CityChangers have the know-how, stress-tested projects, and innovative policy ideas worth shouting about, but it takes more than being an expert to influence our peers. Captivating presentations take practice – and it’s a different discipline whether presenting in-person or online. Drawing from an illustrious career in corporate sponsorship and event management, Miriam Staley gives us her top tips for turning information into stories and talk into action.
Change-makers, as passionate as they are about the urban transition and how they achieve it, “have not necessarily learned how to tell that story in an impactful way,” Miriam Staley tells us.
Whether it’s one-on-one, in small groups, in conversation, or a presentation to thousands, the starting principles of impactful communication are always the same: “Where is your audience, where do you want to take them to, and what will get them there?”
It’s not a case of being a naturally good communicator or not; with discipline and the will to learn, we can all become more compelling speakers. Miriam takes us through the fundamentals.
Define Your Message
Aside from being a professional communications coach, voiceover artist, CEO of speaker agency Leading Minds Worldwide, and event host, Miriam is recognised by some as a former contestant on UK reality TV.
That doesn’t define her, but it is a talking point. It’s a hook!
CityChangers, too, have unique experiences that people want to hear about and lessons worth sharing.
As the expert, it can be tempting to fling everything you know at the audience. Meaningful messages start with being selective with your raw information.
Distil “content that is meaningful, relevant, tangible, applicable, and practical”, our expert advises.
Quoting Stephen Covey, Miriam recommends shaping our story by starting with the end objective in mind.
Construct your agenda by how you want the audience to feel, what you want them to know, and how you want them to act after they’ve heard you speak. Then build your narrative backwards.
Serve the Audience – Confidently
A nervous, self-conscious speaker creates an uneasy audience – and that does not make them receptive to what you have to say.
Speakers who make presenting look easy are well prepared for their moment in the spotlight. At the annual Urban Future conference, this is often the result of Miriam’s handiwork.
Our CityChanger provides speaker training in advance and session moderation at the event designed to bring out the best and most confident communicator in each presenter and panellist.
We can all do this, Miriam tells us, by shifting our focus away from the nerves we feel on to how we can serve the audience.
Approach this as if it is your duty to educate and inspire them, and any preoccupation about how you feel personally is a purely selfish distraction to be dismissed.
This altruistic perspective, Miriam finds, is “a really beautiful way of helping people overcome some of their natural stage fright”.
If you’re working on presenting a series of slides peppered with bullet points and dry statistics, forget it! “It’s the wrong forum.” Send a newsletter instead.
Being on stage is the chance to relate your story. Employ empathy and use visual language to create an emotional connection. This has two benefits:
- speech that is relatable is memorable;
- someone who cares is more likely to act.
Build this emotional link by conveying to listeners why what you’re doing is important for them individually rather than talking at a meta level about what’s best for the city.
Share tales of how you’ve tried, failed, and persevered – to keep ears engrossed, heighten the connection, and leave the audience enthusiastic to participate in whatever you have proposed long after your talk has concluded. This energy can be converted into CityChanging.
“Emotion is what translates into action.”
Remember to make use of the situation you’ve created by explaining exactly how they can make a difference. A call to action is made possible with easy-to-follow guidance.
Practice Makes Perfect
Miriam recommends watching talks online to learn from other speakers and to model your structure, tone, body language, and rhythm on the best examples. While remaining truly authentic and congruent, of course.
And, after you’ve given a presentation, ask for feedback. What do people remember about your talk? How did it make them feel? Were they engaged? This will help you understand whether your objectives were met.
Tighten what worked; improve what didn’t.
Learn by doing – again and again – and finetune your delivery each time.
As an expert in communications rather than the urban realm, Miriam claims not to be a CityChanger directly, but she shares our attitude towards failure.
She recollects a story told by self-made billionaire Sara Blakely, whose father would ask each week what she failed at.
“His belief, which I share,” Miriam continues, “is that if we’re not failing, we’re not trying hard enough.”
The climate emergency requires us to make brave decisions and deal with whatever consequences emerge – because imperfect action is better than no action.
As a speaker, you need to be ready for the risks involved in public speaking, too.
Don’t Fear Hostility
Away from the comfort of similar thinkers at Urban Future, CityChangers will at some point encounter pre-ordained negativity from an audience that is defensive and entrenched in their position.
“Most people are hostile because they’re resistant to change.”
When we encounter resistant forces, thoughtful communication can unstick the stalemate and bring detractors on side.
The process follows the same rules:
- Consider where they are.
- Understand where the hostility comes from by asking the right questions.
- Decide where you want them to be.
- Speak about new ideas in a way that makes people curious.
- Employ emotion to create a personal connection with your proposal.
- Tell people how they will benefit personally, moving them from resistance to a state of frustration. “That’s a great emotion to inspire change.”
- Define the ‘how to’.
- Shift the mood to one of hope by providing the stepping stones to change.
Presenting in a Digital Age
Mapping these loose rules, Miriam finds, is extremely effective for in-person delivery. However, online environments call for adaptations.
This was magnified to startling clarity during the COVID-19 pandemic, when companies “simply thought that they could do a lift and drop” of the same 40-minute keynote speech they would present in person. “It just doesn’t work.”
No one sits through a live stream just to be talked at. We’d prefer to watch a recording at a time of our choosing – or, most likely, not at all.
In these cases, Miriam helps speakers break speeches down into snappy 8- to 12-minute ‘content chunks’ interspersed with tools that bring attendees back to their screens to engage personally. She also encourages all online speakers to experiment with ways that stimulate dialogue to mirror in-person events, which are “designed for experience as much as for content”.
As attention spans online are shorter and distractions around us are greater, we need to find ways to keep sessions exciting. Virtual backgrounds and in-show polls have already lost some of their shine but, whatever new tool we employ next, let’s not forget that it’s how we present that makes the most impact, and that fundamentally, “people remember the way you make them feel”.