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10 Steps to Verbal Virtuosity

Garage.com storyteller Chris Melching trains upper-level execs and would-be Internet CEOs in the art of presentation, but her suggestions can make anyone a smooth talker.

Chris Melching knows how to polish a presentation. As an independent executive coach, she told Silicon Valley higher-ups where to put their pauses. Now as Garage.com’s storyteller, she teaches would-be CEOs how to work their transitions and how to pick which stories to incorporate into their speeches. First and foremost, though, Melching preaches the ABCs — audience, bonding, and communication. The ten tips that follow were taken from “Perfecting Your Pitch” — a talk she gave at Garage.com’s recent Bootcamp for Startups in Boston.

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1. Know your audience.

Whether you’re interviewing for a new job, pitching your freelancing skills to a new client, or selling your business plan to a hard-hearted bunch of venture capitalists, follow this rule: Do your homework. Go online and find out what the company does. Ask friends and acquaintances if they know anyone who works there. Pinpoint the important people and what kinds of issues they’ll be listening for. Research the VCs and their portfolios. Then show you know; tune your talk to your audience.

2. Bond.

Charm is a key part of success. From formal speeches to casual lunches, talking with people is about warmth. Chat them up, but don’t make it up — if you know nothing about sports, don’t talk sports. Be genuine. If you have a quirky personality, let that come through.

3. Be flexible.

Your research isn’t done when you walk in the door. Use your bonding time to get more information. Ask informal questions. Have an agenda that’s flexible enough to reflect what you hear and to answer the questions — or to placate the fears — that your probing uncovers.

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4. Learn from the pros

Professional speakers play with their voices. They speed up their cadence and slow it down, pump up the volume and drop to a low whisper. Listen to them. What makes you tune out? How does a speaker reel you back in? People want to hear a variety of speeds, inflections, and volumes. Listen for timing too. In a pitch or speech, you’ll want to get a strong start. It’s much easier to slow down later. Practice where to speed up your momentum and where to slow down.

5. Tell relevant stories.

Stories draw in an audience and keep them interested. After I speak, it doesn’t matter on what, people always approach me — to discuss my friend, Monya, a 96-year-old Russian woman whose stories I use in every talk. We all love stories — just like when we were kids and “once upon a time” made our eyes get so big.

“Once upon a time” now signifies something different, as in, “Once upon a time I had an interview there …” Don’t expect an audience to indulge a pointless story. Make sure that each story you weave into your talk has a point, and make sure that an audience will see that point. Ask yourself, Why do I want to tell this story? What’s the purpose? If the point isn’t clear, drop it.

6. Pause.

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Too many people talk too much too often. Force yourself to take time to pause. While you’re at it, develop a poker face. Silence has incredible power: It lets your audience absorb what you’ve said, and it adds drama. If you’ve developed a poker face, it gives you a chance to recover. Sometimes I completely forget where I am. So I stop. And people say, “What a good pause.”

7. Work on transitions.

A good speaker knows where he’s going at all times. If you’ve got 3 points to make or 12 slides to cover, practice moving from one to the next. A transition can be as simple as a rhetorical question that leads into your next point. Or, take that question and turn it into a statement. You can bridge topics with stories or build from one topic to the next. Work on the transitions, or you may sound lost in your own talk.

8. Create bookends.

This falls under the old adage, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Bookends bracket an important idea, making longer explanations easier to digest. Think about your presentation as a book with characters, chapters, and themes. Stories provide the characters, transitions divide the chapters, and bookends highlight the themes.

Sketch out your talk on a piece of paper. I start with the ending: What should people walk away with? Then I introduce those points up front. Finally, I fill in the middle. Give your theme a tag line, then explain it, and end with a brief review. You don’t have to repeat the same words — bookends can be quite artful.

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9. Practice, practice, practice.

Buy a stopwatch and a tape recorder. Time yourself saying your mission statement, pitching your services, or answering interview questions. Whittle down your responses to 30 seconds each. Record yourself and play back. Experiment with speed, volume, and well-timed pauses.

Get a few friends together and give them your speech, or get them to grill you. Review your performance. Listen to what they think works and what doesn’t.

Finally, see for yourself. This one’s excruciating, but it pays off. Get a video camera and record yourself. Whether it’s a pitch, a speech, or interview questions, practice it over and over from beginning to end.

10. Communicate your passion.

You craft your story, build your pitch, design little stories that reinforce your points, and sprinkle in silences. If you can prepare all that, you’re well on you way. But the proof of any talk is in the passion. You must change your audience’s pulse. And to do that, you must show your passion.

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