Always open with a joke. Never make a joke. Different experts offer different advice to public speakers giving presentations. Anita Zinsmeister, owner of the Dale Carnegie Training Center of Central and Southern New Jersey and expert trainer, is in the latter camp. And if you want to know why, consider the story of the worst presentation Zinsmeister has ever seen.
“There was a professional speaker speaking to an audience using technology for a presentation,” she recalls. “As does happen with technology, there was a glitch and it stopped working. It was a very large crowd with about 800 people in the audience. They waited a moment to see if they would be able to get it back up and running, and the person got so flustered and tried to handle it by making a joke. It was a joke that was slightly off color and it kind of joked about a particular stereotype of the organization that was sponsoring the talk.”
To this day Zinsmeister is too mortified to repeat the exact joke, except to say it was religious in nature. “They tried to lighten the mood, but instead it fell flat,” she says. “The audience went dead quiet. After that moment, they regrouped, but for the audience, it was so awkward, they were lost and I don’t think they ever recovered.”
That’s why “don’t make jokes” is one of the pieces of advice offered by the Dale Carnegie course on high impact presentations being offered this spring and summer. Using natural humor is fine, but unless you are a professional comedian, Zinsmeister says, a joke could easily fall flat and alienate an audience.
The Dale Carnegie Training Center class on high impact presentations runs Thursday and Friday, May 14 and 15, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1 AAA Drive, Suite 102 in Hamilton. For more information, visit centralnj.dalecarnegie.com or call 609-631-0500. A second course will run on August 4 and 11. The course costs $1,895.
Zinsmeister has plenty of experience public speaking. During her upbringing in Princeton, she inherited a love of business from her father, who started his own company that made clinical diagnostic tests for the medical field. Zinsmeister graduated from UCLA with a degree in communications and went straight to work in business, first for AAA in the travel department and later for the airline industry for Pacific Express, which was a regional airline on the West Coast. It was there she got her first taste of public speaking before large crowds, as she made presentations to local businesspeople and chambers of commerce about the airline coming to their towns.
“It actually went great,” she says. “I’ve never had a fear of public speaking.” (This makes Zinsmesiter somewhat of a rare breed, as public speaking is among the most commonly reported fears, according to surveys.) Zinsmeister continued to work for airlines, including a stint as public relations manager, then moved back to Princeton where she became a sales representative for the Ramada Inn on Route 1, which today is a Doubletree Hotel.
While working at the Ramada, Zinsmeister took a Dale Carnegie course and was set on the path of eventually owning the Dale Carnegie Training Center of Central and Southern New Jersey. Her company, founded in 1912, bases its business training courses on the writings of Carnegie, the author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” a self-help book which has sold more than 15 million copies since it was published in 1936. Zinsmeister says the company bases its advice on Carnegie’s writings, but has updated its offerings with modern research.
Carnegie wrote frequently on public speaking, and the high-impact presentations course draws liberally from his advice.
The Three Es. Zinmeister says speakers must have Earned the right to talk through study or experience, thus demonstrating credibility. They must be Excited about the subject, which will translate into excitement for the audience. Lastly, they must be Eager to share with the audience the value and significance of their message. “If you feel passionate about your message, that’s going to come across,” Zinmeister says.
But how much excitement and eagerness should a speaker show if they are delivering bad news? What if two companies have merged, and some of the audience members are going to lose their jobs? “You want to be appropriate in your demeanor,” Zinsmester says. “If you’re honest with your audience, at the same time, look for what’s positive.”
Zinsmeister improvised a speech that a good speaker might give to the merging employees: “As we combine our two organization and our cultures, there will be uncertainty. That is never an easy thing to work through. One of the things we can all stay focused on is outcomes. We are all looking for some potentially positive news that can come out of this. Once our company cultures are merged, it puts us in a better position to have strong market share, which in the long run strengthens our position and job security.”
Zinsmeister says it’s important to find positives in such situations, in order to fulfill the second “E” of becoming excited about the topic.
Three more questions: Who is the audience? What is the purpose of the presentation? What’s the message? Those are three things to think about when preparing that will help any speaker connect with an audience.
Give examples. Straight from the Carnegie playbook is the idea of giving concrete examples and illustrations. Even if a speaker has limited time, Zinsmeister says, it’s better to use it to make one point with a good example behind it than to attempt to cover more ground. “People love to listen to stories, and if you are able to tell a story, that’s much more compelling than just providing statistics.”
Don’t be an egomaniac. Lightly poking fun at yourself will help you connect with the audience and help them see you as a human being. “Be as real and genuine and sincere as you can be,” Zinsmeister says. “It’s not about whether you are perfectly polished, but it’s really about being yourself.”
Death by Powerpoint. There is hardly anything worse than a boring Powerpoint presentation. Follow the “six-by-six” rule, and limit each slides to six bullet point items of at most six words each. Don’t read directly from the slides.
Face your fear. Zinsmeister says the only way to overcome the fear of public speaking is to do it. Start with small groups of people and present on topics that you have a good command of. Go over what you are going to say and write it down on index cards, but don’t prepare the entire speech verbatim. Rehearse it in front of a supportive, non-judgmental friend. “We may never get all the butterflies out of our stomachs, but we can get them flying in formation,” Zinsmeister says.
That calmness can pay off when something unexpected happens. As a counterpoint to the worst speech Zinsmeister ever heard, the best one she can recall took place when a vice president of Oracle was giving a presentation when the microphone died. The venue was too big for her to proceed using the power of her voice. “She had the absolute opposite reaction,” Zinsmeister says. “Total grace. She didn’t fidget or anything. They got a new microphone working, and she just picked up right where she was in her presentation and the audience was with her all the way. That could have rattled somebody, but she had absolute grace in how she handled it.”