performance prep

Our extensive guide to the preparation phase for any great talk, performance or keynote speech

table of contents

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1. Introduction: Everything you need to know about getting ready to be an exceptional communicator

We all know the old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Some of our mothers drummed this into our heads — especially before job interviews!

Today’s “influencer” market looks totally different than it did 30 years ago, but lift the lid a little and you’ll see that for the most part, when it comes to first impressions, things are really no different now.

If anything, in fact, audience engagement is even more important today, especially with the sweeping advent of technology and social media and the constant exposure to channels such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.

Many of us can be forgiven for feeling as if we are always “on”.

As communicators and speakers, once we choose to participate in this digital / social media world, we expect to be noticed, watched, rated and even judged for anything we choose to send into the world.

We are constantly representing ourselves, whether it’s in business meetings, giving presentations, speaking at industry conferences (real world or online in this increasingly virtual world), fundraising for our startup businesses.

Even just the simple act of sharing a news item to LinkedIn is representing ourselves.

There’s almost no escape from it.

Unless we choose to absent ourselves from the standard conventions of the modern business and corporate world — and there’s no doubt that option will be appealing for some — we have to present ourselves well, or we risk losing out to the competition.

So how might we prepare ourselves in advance? How can we set ourselves up for success, to ensure we are representing ourselves well whenever we are presenting ourselves to the world?

This guide runs through several tips, techniques and frameworks so you can do the prep work as well as you possibly can.

Enjoy!

The first impression

2. The key to a first impressions that lasts: Three ways to grab your audience before you say a word

Audience engagement

In this day and age there’s no excuse for not grabbing an audience from the minute you step up to the plate (as Michelle Villalobos does so expertly here!).

To give yourself an edge, here’s a few tips to help you with audience engagement and give yourself the best possible chance of winning over any audience to your charms.

1. Homework needs to be done

Advance homework can be anything from rehearsing your presentation or speech to knowing your audience before you step on stage.

Every piece of preparation you do will reap dividends if you do it clearly and strategically.

So, craft your message.

Practice your delivery. In front of a mirror. On camera. On tape.

Ask yourself two questions about your audience:

  • Who is my audience?
  • Why should they listen to me?

Because remember this.

Audiences are selfish.

They are always asking themselves “What’s in it for me?”, and if they don’t hear it in at most the first 30 seconds — and increasingly that timeframe is getting shorter and shorter — they’ll be unconsciously looking for the first opportunity to tune you out.

2. Think about the intro

If you get to present on a regular basis for your company or at international meetings, presentations, or conferences, you’ll more than likely be introduced by someone else.

If at all possible, try to have the top dog introduce you.

When at all possible, have that person be the highest person in the company.

This will give you automatic street cred with an audience that may not know you. It will ensure audience engagement from the outset.

If it’s not possible to get the highest profile person in the company or organisation to introduce you, actively seek out the next best option.

You owe this to yourself, and your audience.

Basically this means get a client or someone the audience knows to introduce you.

Remember, audiences trust what they know. People trust what is familiar to them.

So if someone gets up there and speaks from the heart about you and what you’ve done to make a difference in their professional life, you’ll already have scored points with the audience in the credibility department before you even open your mouth.

3. Harness social media power for “the law of six”

Never underestimate the power of social media.

These days people typically meet each other on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or even YouTube before they see each other in the flesh.

There are so many social platforms to choose from and if we go by the law of 6 that advertisers follow — it takes 6 “Yes’s” to make a sale — then hitting your perspective audience in six different ways across social media will let them know who you are and make them familiar with your accomplishments before you meet them.

You are branding yourself.

LinkedIn, webinars, Facebook Live, direct mail, event hashtags, Instagram, YouTube⸺all these are kosher forms of contact for reaching out to your audience before you meet them.

Warm-up exercises

3. Put your speaking voice through its paces with a vocal warm-up

Vocal Warm-Up

Joe Duffy is the presenter of Ireland’s most popular radio talk show, Liveline.

Duffy is a natural on microphone, but he does a daily vocal warm-up before he goes on air.

In an interview with the Irish Times newspaper, Duffy talked about his daily vocal warm-up routine, when he goes into the bathroom for his vocal exercises.

Why does Duffy — or anyone — need a vocal warm-up, you might ask?

To prepare himself both vocally and mentally for the show ahead.

Every day he has a ritual, he says.

“I go into the loo at 1.30pm to wash my face, do a few vocal exercises and say two words to myself: ‘libel’ and ‘entertainment’.

(“Entertainment” is obvious enough. “Libel” because Liveline is a live phone-in talk-show where anything can happen, and often does!)

Now, you might not be speaking live every day to hundreds of thousands of people.

But if you’re talking or presenting in any way, you should do a vocal warm-up too.

Here’s why.

Why does a vocal warm-up matter?


For physical fitness endeavours, whether it’s a jog or playing any sport, a warm-up is always recommended.

It’s a good way to prepare, to improve performance, and prevent injury to yourself.

Funnily enough, the same applies when you use your voice.

Typically we don’t think about our voice as a muscle — but it is. We don’t think of presenting as a dynamic activity that uses many muscles, but it very much is, and these muscles need a vocal warm-up for peak performance.

A short vocal/voice warm-up improves the quality of the sounds you make and helps prevent vocal injury, keeping you in good voice and making your voice production feel better.

It will also energise your speaking voice so that you can deliver the best possible speech, pitch, or board presentation.

Not long ago I listened to a keynote speaker who was opening a conference and started with a dry, croaky, crackly voice.

He could have been so much better had he done a short vocal warm-up before taking to the stage.

A 10-minute vocal warm-up you can incorporate into your pre-presentation preparation

 

1. Wake up your body

  • Shake your shoulders and release the tension
  • Stretch out your body, pat your face, open up the chest area
  • Massage your face, jaw, shoulders, and neck
  • Stretch out your neck and roll your shoulders

2. Connect to your breath

  • Place a hand on your lower belly. Sigh out one breath on a ‘fffffff’ sound.
  • Allow your belly to relax and the breath to become centred
  • Speak one sentence with the focus on your breath

3. Resonators/Articulation

  • Do a soft palate stretch by breathing in and out on a ‘ka’ sound)
  • Do some tongue stretches. Keep the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth and then stretch out the body of the tongue towards the roof of your mouth (check this)
  • Articulation the sounds ‘puh-tuh-kuh-tah’ and ‘guh-duh-buh-duh’
  • Say a few tongue twisters aloud. “Peter Piper” or “Pheasant Plucker” both do the trick!

4. Short Sharp Sniffs

  • Breath up one nostril and out the other. Repeat this three times.

5. Try some gentle humming and intoning

  • A little like this.

6. Do a 2-minute Superman/Superwoman stance

  • Have a listen to this video for guidance on superhero pose

"Er, what time is it?"

4. Send the dreaded “bed voice” packing

Bed Voice

Have you ever overslept, and rushed into a meeting or a webinar?

Maybe it was a last minute conference call, or an unexpected phone call from your boss?

Even if you are lucky enough to be one of those people who snap into alert mode as soon you wake up — I wish I was one of those people! — we’ve all had moments where our voice seems to fail to catch up with our brain. It’s sometimes referred to as our “bed voice”.

You know what I mean. That flat, heavy, sluggish voice when we’ve just rolled out from under the duvet…

A client I worked with on our one-to-one programmes had a high-profile role where she was required to speak regularly on early morning live radio.

She was always ultra-conscious of her “bed voice”, and was keen to know how to shake it off.

So, in a nutshell, here’s how.

1. Quench that thirst


One of the primary reasons for “bed voice” is simply down to the fact that you (and your voice) are dehydrated after sleep.

Dehydrated muscles work a little slower and a little more sluggishly.

So drink a glass of water.

Coffee, although it may be more tempting, won’t have the same positive effect.

2. Give yourself the good vibrations


Place your hands on your head and hum a gentle ‘mmmm’ sound.

Put the focus of the hum into the top of your head until you feel vibrations in your head.

Repeat this a few times.

3. Time for a hum-a-long


Think of the scales on a piano, where you might start on the lowest note and slowly go through the keys.

Your voice is a comparable instrument and you will also benefit from some vocal scales up and down your pitch range.

Gently and slowly hum/glide your way up to the highest note you can go (taking care not to push or force it).

Repeat this exercise a few times.

4. Luscious lips


Place your fingertips on your lips (palm faced in) and again gently hum a ‘mmmm’ sound.

Feel the vibrations or tingly sensations on your lips and the surrounding area.

Repeat a few times, and feel your bed voice start to disappear.

5. Give yourself a face massage


Give your entire face a massage.

All of it: your cheeks, your lips, your forehead, and your nasal area.

In other words awaken your face, stretch your mouth and have a good yawn.

Interested in even more about vocal warm-ups?

This is a fantastic talk from Julian Treasure on how you can warm up your voice for best effect.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIho2S0Zah

Mind work

5. Understanding the psychology of confidence

Psychology of Confidence

Power brings confidence, it’s true.

But the reverse is also applicable.

Confidence brings power.

A fascinating report into recent psychological research studies shows that when people are in positions of power, they feel more positive and speak more confidently.

These scientific trials, led by social psychology researchers at San Diego State University, have documented a shift in vocal quality as people move from positions of lower status to positions of higher status in their field.

So when we find a way to feel more secure and self-assured, it affects how we sound.

The psychology of confidence research


Here’s more from the researchers themselves.

Sei Jin Ko, a social psychology researcher at SDSU, explains that over 100 college students came into their lab to have themselves recorded, starting with a recording of their everyday voices.

They were then asked to imagine a scenario involving the purchase of a new car.

Some people were told they were in a position of high power. They possessed inside information, or they many other offers to choose from. Meanwhile, other participants in the study were told they had very little power.

Both groups were then recorded reading the same text out loud.

Researchers took the recordings and looked for differences between the two groups by analyzing acoustical features, such as pitch, resonance and intensity.

It turned out that feelings of power are reflected in people’s voices, says Ko.

Over to Sei Jin Ko to explain.

[The text] was something to the effect of, ‘I’m glad we’re meeting today to discuss this, we have a few differences that we’ll need to iron out before we come to an agreement,’ something like that.

“When you put them in the situation, their voices change. I think that’s very, very exciting and quite powerful, shall we say — no pun intended.”

What we can glean from this is obvious.

In short, self-talk works.

Merely by telling yourself you’re in a position of authority can create a significant uptick in how confident you sound.

We hear a lot about negative self-talk, and that’s real and genuine. But positive self-talk is equally applicable.

Just by setting a little intention, you can give yourself every chance, not just of sounding confident and powerful, but of actually being confident and powerful.

Don't phone it in

6. The five-minute phone voice checklist

telephone voice

What does your phone voice really say about you?

Have you ever given it a second thought?

If not, you probably should.

Because how you sound on the phone can have a big impact on how you’re viewed … and ultimately that can make a big difference to your bottom line, both in your career and your personal life.

Not long ago I was working with a group of consultants who present formally on a regular basis.

These presentations can be face-to-face, either in a meeting room or on a stage in front of a bigger audience.

But often the presentations take place via teleconference.

What was most interesting to me was that they didn’t really give a second thought to how they sounded down the phone line.

That did not apply when they were presenting in real life. On those occasions, when they were in physical proximity to their audience, they were hugely aware of their vocal impact.

But on the phone? Not so much.

One individual received a big shock and got a real insight into his communication style.

When he heard his “conference call” played back to him, he discovered just how badly his phone voice was serving him.

He realised, with some force, that he had unconsciously placed zero importance on his telephone vocal delivery.

He wanted to engage and influence his listener, but had not acknowledged that working to improve his phone voice was an important step.

Over the telephone — and this increasingly applies in our virtual work world — your voice plays a massive role since there is obviously no physical presence.

And still many people often don’t give it a second thought.

Improving your phone voice: A 5-minute checklist

  1. Posture: Sit correctly or even better stand up, it helps breathing, and vocal quality. A collapsed body = a collapsed voice.
  2. Slow down: Remember it’s your listeners first time to hear your message, so respect them!
  3. Clarity: Give appropriate weight and clarity to your words, otherwise you’ll be asked to repeat yourself
  4. Pause: Remember to pause to allow the listener to digest your message. Pause and breathe, it’s very important! (For more on this, check out our in-depth blogs on the importance of pause and the importance of breath.)
  5. Vocal Presence: Stay connected to your message, do not simply “go through the motions” (we’ve all been on the receiving end of that).
  6. Volume: Ensure you increase your volume to an appropriate level. Use appropriate pitch and pace variation to engage your listener.
  7. Smile: Even if you’re not visible, when it’s appropriate, smile! It brightens and lightens the voice.

Listen back: Take a moment right now, take out your phone and listen back to your own phone answer message. You know the one, that usually goes something like “Hi, you’ve reached … …,  I can’t take your call right now… blah blah.” There are three C’s you can follow here. First, feel to cringe. Then critique. Then change it, if necessary!

Quick recap

In conclusion

I hope this guide to preparation for any presentation, talk, speech, pitch or conference call has been helpful for you.

We’ve gone over how to make a great first impression.

We went through the dreaded bed voice you might know all about, and the phone voice that many people don’t even consider.

We discussed a five-minute vocal warm-up routine, and talked about the psychology of confidence.

There are lots more guides and resources available over here.

If you’d like to receive more hands-on support and guidance from Confident Speak, you can find all our programs over here.