How to make a winning speech

Channel nervous energy to inspire and engage your audience.
By Teri Saylor

For some CPAs, public speaking can be the stuff of nightmares. But those able to conquer their nerves can reap great rewards from making speeches, leading seminars, and sharing knowledge with peers.

In 1985, Allan Koltin, CPA, CGMA, was 28 years old and terrified when he delivered his first speech at a national AICPA conference.

"Everyone in the audience knew more than I did," he recalled. "My leg kept shaking and I couldn't stop it. I was sweating through my suit and terrified about making a mistake."

Today, 34 years and hundreds of presentations later, Koltin is a pro. Instead of worrying about making mistakes, the CEO of Chicago's Koltin Consulting Group strives to make a difference in the lives of his audience. "I want my audience to walk out of my presentation a little more knowledgeable than they were when they walked in," he said.

Koltin joined two other experienced speakers to share tips and advice for surviving and thriving in the spotlight.

Market your subject. For Catherine Bruder, CPA/CITP, president of Catherine Bruder Consulting in Troy, Mich., one challenge is enticing people to attend her presentations, especially at an event where they have many educational sessions to choose from. Her advice is to craft a concise description of your talk that includes the presentation format and the reasons people should attend. According to Bruder, an information technology expert, the title should be an attention grabber. For example, she once gave a presentation titled "Cybersecurity — Are You Floating in the Cloud?".

"Your presentation title and description are your sales tools, and you must craft one that will attract an audience," she said.

Start and end on time. Show your audience you value their time by starting and finishing your presentation on time. Benjamin Vance, CPA/ABV, associate director at Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La., suggested an easy strategy. Set the timer on your mobile phone and track the pace of your program as you move through it. Or try this: "If there is a meeting coordinator or moderator, ask them to keep you apprised of the time and to let you know when you get close to the end of the session," he said. He suggested including flexible content that can be either taken out or inserted if needed to fit the time frame.

Preparation is king. Koltin is meticulous about preparation and starts thinking about upcoming presentations a month or two in advance. Then he compiles his thoughts and curates them until he has a cohesive presentation that fits his assigned time, and he uses the final hours leading up to his speech to review and rehearse. Vance recommends rehearsing into a voice recorder or to your spouse or a colleague and inviting feedback well in advance of your presentation.

Show up early. Make your way into your meeting room well in advance of your presentation to observe the seating plan and to find out if you will be standing at a lectern or walking around the room with a clip-on microphone, Vance suggested. It also helps to gauge the size and locations of projectors and screens. "Observing the meeting room setup will help you pick out three or four spots in the room that you can hit with eye contact, and will help you figure out how to move around the room to give people different perspectives," he said.

It's OK to be nervous. Koltin no longer shakes in his shoes, but he still experiences an adrenaline rush when he's in front of a crowded room. For speakers who get a burst of energy from overactive nerves or excitement, Koltin recommended channeling that energy and passion to engage your audience. "Just remember the purpose of your presentation is to inspire, enthuse, and get people to dream about their own lives and careers," he said.

Be aware of your audience. Over the years, Koltin has learned how to measure audience engagement immediately after stepping onto a stage. "Reading your audience is like a quarterback reading the defense," he said. Watch their body language and their eyes. Listen to what they don't say, and if you sense disinterest, don't let it distract you, he added. If you think you are about to lose your audience, walk around the room, call on individual attendees, and you'll see their energy level rise.

Work technology into the mix. Bruder loves using technology. Whether you prefer PowerPoint slides or videos, taking a multimedia approach in your presentations will add layers of interest, she said. Software tools and apps, such as surveys that audiences can complete using their mobile devices, foster engagement. "Sometimes audience members vote or answer questions using their phones," she said. "I love these tools because they make presentations interactive." One such app is Engagenow, which lets presenters design polls and quizzes that empower the audience to interact with the big screen during an event or to crowdsource questions by submitting them using their smartphones.

If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Your preparation routine should include a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. You can deflect technology challenges if you have backups such as paper copies of your PowerPoint slides or an extra flash drive if your equipment malfunctions. If your audience challenges your expertise or asks questions you can't answer, you'll need a good strategy for how to respond. Even though Vance does extensive fact-checking prior to making presentations, he realizes it is impossible to know everything. "If someone challenges a fact or asks a question you can't answer, invite them to stay around afterward to discuss it or ask them to provide their contact information and follow up later," he said.

Make an impact. A strong start and finish can make or break your presentation, according to Vance. "In your introduction, tell a story, ask a compelling question, or have a funny line to hook your audience," he said. He recommended keeping the ending clean and simple by recapping the most important points of your presentation.

Seasoned speakers discover personal and professional satisfaction from sharing their knowledge with others. For Bruder, the payoff from public speaking comes when she is recognized as a subject matter expert and busy CPAs spend their valuable time listening to what she has to say.

Koltin thrives on making a positive impact on other professionals. "It is the greatest feeling in the world when someone remembers you years later and thanks you for making a difference in their lives," he said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at

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