The Rules of Engagement


Public speaking—at a team meeting, during a client pitch or to a large group of conference-goers—may never be your favorite professional task. However, the challenges of COVID-19, including shelter-in-place and other social-distancing practices, present a unique opportunity for individuals to gain valuable experience doing just that, as video conferencing becomes a new model for business communications across the globe.

Peter Merrett speaks at the 2019 BOMA Conference

According to Peter Merrett, BOMA Fellow, and Nan Tolbert, the best public speakers are unflappable and consistent, informative but relaxed, fully present and authentic. To resurrect a classic tagline: Those are the traits that become a public speaker most.

For the record, Merrett (pictured above at last year's BOMA International Conference & Expo), is a keynote speaker and the founder of The House of Wonderful in Sydney, Australia. Tolbert is an executive communications coach at Washington, D.C.-based The Communication Center.

Guiding Principles

Whether a newbie or a decades-old pro, whether online or face to face, the above rules of engagement apply to everybody, says Merrett. To help direct emerging professionals as well as their mentors (who should consider refreshing their usual approaches), Merrett and Tolbert offer advice to make any discussion relevant and memorable:

  • It's not about you. As a speaker, even during a team meeting, you are there to serve the audience. What are their interests, their attitudes and their expectations of you? With that in mind, you should always develop your content around “the classic audience concept—what’s in it for me?” explains Tolbert. “As long as you talk about what the audience cares about, you’ll be absolutely fascinating.”
  • PowerPoint is just a visual aid. Oftentimes, speakers fill their deck slides with an overwhelming amount of information. This common practice is distracting and overwhelming to audience members, who try to read along (and, unintentionally, not listen to you). Merrett proposes using simple deck slides “as a visual enhancement only.” However, when a formal handout or online link is necessary for follow-up, Tolbert urges individuals to “have a deck for your presentation and another one for your leave-behind.”
  • Rehearse your speech. Simply put, do not wing your presentation. “The reason we see people actively reading or clinging to their notes or their PowerPoint slide deck is because they haven’t prepared,” cautions Merrett. “An unpolished speaker who hasn’t rehearsed, practiced or prepared, with an opening that’s clunky and distracting, is a common thing.”
    Tolbert recommends practicing in front of a mirror or using video apps to capture “what you’re naturally doing well in an unnatural situation. The wonderful thing about a recording is that you can see what you’re really saying and doing, as opposed to what you think you’re doing.”
  • Know your opening.Merrett reveals he can put hours into writing and rehearsing his 30-second opening. “I know clearly and distinctly the words, the tonality, the volume,” he states. Part of this honing process is to capture the audience’s attention “for what’s about to happen and the information they’re about to receive.” However, this is also a key exercise that helps minimize any initial anxieties, which affect almost every presenter. Tolbert agrees: “Psychologists tell us that, in the moment, anxiety usually lasts only for about three minutes. Once you get past those initial three minutes, you’re a lot more comfortable.”
  • Maintain eye contact. Nerves also can diminish audience connection. “Presenters frequently turn toward their slides and start talking to their screens,” says Merrett. “The second this happens, you’ve disconnected the audience. You shouldn’t read to an audience; rather, you should share a message, using your voice as an engaging instrument.” Tolbert (pictured, below) applies a technique that, with practice, can help an individual maintain that eye contact. “When your eyes are up, your mouth is moving; when your eyes are down, your mouth is closed,” she asserts. “Never speak to an inanimate object: your laptop, your paper, the screen. Look down to capture the bullet point and what you want to say, then look up and deliver it.” When online, consciously look at the camera to sustain a connection with your fellow participants.

Mastering Your Message

There is a principle of brevity and rhythm neatly captured in the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum: Everything that comes in threes is perfect. Merrett says to employ the power of three when developing your message.

He likens a good presentation to a good story or a good movie. “There should be an intro, three sections and a conclusion,” he states. “If I’m doing a 60-minute keynote, I’ll break it into three parts. An all-day training becomes three chunks. And, in a seven-minute pitch to a client, I’ll split it into three pieces.”

Limiting a presentation’s main content to three tips, as suggested by Merrett, is a fundamental but often disregarded exercise. “The brain has an ability to receive certain amounts of information, and three is the most common number we can remember,” he explains. “If you have 10 tips, then simply weave them into your three sections, but don’t offer up 10 tips.”

Tolbert, who says she is fascinated by the neuroscience of communication, notes that the rule of three also applies during delivery of a presentation. “The brain is a difference detector,” she says. “If you want something to become more memorable, you must create contrast. Pacing, pausing and inflection are what makes the brain pay attention to what was just said. It’s also why you must be more mindful about your visuals and create slides that are easily understandable and discerning.”

The Power of Storytelling

Opening and closing remarks and all the substance in between become even more meaningful when, as mentioned earlier, a speaker remembers that a presentation is all about the audience. Storytelling, especially if listeners can relate on either a professional or personal level, will keep both you and those individuals connected.

“Why is storytelling so powerful?” asks Tolbert. “Stories trigger certain chemicals in the brain. Two that are most critical are dopamine, which is related to motivation, focus and memory, and oxytocin, which triggers trust, empathy and connection. Ask yourself: ‘Can my audience relate, and does the story reinforce my goal?’ You’re always a storyteller—even when using numbers, a quote or a rhetorical question.”

With the value storytelling brings, it is helpful to develop a variety of narratives that can be applied in different situations. Merrett carries a pocket notebook wherever he goes to capture “things that pop into my mind.” On the run, Tolbert recommends using the voice memo on a smartphone in order to trigger one’s memory later.

Your Greatest Competition

As the leader of your team meeting or client pitch, or as a keynoter during an annual conference, you might think your captive audience would be entirely captivated. Not so. No one tolerates boredom anymore, and “your greatest competitor in any presentation is the smartphone,” cautions Tolbert.

Keep interest high and eyes forward through great planning, relevant information that connects your listeners’ dots and lots of practice. Offer up your true, genuine self and be present in the moment to focus completely on your audience. After all, speakers suffer from distraction, too. Sincerity and authenticity—the real you—will make the first impression a lasting one.

The rules of engagement are simple and straightforward, just as every meeting or presentation should be. With in-depth preparation and practice, public speaking can become one of the most enjoyable and important assets in your professional toolkit.

  • Audio: Invest in a quality, yet inexpensive, desktop microphone. Attendees will quickly switch off or disengage if they cannot hear you clearly.
  • Stand up: No fancy equipment is needed. Creatively improvise to get your webcam at eye level and check your lighting before going live.
  • Start on time: Be ready to start promptly. Test everything before you begin to avoid any awkward adjustments once you are “on.”
  • Encourage interaction: Carefully plan your opening, be present and set a tone that ensures an engaging environment.
  • Have fun: It’s all about your audience! Make it an enjoyable, fun experience, no matter how serious the message.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda K. Monroe, a freelance writer and editorial project manager, is a former editorial director at BUILDINGS magazine.

This article will be published in the July/August 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine.