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Secrets of No-Yawn Speeches

A trade-show speaking gig can win you respect, authority, and sales -- if you don't put your audience to sleep. Here's how to keep it lively and memorable

Thousands of trade shows take place every year, and most show organizers desperately need engaging speakers. Yes, need is the right word. Competition is intense, and trade shows that fail to leave attendees with valuable information will suffer from bad word-of-mouth or lower attendance next year. It's critical to deliver dynamic and instructive speakers.

MILKING IT. The benefits of speaking at a trade show are numerous, especially for small-business owners. A good speech can generate leads and sales, attracting prospects who may never have heard about the company. It also helps raise the visibility of the speaker as a thought leader in his or her particular industry and to position the company as important in its market.

The same holds true for small-business owners asked to speak at local chambers of commerce or rotaries. But while opportunities to make speeches abound, most speakers fail to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight.

Trade-show producers and conference organizers often confide in me about the difficulty of finding good speakers. Losing an audience's attention does no one a bit of good -- the organizer gets the blame, and the speakers can actually do more harm than good to their brand, reputation, or company.

Here are some quick and simple techniques to avoid speaking pitfalls and to truly captivate your audience:

Grab listeners from the start. Audiences tend to remember the first thing and last thing you say. "A powerful beginning and end will stick with your listeners," Oprah Winfrey once said.

Trades have lots of competition for folks' attention -- exhibits, networking, and the hotel bar. Great speakers give their audiences a reason to sit in their seats for the next 20 or 30 minutes. So, spend the first 30 to 60 seconds telling your listeners about the exciting things they're going to learn from your talk. Will it make them more productive, successful, or innovative? Then tell them so.

Show enthusiasm, passion, and energy. The vast majority of small-business owners are passionate about what they do. Their work often means not just a job but also a hobby, passion, and way of life.

All too often, however, they lose this enthusiasm when speaking to audiences. Could it be nerves? Sometimes. But many speakers tell me that they don't want to appear "over the top." Showing "too much" energy or enthusiasm should be the least of their worries. Listeners want to avoid boredom. They crave speakers who have above-average passion, enthusiasm, and energy.

Lose the notes. Great speakers don't read from slides or scripts. Ever. Have you noticed how impressed people are when they listen to speakers who don't read prepared text?

I followed the Senate hearings for John Roberts, the recently confirmed new Chief Justice. He impressed newspaper columnists and observers by delivering his opening remarks without notes. That type of speech makes a strong impression on listeners and allows the speaker to make eye contact -- to connect -- with an audience.

Of course that doesn't mean a speaker should never glance at notes. But keep in mind: Reading and glancing are two different things. Great speakers have such mastery over their content, they need only a passing glance to jog their memories.

Tell, don't sell. Conference organizers solicit speakers for a reason -- they believe the chosen ones offer information their attendees will find new, useful, and instructive.

Speakers add value to a conference, trade show, or business luncheon. But nobody signed up to hear a commercial. In fact, they paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for the conference. They don't want to spend 30 minutes of their day listening to a speaker tout his or her company. Constantly referring to your own business is a sure way of turning off your audience. Great speakers refer to their company or product once and only once.

Some of you might ask, "Then why do it?" Again, you can gain a lot of return on investment from positioning yourself as an expert in your field. If listeners have genuine interest in your company, rest assured they'll come up to you after your talk or visit your Web site. That is, as long as you grab their attention, keep them engaged, and teach them something valuable. Don't be afraid to give away some ideas to make an impact.

Be animated in voice and gesture. Unless forced to do so because of audio/video constraints, great speakers don't stand behind a podium. They walk, gesture, and vary their vocal delivery. They're animated in voice and body.

Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison makes an excellent example. He has stage presence. He rarely, if ever, stands behind a podium. He walks the stage, addressing different parts of the room. He stops to emphasize key points. He'll walk faster or slower at times. He puts animation in his voice -- speeding up, slowing down, or pausing to add a bit of drama.

BESTOWING KNOWLEDGE. Speaking at a trade show, conference, or luncheon is a privilege. The most sought-after speakers treat it as such.

The best advice I've heard on the subject came from a well-known venture capitalist: "Teach the audience something it didn't know before. If you do, you'll leave a lasting impression."


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