Public speaking…the words themselves have the ability to send chills down people’s spines. We all know the fear of public speaking has been known to be the worst fear of all–even trumping the fear of death. We don’t want to fail and we definitely don’t want to fail publicly. I remember my first presentation in high school, feeling like my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. When I looked down at my chest I could, in fact, literally see my heart pumping through my shirt I was so freaked out.
Over time I have found public speaking to be one of the most fulfilling and exhilarating experiences in my career. I seek out opportunities to do it. Maybe it’s because I am a secret introvert and I love having time to prepare and share thoughtfully versus being put on the spot in the moment. Selfishly, I also love the fact I have been given permission to share–another introvert characteristic–and no one can interrupt me until I’ve been able to share my full and complete thoughts. Public speaking is the only forum where you have you audiences’ full undivided and captivated attention; the challenge is to keep it.
So how do you keep it? How do you become a speaker audiences actually want to listen to?
I have practical tips and tricks I’ve found have helped me prepare anytime I’m going to be in front of an audience. Not all presentations go off without a hitch but by utilizing these tips I’ve had mostly successful outcomes and a few that have completely kicked ass and have given me experiences in my career I will never forget. I’ve also figured out what not to do. As with everything ultimately you have to find what works for you. Try some of these out–see what fits!
It’s not about eliminating the “ums” so much as it is about connecting.
I know you’ve heard it before: to be a good public speaker you aren’t supposed to say “um” ever. I find overly concentrating on eliminating filler words is distracting to the concentration you need to be putting on the message you want the audience to walk away with. Yes, if you have been given feedback you say “um” or any other filler word (mine tends to be continuously asking the audience “right?”) so much it’s distracting, then yes: be conscious of eliminating it from your presentation. But I’d encourage you to focus most of your attention on connecting with your audience rather than the specific words that may or may not come out of your mouth. You can do this in a couple of ways:
Set your intention.
First, ask yourself what you want to the audience to feel while and after you speak. Inspired? Moved to action? Surprised? Intrigued? This sets your intention, and prepares for the tone of your talk.
Whenever I am set to give a talk I go to bed and wake up visualizing me doing well. I visualize myself in the act of accomplishing my intent whether that be leaving the audience feeling inspired, motivated, or moved to action. Most of the time it’s a combination of all three. Because I have accomplished this in the past I know how it feels when I am in the flow of a good talk and I tap into that feeling, literally watching myself in my brain repeat it. I visualize how I am talking and moving in the actual place I will be speaking, what the audience looks like as they look back at me and the feeling in the room. I create it before I actually do it. This is not new news: champions from all walks of life use this technique to prepare to win. It’s incredibly powerful. See yourself being calm, or inspiring, or creating excitement–whatever you set as your intent. Visualize it to the point you feel it.
There are so many ways to do this: you really have to find what works for you. I’ve done everything from memorizing my entire talk–not recommended by most but it actually works pretty well for me–to totally winging it, which has never worked for me, ever. The middle ground is having a couple of key phrases I know I will use that will lead me into to speaking more conversationally. These key phases are especially important at the beginning, the transitions, and the end.
Know your beginning.
Introduce yourself. Always. It’s hard to connect with a stranger who didn’t take the time to tell you who they are and why they are in front of you, taking your time. It doesn’t have to be long but an introduction stating who you are and what you are going to be speaking on in most settings helps set the tone of your entire talk. Don’t skip it unless you do so strategically for some other purpose. From there, know how you are going to kick the whole thing off. That first phase after your introduction is when everyone in the audience is asking: am I going to listen to this person? Engage them immediately. You can do this by making eye contact, smiling, asking a question, or speaking loudly or softly, depending on your intent. I love leading with a question.
Know your transitions.
How do you plan to move from one topic to the next? I’ve found memorizing my transition sentences helps, especially if I get lost. If I know I need to get to my second transition and I’ve memorized how I was going to lead into it, even if I’ve wandered a bit in the previous section I have an anchor to pull me back, keeping us all from getting completely lost. I’ve been in speeches where I go off ad hoc and have completely lost where I was supposed to go next. Memorize your transitions. They are anchors to pull you back.
Know your end.
Finish well. Know how you will wrap it up, and again, what you want them to walk away with. Even if the talk is rocky if you have a solid finish it’s the last thing the audience will remember. Memorize the last couple of sentences you want to say to wrap it up. Finish strong.
Right before you go onstage, take control of your mind and body through your breath.
The best breathing technique I have found is this: inhale for five seconds, hold for two, and exhale for eight. Try it; it feels awesome! Do this four times, concentrating only on the feeling you want your audience to walk away with–your intent. Let all other thoughts go. I find it useful to focus on certain words, depending on the message I am about to convey. Sometimes I simply focus on the words “focus” and “intent”. This keeps my mind from wandering and fears from having the opportunity to set in. Purposefully focusing on a word or two helps you control your mind and breathing helps you control any unwanted physical responses, like when I was in high school and my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. All I could think of in that moment was how badly I wanted it to be over–my mind and my body were screaming, I hate this!!! I’m sure my talk was less than valuable.
It’s not about you, it’s about what the audience needs.
Lastly, I think one of the reasons getting up in front of people can be so difficult is that we feel the energy of all of those people being thrown onto little ‘ole us in the front of the room. Throw that energy back. By that I mean it’s not about you. You are up there to share information: share it! Give the audience something of value. Throw their energy back onto them by giving them what they want: something of value to walk away with. It’s not about you, it’s about what the audience needs. Think of yourself as serving them versus impressing them and much of the dread will disappear.
I want to wrap up by saying that speaking publicly is a privilege and a gift. Use it wisely! Every opportunity you have to speak publicly is a chance to influence a large group of people with your unique thoughts. Grab the opportunity to share your thoughts in a way that connects with others and accomplishes your intent.