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25+ Professional Resources for Improving Your Presentation Skills

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According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. —American comedian Jerry Seinfeld

So, which person are you? Would you rather be the one in the casket or the one delivering the eulogy? If you're like a lot of freelancers, the supine position assumed by the deceased is your preference.

But it doesn't have to be this way. You're like everyone else when it comes to presentation skills. You weren't born with them. None of us were.

The good news is that you can improve your presentation skills.

What's in it for you?

Where will improved presentation skills get you? Let's imagine that you've been invited to a potential client's office. The project being discussed could be quite the addition to your portfolio. A real career-maker. And you're not the only freelancer being considered.

What got those people onto the speakers list? Their expertise. What keeps getting them invited back to conferences, year after year? Their presentation skills.

Next, let's think about the potential client, who has invited her company's top management to sit in. Who do you think the company is going to contract with? The freelancer who stutters and stammers through the meeting, or the one who stands confidently in front of the group, makes a well-rehearsed presentation, and gracefully handles all questions? My money's on Freelancer Number Two.

Or picture this scenario: You're at a conference. As you peruse the speakers list, you notice a lot of people who do the same work you do. You use your tablet to view their portfolios and conclude that they're no brighter or talented than you are. But they're up in front of the room, addressing hundreds of people. Cue up that green monster named Jealousy.

What got those people onto the speakers list? Their expertise. What keeps getting them invited back to conferences, year after year? Their presentation skills.

If you had those skills, maybe you could become one of those industry leaders who speaks at conferences. And get bigger, juicier projects than the ones you're working on now. Think of it this way: become a better speaker, make more money. There are loads of useful resources that will help in this article.

Organizations and Classes

The two organizations I'm about to recommend have been around for, oh, forever.

Suggesting that you check them out may make me sound like that older relative who kept inviting you to those weekly lodge meetings where everybody wore funny hats. Sure, the lodge was okay for Uncle Arnold, but it's just not for you.

Bear with me for a moment.

First on my recommend list is Toastmasters International, which has more than 270,000 members and 13,000 clubs around the world. Membership dues are $36 for a six-month period.

Toastmasters meetings feature workshops that will help you develop leadership and speaking skills. There's no instructor, just a group of members eager to give you honest feedback.

Some people join Toastmasters for just the amount of time it takes to improve their public speaking. Others stay for decades. The choice is yours.

Tip: If you're not into joining organizations and going to meetings, try Jeff Slutsky's book, The Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Dale Carnegie Training is named for American salesman and motivational book author Dale Carnegie. Among other books, Carnegie wrote the bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence People.

In addition to covering public speaking, Dale Carnegie Training shows students how to improve their interpersonal skills, manage stress, and move into leadership roles.

On a personal note, a friend took Dale Carnegie and later became an instructor. He said that the training was instrumental in helping him rise to a senior management position in the Arizona Department of Transportation.

If Toastmasters and Dale Carnegie seem a bit too old school for you, here are three other ideas:

Idea #1: Take an acting class. You may not have Broadway or Hollywood in your future, but maybe you need to improve your speaking voice, reduce your accent, work on your diction, or adjust your stance and movements. Acting classes can be found in community colleges, adult education programs, and in freestanding schools. You'll find a lot of these schools in entertainment industry hotbeds like Los Angeles and New York.

Count on not being very pleased with your first Ignite performance. But you will feel motivated to go back and improve.

Idea #2: How about a little trial by fire? Step up to the Ignite stage! The slogan of Ignite, “enlighten us – but make it quick,” should give you some idea of what you're in for. As an Ignite speaker, you're given five minutes to speak on any topic that you're passionate about.

You'll be talking to the accompaniment of 20 slides that you've created, and they'll be advanced for you. Oh, did I mention that you can't use a script?

Count on not being very pleased with your first Ignite performance. But you will feel motivated to go back and improve.

Idea #3: Does your freelancer website have a case studies section? Do you yearn to share those case studies at meetings with prospective clients? Might want to rethink that vocabulary. Unless your prospects are business school professors, the term “case study” is deadly dull. Instead, tell stories.

If your community has regular storytelling events, go and observe. Sign up to tell a story of your own. It's doubtful that the audience will want to hear about how your website redesign increased a client's sales by 15%, but you never know. If you can make that story entertaining, you might be the hit of the evening. You might develop a reputation as that web designer with the great stories. Just the kind of person that people want to do business with.

If you're in some corner of the earth without storytelling resources nearby, then get yourself over to Doug Lipman's Story Dynamics website. Be sure to sign up for his free newsletter.

Before we leave this topic, be aware that the business world has discovered storytelling in a big way. This has led to the publication of quite a few books, including these:

Helpful Public Speaking Books

Library Speed Tip: If you're on a tight budget, permit me to recommend a free resource that's available to everyone: The library.

Looking for public speaking books? If your library uses the Dewey Decimal System, the magic number is 808.5. If you're dealing with the U.S. Library of Congress Classifications, head over to the PN4121 section of the stacks.

And now, let's take a look at seven helpful books...

  • Sock Power! How about some presentation advice from an image consultant who's worked with TV news stars like Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather, and six Presidents of the United States? You can do no better than Lillian Brown's book, Your Public Best. First published in 1992 and now in its second edition, this book gives insider tips on public appearances that range from meetings to national television. Martha's Favorite Brown-ism: If you've ever wondered how to stand properly when giving a presentation, do what Lillian Brown says and talk to us from the bottom of your socks. Try it and feel the power.
  • For Budding Politicos. Lillian Brown is also well-known in governmental circles for being the author of "The Polished Politician: The Political Candidate's Personal Handbook". If running for office is in your future, add this book to your reading list. It would also be good to have if you go on a lot of sales calls.
  • Be like Abe. While we're talking about politicians, one of my former coworkers is now a seven-term Minnesota state representative. For this reading list, she suggests Speak like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History's Greatest Speakers.
  • PowerPoint. There. I said it. While the slideshow software from Microsoft is ubiquitous in the business world, it's seldom used well. If you don't want to be accused of perpetrating death by PowerPoint, read Carlton Casler and Joe Weldon's book, Presentation Excellence: 25 Tricks, Tips & Techniques for Professional Speakers and Trainers.
  • Hot Gossip! If you'd like some celebrity gossip with your public speaking advice, you'll enjoy reading what Renée Grant-Williams has to say about Garth Brooks in Voice Power: Using Your Voice to Captivate, Persuade, and Command Attention. (Briefly, Brooks struggled mightily before becoming a country music superstar.) This book has some of the best breathing advice I've ever read. (Yes, proper breathing is important.)
  • An Out-of Print Book That's Worth Tracking Down. Got an impatient client? An in-a-hurry prospect who graciously granted you a few minutes of his time? Ron Hoff's book, "Say It in Six: How to Say Exactly What You Mean in Six Minutes or Less", is your salvation.
  • Ready to Turn Pro? Okay, conference-goer we met back at the beginning of this article. You got so jealous of those industry luminaries that you decided to become one. If you're serious about the business of speaking, then get Dottie and Lilly Walters' classic, Speak and Grow Rich. This one's not about getting better as a speaker, it's about getting booked as a speaker.

A Really Ugly Website That's a Great Reference

Let's just say that Teacher Joe will never win any awards for web design. But if you want a quick and comprehensive reference, head over to his Basics of Public Speaking: A Step by Step Guide to Successful Presentations.

A Good-Looking Website that Will Help You Improve Your Public Speaking, Lose Weight, Enjoy a Better Love Life, and On It Goes...

SelfGrowth.com bills itself as the “The #1 Self Improvement Site on the Internet!” And with more than 300,000 articles, you're bound to find a bumper crop devoted to public speaking.

My personal favorite? “Five Ways to Make Your Body Speak” by Lenny Laskowski. Best advice: “The most important rule for making your body communicate effectively is to be yourself. The emphasis should be on the sharing of ideas, not on the performance. Strive to be as genuine and natural as you are when you speak to family members and friends.”

Make Money by Running Your Mouth

Ever called a big company and left a message on voice mail? Notice how polished that person sounded on the recording? Well, she made some money from that gig.

You’ve developed your speaking skills to the point that you truly enjoy being in front of an audience. And people have told you that you have a good voice. So, why not use that voice to boost your bank balance?

Or let's say that you like to listen to audiobooks in the car. People get paid to record those books.

Then there are those commercials on radio and TV. Although some of the voices belong to well-known actors, most of them are just average Joes and Janes.

Who are all of these people? They're voice actors. Some of them make more money than doctors and lawyers.

Let's bring it back to you. You've developed your speaking skills to the point that you truly enjoy being in front of an audience. And people have told you that you have a good voice. So, why not use that voice to boost your bank balance?

For a good introduction to how to develop your vocal talents, I recommend The Art of Voice Acting by James Alburger. He's co-owner of the VoiceActing Academy, which offers in-person and remote classes.

Want an overview of the business of voice acting? Read Voiceovers by Terri Apple. Like Alburger, she also offers classes.

Free Voice Acting Skill-Builder: Okay, so you went to the sites linked above. You priced out the courses. And you can't afford them. Here's a voice acting exercise that you can do right now for free: Open a book. Start reading aloud from any page. And no practicing before you start. Just do it.

You'll fumble and stumble at first. But keep at it. Give yourself a few weeks and you'll amaze yourself. To the point where you'd go to an audiobook voice class with Pat Fraley or a workshop at the Famous Radio Ranch.

Your Mentorship Team

If you're serious about improving your presentation skills, you're going to need some mentors. What kinds of people should you be looking for?

  • Teachers. Doesn't matter if you're no longer in school. If you've spent five minutes around a teacher, you'll notice that he's quite good at speaking in such a way that gets people's attention. And don't make him use his teacher voice. Just don't.
  • Religious Leaders. Speaking before groups of worshippers is what they do. So, don't just attend services. Study the people up front. Take notes. Ask questions after the service.
  • Lawyers. Look for the ones who try cases in court. Persuasion is the number one item in their job description.
  • Media People. I'd recommend that you concentrate on people with a radio background, rather than TV. Why? Because on the radio, the voice is all you have.
  • Actors. They might be international stars or hometown heroes. Wherever they perform, they know how to pro-ject. And a-r-t-i-c-u-l-a-t-e.
  • Politicians. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're not going anywhere. Although it's unlikely that you know any famous politicos like the one I'll mention in the next section, you're probably acquainted with a city council member or someone else who has to run for election and re-election. Their careers depend on their speaking ability.

What do you say to these people? Easy. Just tell them that you're working on your presentation skills, and would it be okay to run a thing or two by them? Chances are good that they'll feel honored to help.

Dealing with Stage Fright

Get used to the fact that stage fright will never entirely leave you. And there are as many different ways to deal with it as there are people who get up in front of an audience.

For example, American actor Bob Hope (1903-2003) was often seen bouncing on his toes while waiting in the wings. Hope came to believe that his pre-show jitters were there to help him give the audience a better performance.

If Hope was a toe-bouncer, then a lot of other actors are pacers. If you're ever backstage, you'll see them pacing back and forth. Listen carefully, and you might here some of them practicing their lines.

Then there's U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who isn't known for dramatic displays of emotion in any situation. He has been photographed in moments of meditation before giving a speech.

Bouncing, pacing, meditating, or something else – choose whatever works for you.