by Steve Adubato, PhD

Imagine you are at a business conference or a seminar. The keynote speaker gets up to present. He starts out slowly with a soft voice and a bit of a monotone. About four or five minutes into the presentation he starts picking up some steam. He is more animated, passionate and really getting into the presentation. The problem is that his audience is long gone. In fact, most of them checked out in the first minute. The palm pilots are out, the blackberries are in full use, and the yawns are audible. What’s wrong with this picture and how could it have been avoided?

Q—So what IS wrong with starting slowly and building up momentum in a presentation?

A—The problem should be obvious, but to most it is not. If you don’t grab your audience in the first minute, you can forget it. Unlike exercise, where it makes sense to start slow and build momentum, when it comes to presenting the opposite is true. You don’t have the luxury of easing into a presentation. It doesn’t matter how good your material is or how compelling you are 10-minutes in if your audience is no longer with you.

Q—But if my material is really great, won’t the audience give me the benefit of the doubt and be patient with me?

A—No. There are too many things on their minds. They are distracted. They’ve heard five speakers before you and another five are scheduled after. Great content in a presentation is only part of the game. We’ve all seen countless public communicators with really good material fall flat on their face because they don’t understand the other part of the game.

Q—So what’s the other part of the presentation game?

A—The biggest piece most public speakers miss is using their body and their voice. Your body is an instrument, so if you are simply reading your presentation, think about what your body is doing. Your head is down, your lungs are restricted and your body movements are unnatural. You are not using your hands to emphasize your words. Further, your voice isn’t projecting and you are speaking in a monotone.

Conversely, when you are working off of a few powerful bullet points, what happens with your body? Your eyes are where they belong—connected to your audience—your hands are moving and connected to your words, your voice is projecting straight ahead, your diaphragm is open and you are speaking in a conversational fashion which produces great vocal variety. These are the things most audiences appreciate. So a big part of the game is understanding the power you possess when you use your body and the impact it has on your voice.

Q—Are you saying I should PRACTICE vocal variety?

A—Absolutely not. Vocal variety or the modulating of your voice is a product of something a lot more natural—passion. Once you tap into that passion and get into the presentation, the vocal variety will follow. Think about it. If you are into a spirited conversation with a friend or colleague, it’s almost impossible to speak in a monotone. The same thing is true when making a public presentation.

Q—But how exactly do I grab my audience right at the beginning?

A—Open up with a compelling story that has a powerful point. You can also start with audience participation. Pull someone out of the audience and do a demonstration. You could ask a provocative question that gets your audience thinking. Your goal is to hook them mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically. Once you hook them, the challenge is to keep them. But if you don’t get them in the beginning, you won’t have to worry about that.