President Trump caused quite the Twitter kerfuffle on Independence Day when he talked about Revolutionary War troops wresting control of the airports from the British. The flub apparently arose from a TelePrompTer malfunction caused by rain in the nation’s capitol.
Aside from the prominence of the error (and the comedic aspect, which trended on Twitter as #RevolutionaryWarAirportStories on the 4th of July, if you care to see more), it’s relatively small picture in terms of the impact. Still, no matter the cause nor your political perspective, there is a valuable public-speaking take away.
Most of us will never speak to an audience as large as the one assembled on the National Mall. We may, however, appear in a situation in which the stakes are even higher, at least on a personal level. Consider presentations you’ve made to civic groups, elected councils and boards, or even a hiring committee.
The outcome certainly holds potential to be life altering. Likewise, the possibility of getting lost in your words or tripped up by technology is a realistic one.
If it can happen to the President of the United States — with every resource of the federal government available — it most certainly can happen to me and you. It definitely has happened to me.
So, what to do?
The answer is in proper preparation. Specifically, you must know your brand story, know your presentation message, know your audience.
Know your brand story
Your brand story ties together those things that are fundamental, core to your (or your organization’s) being. The three things I articulate about my institution are: 1) we are invested in our students’ success; 2) we are a premier institution of higher education; and 3) as a California Community College, we are the best value. In any situation, I can default to these — and, since they’re core to our identity, I should be able to pivot there easily if I get lost in my presentation and need a guidepost to lean on. This works on a personal level as well. If you look at my online presences, I articulate that I am: 1) a recovering journalist; 2) a storyteller; and 3) spokesman at Cypress College. The point here is to know both yourself and your organization well enough that it’s second nature to articulate these core story elements.
Know your message
Your key message or messages are the specific takeaways you want your audience to have at any given presentation. Of course, any well-crafted presentation will tie back to your brand story as discussed above. However, speaking opportunities typically have specific sub-messages that must be communicated. For instance, the city council might want to hear about the status of construction projects on campus. Clearly, I’m going to articulate that we’re constructing new buildings because we’re invested in our students’ success and because we are premier. I’m going to articulate that new buildings help make us a great value. But, I will also need to articulate why we selected these projects, who they will serve, and what our remaining financial needs are.
Know your audience
Who is attending your presentation and what is their shared belief or purpose? While it goes without saying that this is critical information, it may be less obvious about to use the information to get back on track. One example is to bridge with something like this: “I’m mindful that we all share a passion for education and the opportunity it brings to students to change their lives. This common belief is what brought us together today.”
At this point you can drop in a quick anecdote related to one of your key take away points.
There are a number of student stories that I can tell by heart — and I can tell them either in depth or with brevity. If the projector bulb has died, I’m likely in a situation where I’ll have to conclude without getting my multimedia presentation back at all. This will necessitate a longer ad lib. If I’ve lost my place, sharing a short anecdote from memory should give me enough time to overcome my senior moment.
So, if I’m talking to a service group who shares an interest in helping those in need, I might share Selina’s story like this:
“This seems like the perfect time for me to tell you about Selina Jaimes Davila, who has experienced booth food and housing insecurity during her studies.” The amount of detail I share would depend on if I am changing course or simply getting back onto my original path.
A variant of this is telling the story of someone in the audience or simply pausing to acknowledge or thank them. Like this:
“While I’m thinking about how invaluable community support is to the success of our students, I really want to pause and thank Walter. I don’t know if everyone here knows that he’s an alumnus of the college, but I’m certain we’re all aware of his generosity. Walt, for your decades of service on our Foundation board: thank you!”
Exiting a story is a graceful time for a reset and, in most cases, this is when the audiences will be forgiving if you need to shuffle notecards or turn pages at that juncture of a presentation.
The next time you’re asked to present, try adding your ad lib anecdote into your preparation routine. It’s easy to tell these types of stories as an aside while PowerPoint restarts or even an escape route that provides a strong finish if you’re never quite able to recover your words.