkness, snakes, spiders, drowning, cockroaches, dogs, ghosts, death and obviously God’s name came up in the list too. Any guesses as to which item was ranked number one? Yes, speaking before a group of people, reportedly, was the number one source of fear in that research project. Apparently, even fear of death was not as scary as the thought of public speaking. Perhaps this is the reason why someone quipped that the human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in front of others.

Well, sooner or later in your life, whether as a student or as an executive, you’ll be asked to deliver a presentation–an activity that creates a certain kind of fear in many people. But once you follow a few simple guidelines, you can conduct trouble-free, entertaining presentations that would help you earn an excellent grade at the university or get the much-desired attention from colleagues and superiors.

It might sound like I am beating my own drum but I must admit that over the years, many people approached me after my speech or presentation at a training programme and told me that my presentation was excellent and that they also would like to learn the art of speaking. Keeping this context in mind, I am pleased to share some of my thoughts on the issue of presentation skills.

First, let me share an interesting set of statistics with you. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found out in his research that when we express feelings and attitudes through our presentations, the impact goes something like this: only 7% of the message is in the words; 38% of message is the way the words are spoken; and 55% of message is in facial expression. In others words, 93 percent of success of your presentation depends on your effective delivery of nonverbal communications. I believe now you have a clue why “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. became so famous the world over or for that matter why 7th Match speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s speech at the race course maidan was so much inspiring for all freedom-loving Bangalees. Thus, my suggestion is that pay careful attention to nonverbal aspects of communicationssuch as eye contact, tone, facial expressions, volume, gesture, posture, handshake, physical distance from the audience and the like.

Secondly, one of the challenges for a novice presenter is how to structure the talk. Here is the age-old three-step method. In any presentation, your first step is to “tell them what you are going to tell them’; step two is to just ‘tell them’ one idea at a time and the third and final step is to ‘tell them what you told them’. Put differently, you first announce your topic, then you divide the topic into different parts and explain each component with data, anecdotes, etc. and finally you take a few moments to summarize. Maybe not a very creative system, but the beauty of this simple approach is that here the audience gets the feeling that you are an organized and systematic presenter.

Those among us who know a thing or two about presentations will perhaps remember that mainly there are four different kinds of presentations, known as impromptu, extemporaneous, memorized and written script. When you watch a debate, you can see extempore speech in action where the debaters have notes or key words at their disposal but rest of the speechmaking comes naturally, neither from rote memorization nor from script reading. I haven’t met anyone yet who can appreciate a memorized speech, except when we are talking about things like poetry recitation (amar naam Chitra, ami ekti kobita bolbo..). As for speaking from scripts, we get to see this everyday on BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera when the likes of Obama or Ahmedinejad read out their speeches when sensitive positions are taken with regard to global issues or when they hardly want to take any risk of misinterpretation by the press or principal stakeholders.

Thirdly and finally, a few words about impromptu speaking. It basically means that you are expected to speak on occasions such as dinner, iftar or farewell party without any preparation or at best preparation for a minute or two. Now we all know that if you are known as an experienced presenter or as an expert on a particular subject, you will certainly be asked to give an impromptu speech at one time or another. And most likely you will do an excellent job of speaking, impressing the host and the audience. But what if you are not an expert and yet you have to do a good job of speaking and saving your face? Here is what I call “A2F Method” of impromptu speaking which can be extremely helpful in such circumstances.

The next time you are suddenly called on stage to say something and you don’t have a clue as to what to say, think about the A2F Method where ‘A’ stands for ‘Appreciation’ of the organizers who arranged the event where you are being asked to share your thoughts. As you can see, you don’t have to say anything clever initially; just say something like, “I deeply appreciate the organizers for giving me this opportunity to say something on this (name of the occasion…)”. With ‘B’ you simply think of the word ‘Best’ or its synonyms. Why? Because, now you are going to say that the issue or topic being discussed is best-suited, topical, appropriate, whatever. This will make the organizers feel happy. For ‘C’ I want you to choose the expression ‘Care’ and in this context, share a story, an anecdote that relates your life with the discussion.

All the first three letters, namely A, B and C had to do with creating a positive emotion: you thanked them, told them that they are doing a good thing and you even proved that you mean it through an example or two. Now it’s about time that you walked in the other direction. What I mean by that is that an element of shock is necessary for creating an impact. For instance, reserve the letter ‘D’ for ‘Danger” and as part of your speech say that “while it is good to see that we are concerned about the child labour issue in Dhaka, but I am afraid many of us say these things only in seminars and workshops and may not take concrete steps towards solving the problems.” By now you have said quite a few things and perhaps time is short and you quickly move on to the remaining two letters. As far as ‘E’ is concerned, we now bring up ‘Electronic’ communications opportunities and announce that the audience can reach the speaker through email, and if they want to know more about the subject matter, they can search on the internet or go to relevant websites, etc. Having completed your speech up to this point, you are welcome to use ‘F’ in the form of ‘Finally’ and share your parting thoughts along these lines: ‘Finally, I sincerely believe that you have learned quite a few things here and if you can apply at least 1 idea, if not more, then the effort will be successful. Thank you.”

In all frankness, I have tried the above fail-proof A2F Method numerous times in my career as a trainer, presenter and facilitator. And there is no reason why you can’t do the same. Let me wish you good luck with your presentations.

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