The short answer is yes, but how you do it is very, very important. If you make your product the primary focus of your speech, or Q and A, you will bore the audience, or worse, annoy them. Nobody comes to a major conference like TED to hear a product pitch. People come to hear new ideas. You must be able to craft a dynamic, purposeful, wildly creative premise to your speech first, and then strategically weave mentions of your product into the speech as you develop your material.
Take Elon Musk’s brilliant TED Q and A. The premise of his talk is really the nature of innovation, but he manages to use his three current companies, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, as examples. It never really appears that he is promoting his companies, because his first loyalty is to his premise (the nature of innovation). As long as you prioritize your premise and keep it innovative, inclusive, and not sales oriented, then, ironically perhaps, it is safe to do a little selling.
It is completely natural to feel anxious before you speak. Why would you feel relaxed!? It can be nerve-racking to speak in front of people. We get in trouble when we fight our anxiety rather than accept it. Here are a few tips to help you control your public speaking tension:
- Develop a routine of doing some progressive relaxation each day. Take a few moments each day to close your eyes, and scan through your body noticing physical tension. Just notice. Start at your scalp and move to your toes. You may find simply bringing attention in a non-judgemental way to your physical tension helps relieve it.
- Try to reframe your anxiety rather than eliminate it. Anxiety cannot be forced away, but if we accept it is happening, we can redirect it. As anxious feelings arise, try telling yourself “I feel scared, but also excited. This is an opportunity to work on presenting.” The more you can label your fear as excitement, the better off you will be.
- If you are speaking to a large audience, see the trees for the forest! By this, I mean learn to speak to one person in the crowd at a time. This may help you to see the audience as individuals, rather than a large group, and lessen your stress.
- Consider using an icebreaker. A good icebreaker could be an interesting question, an informal poll, a well-timed joke, or a short story.
- Make small talk with your audience before you speak – idle chit-chat is a wonderful speaking tool. If your audience is small, shake hands with some folks, and ask some meaningful questions before you present. Getting to know the audience personally will turn your SPEECH into a DISCUSSION. A discussion is infinitely more relaxing than a speech.
- Slow your rate of speech down, especially at the top of the speech. Take plenty of time to breathe, and clarify your thoughts.
- Prepare thoroughly! If you know your audience and your subject inside and out, you will feel much more relaxed about presenting! Bear in mind, it’s ok to have notes in front of you as you speak.
As a speech coach in New York City, I am frequently called to help people who are preparing to moderate a panel. I often see the same two mistakes made as clients prepare; the first is making the panel discussion too long, and the second is making it too complex. Here is what you can do to avoid these critical errors.
First, make sure that you’re panel discussion is ONE HOUR, and ONE HOUR ONLY. Even the most lively panel discussion will begin to drag after an hour. Science has shown that our attention span is worse than that of a goldfish, so be sure to keep things moving!
Second, don’t muddy the water by having presentations woven into the event. If you find dynamic enough panelists, and you are careful to be sure they represent opposing viewpoints (conflict and controversy are good!), your panel should be interesting enough.
If you want to moderate a successful panel discussion, keep it simple; dynamic panelists with opposing views, great curated stories (you do the curating), and a single, simple powerpoint slide to display your event information.
It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.
As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.
I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.
Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform. She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language. She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content. But what works best in this speech are the stories. Well told stories are the lifeblood of any good speech.
I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories. Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action. With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, and her own emotional life. The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally. Just beautiful.