BY BOB MIODONSKI
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
WAILEA, HAWAII — Judging from the overflow crowd in the compact meeting room here March 20 during the annual convention of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, contractors are eager to get advice on improving their public-speaking skills.
Attorney and executive speech coach Rob Sherman obliged with a laundry list of tips during his workshop, "How to Speak Like a Leader." He acknowledged that most people are apprehensive about speaking in front of groups but told MCAA members that they should try to enjoy the experience.
"Speaking isn't the last helicopter out of Saigon," he said. "Take some risks. Take a boring subject and have some fun with it."
Speeches are a poor way to transmit information because audiences remember very little of what the speaker has to say, he said.
"How you present can be more important than what you say," Sherman said.
Not sticking strictly to the presentation in his handout — one of his speaking tips, by the way — Sherman made extensive use of volunteers from the audience and critiqued their impromptu speeches. Participants included members of MCAA student chapters; Bill Erickson, CEO of C.J. Erickson Plumbing in Alsip, Ill.; and Regional Sales Manager Joseph Notte of Bradford White Corp.
Sherman's recommendations could be organized generally into three areas: preparations for the speech, the speech itself and what not to do during the speech.
Before an event, speakers should develop a pre-speech routine to help them relax, he said. This could include deep breathing, some form of physical exercise, listening to music or arriving early to greet people in the room.
Speakers should write out their presentations completely, and then from the finished product develop an out-line. The next step is to create a keyword outline to remind the speakers of their main points without having to read the speech word for word. After that, practice the speech and then practice again, he said.
"Tell yourself you're prepared, that you'll do great," Sherman said. "No negative self-talk."
What to wear? Dress one level up from the audience, he said. Don't wear work clothes when making a speech.
How a speech begins is very important, Sherman said. He compared a speech to a newspaper article that has something in the first paragraph to grab the reader's attention.
"Start strong," he said. "Most of us start weak."
Examples of strong starts include a startling statistic, a newspaper headline, an interesting quotation, an "inyour-face" statement or asking the audience a question, Sherman said. Weak beginnings include comments about the weather, irrelevant jokes, an apology or gratuitous remarks about what a pleasure it is to be speaking here today.
Another weak start is to say, "I don't need this," and push the microphone out of the way.
"Always use the microphone," Sherman said. "It will make your voice sound better even if there are only 15 people in the room."
A monotone is the biggest problem for most speakers, he said. Speakers have to discover that their voices have different levels. Sherman urged contractors to project to the back of the room but to speak conversationally and to vary the pitch, pace and volume of their voice.
"Sound enthusiastic!" he said. "Practice your speaking voice at low-risk times when you're not involved in a high-stress presentation. You can do this when you're talking to your kids, on conference calls or at the grocery store."
Filling in pauses with "umm," "OK" and "you know" is not a good idea.
"What goes in their place? Silence," Sherman said. "Pausing and silence are a speaker's best friend."
People love to hear stories, metaphors and analogies during speeches, he said. Applying the "who cares?" test will help speakers organize their material. If a subject is one that members of the audience don't care about, speakers should avoid it.
"The magic word is 'you,'" Sherman said. "Get rid of 'I.' 'We' is OK. Emphasize the benefits to them. Listen to the room; it will tell you something."
Ending the speech on time is important. A speaker should end in 13 minutes if he is given 15 minutes for his speech, he said.
A strong ending is as essential as a good start. Examples include a call for action, a summary of the points made during the speech or a reference back to the beginning. Asking for questions from the audience can be dangerous.
"No Q-and-A at the end," Sherman said. "Nothing happens."
"The moment you get up to speak you are in a position of leadership," Sherman said. "Never forget that speaking is a learned skill. Unrealistic expectations lead to frustration. There is less pressure if you don't have to be the 'perfect' speaker."