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20/09/2017 – Leadership / Public Speaking / Toastmasters International

Words needn’t fail us

Many people hold a mortal dread of public speaking, and many of those that make it through a speech leave their audience bored rigid or lost. Indeed, knowing how to get to the point in a presentation – and when to expand – is something of an art form. Paul Carroll of Toastmasters International divulges the trade secrets on delivering an engaging presentation.


Getting to the point during a business presentation takes some discipline.  We’re fond of padding examples with details that seem important to us.  The risk is that the speaker makes it confusing for the audience rather than achieving the goal of informing or persuading.  On the other hand, we cannot treat every subject only in outline – there are times when detail is important.

To get your message across effectively and know when to say more, here are my tips.


Audience research


Part of the work in getting to the point is deciding which details to leave out.  This of course, requires you to know your audience.

If it's a new client, you'll have to do your research.  However, if you're addressing a large group it’s harder to get a steer.  Always ask the organisers in advance.  Getting to the venue as early as possible means you’ll be able to acquire information (or confirmation) from audience members about what they’re expecting to get out of your presentation.


Trimming the fat


Most importantly, know what message you want to get across so you can cut superfluous detail.


Consider how much detail is necessary for people to understand your message. In a speaking workshop, l asked an accountant to give me an example of a personal accounting achievement. He said he saved his own building (a co-operative owned by the tenants) US$40,000 on a US$250,000 renovation job.  But before he told me about the saving, he spoke at length about the characters of various builders, how some of the tenants wanted one kind of garden entrance and some wanted another, how these groups had squabbled, even the fight over paint colours!


I asked him to rewrite this example and, as he came to each tangent, to ask himself “How important is this background-detail? Is this detail about the garden entrance necessary for the audience to understand how I saved 16 per cent on this contract?” The details had all felt important to him but most of them didn’t add to our understanding of where he made his savings.  When he had a second go at giving his presentation the point was clear to an audience of non-accountants.  


Room for expansion


The vexing question is this: when does a detail stop being extraneous? Answer: when someone asks you to expand on a point.


Of course, the opening of a presentation will have an outline so that the audience knows where you're heading.  In the body of the talk leaving out extraneous detail is important for clarity.  That's a judgement call for the presenter.


But when someone asks you a question, the question as it’s put to you should indicate which details are necessary for your answer.  This allows you to tailor your response whilst achieving maximum impact from what you say.  Knowing your audience means you can anticipate some lines of questioning in advance and be prepared for them.


For instance, let's assume you’re a food producer selling a seasonal line to retailers.  In giving your presentation, you might say "All our ingredients are ethically sourced".  Your audience of retailers should already have an idea of what that means, so you won't need to go into depth.  But someone may want clarification or confirmation and ask: "Can you expand on that point?"


Clarify line of questioning


This question doesn't indicate which details your customer wants to hear but you can clarify it.  Do you mean ‘How do we choose suppliers’? or ‘How do we guarantee that the goods meet certain standards?’


If the question relates to standards you could say: "We get certification from Fair Trade International that the producers of ingredients farmed in the developing world received fair payment.  We get certification from the Soil Association that the ingredients are organically grown and processed.  We get certification from the Marine Stewardship Council that all our fish, like smoked salmon, is 'line caught'."


In the main body of your talk you wouldn’t go into detail on every product you sell, but since someone asked about ethical sourcing you had the details to back up your point.  If further details are sought about who the producers are and how long they've been certified, you should have access to that information.  But you don't need to supply it unless that further question is asked.


Metaphor is an excellent tool


Finding an appropriate metaphor is an excellent way to reinforce a point and present information in a different way.  The role of metaphor is to explain the abstract in terms of the concrete and the new in terms of the familiar. 


Once I attended a talk on the spread of disease, the rapid evolution of germs and how they work.  My question was why some germs are devastating but harder to catch while others are mild but easier to catch.  The speaker was a biologist – I’m not.  When she said: "Nature is a ruthless economist", it made the point clear to me very quickly.  Germs are tiny and have limited energy and so must evolve and develop one capacity or another in order to reproduce.  Since I was working in finance, the metaphor of nature being an economist seeking to make efficient decisions made sense to me.  


Maintain focus via active language


A classic trick people use to avoid taking responsibility is to use the passive voice.  You'll hear "Mistakes were made" rather than “I was wrong”.  But when you need action you must use active language.  If you say: “This should be done”, there’s a question about who the doer will be.  “You need to do this” is unambiguous. 


With a call to action in a presentation through use of the active voice, it's very clear that I'm addressing you and that I'm making a direct recommendation to you.  To put it succinctly, if you want your audience to take notice and take action, use the active voice.


Wrapping it up


In summary, the required skill set for a successful presenter who can use detail to good effect are as follows: 

1.  Knowing your audience and focusing on their needs

2.  Knowing your material 

3.  Paying attention to what's being asked in questions and clarifying when necessary 

4.  Using metaphors for explanation and for making your message stick

5.  Deciding which details are needed for the audience to understand each point and follow the flow of your presentation.


By keeping it clear and to the point, you have room to expand on points if and when you are asked, rather than swamping your presentation with unnecessary detail.


Paul Carroll is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.  Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s members today exceed 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs across 142 countries.


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