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Talking the Talk

March 12, 2012

Emily Briggs


It might seem a bit odd to start my sustainability skill collection with gravitas and communications. Some would argue that being a breathtaking public speaker and presenter are qualities that every professional should have. And I couldn’t agree more. But there are two things I want to emphasize:

1)    Really compelling public speakers are few and far between
2)    Sustainability professionals have a unique responsibility to foster understanding, create buy-in and engage a wide array of stakeholders

As such, an articulate, energizing sustainability communicator is a priceless asset. Whether they’re creating the business case for sustainability to the C-suite, integrating sustainability across functional areas of an organization, developing business with new clients or training employees on what sustainability means to them, impeccable communication skills are paramount. So with that in mind, I set out to collect my first sustainability skill.

The Plan
•    Step 1: Attend a workshop on public speaking
•    Step 2: Inspire myself with a little gravitas
•    Step 3: Lead my group’s midterm briefing presentation

Step 1: Attend a Workshop on Public Speaking
To begin, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on Public Speaking: Strategy and Delivery; the first in a new series offered by the Earth Institute. In an evening session packed with students, the eloquent Joann Baney took to the stage and graced us with a few insights.

Firstly, feeling anxiety before making a speech is normal. According to Joann, public speaking is considered to be the no. 1 fear in the United States – more frightening than financial problems and even death (yikes)!

When it comes to interpersonal communication, Joann reminded us that:

•    55% of what’s communicated is non-verbal (body language, stance, gestures, eye contact, dress, touch)
•    38% of what’s communicated is vocal (the sound of your voice, volume, rate, intonation, pitch, enunciation)
•    And a measly 7% of what’s communicated is the actual words you say

So how do we overcome our fears and present comfortably, professionally and with confidence? Here are some of Joann’s pointers:

•    Decouple your visible and invisible nervous symptoms. The good news is most nervous symptoms aren’t visible to the audience, so despite your sweaty palms or racing heart, you can still present with confidence.
•    Be sure not to slouch, cross your arms or place your hands on your hips.
•    Get a sense of what your natural gesturing style is by watching yourself in front of a mirror.
•    Make eye contact. We’re a very heavy eye-contact culture because we consider it a mark of honesty, credibility and forthrightness. Before you get up to speak, search for friendly faces in different places in the audience and focus your gaze on them.
•    Remember that your voice is a wind instrument. In general, lower voices tend to command more authority, so record yourself and get to know how you sound. Do you add filler words (“um, er, like, you know, sooo, okay, now, ah“)? If so, when do you do it? Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Linearly? Anecdotally? Tangentially?
•    And ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS rehearse out loud before the day of your presentation. This will help you untangle any knots before you get up in front of a live audience.

Joann’s presentation was rich with helpful advice. My biggest takeaway was that being a compelling speaker starts with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Once you can develop a keen (and ideally objective) understanding of your natural strengths and weaknesses, then the hard work is done. All that remains is coming up with a customized blend of tools to help you improve and a lot of practice.

Step 2: Inspire Myself with a Little Gravitas
Later in the week, I found myself at Barnard College for a meeting with the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. For those of you in New York City, Athena offers an impressive selection of professional workshops designed for women leaders, including one by Raleigh Meyer – a self-proclaimed gravitas guru (how cool does that sound?). Curious, I sat down to Raleigh’s presentation (see below) in which she elaborates on the six elements of creating good, gravitas-y impressions with an audience.


Above and beyond the content of Raleigh’s presentation, what I found interesting was simply watching her delivery. I noticed  that she uses the speed and tone of her voice very intentionally, she gestures often but not excessively and she smiles at her audience, almost as if she’s inviting them to engage with her.

Step 3: Lead My Group’s Briefing Presentation
All of these tips and tricks were wonderful, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. So when the opportunity arose to deliver a presentation about my group consulting project to faculty and students at the Earth Institute, I jumped at the chance to put myself to the test. Here’s how the magic unfolded:

  • The project is technical to say the least, so the group and I distilled the key messages we wanted the audience to remember.
  • I prepared an initial draft and presented it live to my group (with my notes in hand). We all provided our feedback and edited the presentation until we were satisfied.
  • I presented a dry run in front of our faculty advisor and my group. It was very well received, although we made some additional changes to the ordering of the content and refined how some of the more technical information was presented.
  • Once everything was in its place, I practiced and practiced and practiced. I practiced in front of the mirror, I practiced in front of the video recorder and I practiced out loud on my walks to campus. I even snuck into the auditorium where the final briefing would happen and practiced to an empty room!

On the evening of the actual presentation, I felt comfortable knowing that I had mastered my content and was prepared (thanks in no small part to the support and patience of my group). When I got up in front of the audience, the smiling faces and approving nods gave me the courage to channel my inner gravatista (my new favorite made-up word) and everything else just seemed to flow naturally. And while I was still pretty nervous, all of my practice really helped me trust myself to find my words, deliver the presentation confidently and make my team proud.

Have you ever had to make an important presentation? How do you prepare? Does public speaking come to you naturally? What do you think makes a presentation flawless? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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  1. March 13, 2012

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the note! Joann also mentioned our tendencies to pay attention at the start and end of presentations (she depicted this with an upside-down bell curve with time:x and attention:y). She suggested that one way of retaining your audience’s attention is to use verbal signals to help your audience retain the most important pieces of information. Some examples she gave were: “What I’d really like to draw your attention to … If you take away one key message from this presentation, it is …. There are three salient conclusions I’d like you to remember … The most important finding is …” etc. Another very important piece of advice was to try and avoid being scheduled to present in the middle of a long list of presenters and/or directly after lunch.

    Thanks for pointing me in Patrick Renvoisé’s direction. I’ll be sure to look into the concepts he uses.

    Warmly, Emily

  2. March 12, 2012

    From my days in client presentations and sales, I will never forget the key concepts of Neuromarketing as presented by Patrick Renvoisé. When you understand what is making us pay attention second-to-second from something of a scientific perspective, you’ll never look at presentations the same way again. A small snippet of the wisdom concerns the human tendency to remember the beginning and ending of something, but rarely the middle. Brains are constantly seeking ways to conserve energy. How to surmount? Create little mini-beginnings by “waking the brain up” – it could be a raising/lowering of lights, the introduction of a periodic prompting sound. Try it, it works better than anything I’ve ever tried to improve my delivery!

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