Whether you’re speaking on a conference stage, presenting to a team or an interview panel, or just doing a Facebook Live – public speaking is a core part of your business communication.
Over the years, I’ve coached thousands of people for presenting and public speaking. And I believe there are two kinds of people in the world – those who get nervous about speaking in public, and those who are completely terrified about it.
In fact, global opinion polling often names public speaking as people’s biggest fear – even ahead of death and flying.
People would rather fall from the sky in a fireball than stand up to speak to an audience?
I’m sure that’s not quite what they mean – but still, ask people what scares them most and their first, instinctive answer is “speaking in public”.
If it is one of your greatest fears then worry no more, I have lots of strategies and skills, tools and techniques to help you.
GREAT SPEAKERS HAVE MASTERED THEIR SKILLS
In my coaching experience, even the speakers who look completely comfortable are still nervous. They don’t have some special gene that takes away any anxiety and makes them great speakers. But they do have a set of skills they’ve mastered and practised – from how they breathe to how they stand, from where to focus their eyes to how to use their arms. They’ve worked hard on what they look like, and on what they sound like.
Presenting, public speaking, even interviewing – these are learned skills like any other. You can improve these skills, and there are ways to calm your mental and physical state.
Here are just five simple steps to get you started:
DON’T BE AFRAID TO USE NOTES
I am always taken aback when clients tell me they hate public speaking because they struggle to memorise their speech or presentation. They tell me how much they admire speakers who stroll around the stage, speaking eloquently from the cuff.
OK. Let’s look at a couple of trade secrets here.
Yes, there are a very small number of people who genuinely speak, at length, with no notes. You and I could probably name them and come up with the same list – they are that elite. They’ve been doing this for years, doing it fulltime, working constantly with coaches, and honing their craft daily like a world-class athlete trains. And they’re probably delivering the same keynote (or two) so often that they have become word perfect.
You cannot compare yourself with them. You don’t have to be Usain Bolt to be a really good runner.
Outside of that tiny elite, many speakers who are not using visible notes are actually using some kind of event technology to help them look great on stage. Transparent autocue screens, feedback monitors on the front of the stage or suspended from the lighting rig, sometimes even earpieces with someone giving prompts. Some speakers use complete scripts. Some use bullet points. Most have something in front of them – whether you can see it or not.
But what if you don’t have access to that sort of kit, I hear you ask. Not a problem. Just use some old-fashioned paper or small post cards! (Make sure you number the pages – trust me on this, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you drop them and struggle to put them back in order, in front of a few hundred people…) Stand at the lectern if you prefer. There is absolutely no shame in using notes. Your audience is there to listen to what you have to say, to learn from you, to be inspired by you. They are not there to see how good your memory is.
(By the way, I’ve known several speakers – and in many cases I’ve written their speeches for them – who have delivered a barnstorming presentation and afterwards admitted to me that they forgot a chunk of their content. Don’t set yourself impossible standards.)
FIND A FRIENDLY FACE
Old-school presentation training used to say you should find a spot on the wall at the back, and hold your gaze there.
Please don’t. You will seem aloof and distant, and you will miss the amazing things that happen when you tap into the energy in the room.
My first formal public speaking was at a speech and drama festival when I was 13 years old and the youngest entrant by far. I was the only one in school uniform, as the other entrants were sixth-formers who, aged 17 or 18, were allowed to wear their own clothes. They seemed so sassy to me. I was on last, by which time mentally I’d gone home in dejection.
I walked up the steps to the stage, in front of around 200 people, and took my place at the lectern. (Yes, I had notes!) I introduced myself, and tried to hold my knees steady. Then something amazing happened. I looked up, and I caught the eye of a woman about 10 rows back. She smiled at me. My heart soared, and my confidence walked back into the room to rejoin me.
I won the competition and took home the trophy.
The wall at the back of the room is not going to help you. Find someone who looks friendly and engaged (and most people are rooting for you at the start of your presentation). Use that eye contact for support and energy, and maintain eye contact in different places as you go.
REMEMBER YOUR WORDS ARE ONLY PART OF YOUR STORY
Did you know that your audience will process your message using your words, your body language, and your voice? What you say, what you look like, and what you sound like.
According to the widely-accepted Mehrabian model, your words account for only seven per cent of what your audience gets from your presentation. Body language accounts for 55 per cent and voice provides 38 per cent of your overall message.
Body language (technically called kinesics) and voice (technically called paralanguage) is a huge area to cover but, for the purposes of this blog, just remember this: all three components need to be aligned if your message is to be credible. If you’re telling someone that something is great news, but your voice sounds sad and your shoulders are hunched, don’t expect them to feel as pleased or excited as they should.
By the way – you could be forgiven for thinking that if words are only seven per cent of your message, you don’t need to sweat them too much, right? Oh no. Quite the opposite. Your words might be the smallest component, but they are the bullseye, and they need even greater attention. Watch out for our future blogs for lots of help with getting your words just right.
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A POINT
It doesn’t matter what your purpose is. You might want your audience to take action. You might want them to think differently about your topic. You might just want to entertain them. But make sure you know why you are there, and speak accordingly. That way your audience will know why they are there too.
Never underestimate the power of a really explicit ‘call to action’, which you should point to throughout your presentation and then clarify at the end.
PRACTISE LOTS. AND THEN PRACTISE SOME MORE
Some of my coaching clients have resisted this. They say they want to sound fresh. They fear sounding over-rehearsed and wooden. Some feel over-confident.
I will beg you to do this, if I need to.
I can spot an un-practised speech a mile off. The rhythm isn’t quite right, pauses for impact are lost, certain words seem to come as a surprise. I’ve seen people crack slightly with emotion at certain phrases. I’ve even heard people inadvertently read out the autocue instruction in the middle of their speech.
The more you practise, the more your voice inflexions will suit your words. Nothing will come as a surprise. Your pauses, your hand gestures, your timing will all be smoother. And – back to the first point – the more you have practised, the less glued to your notes you will need to be.
Remember, public speaking and presenting is a learned skill. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, work at it, keep getting better. We can help you, if you want us to. (Then we’ll work out a plan to deal with that next top fear – flying!)
Later this month we will be sharing five simple tips to get you started on improving your body language (including how best to use the lectern if that’s what you prefer to do). This is a big part of mastering the art of public speaking.
Why not sign up to get our blog directly to your inbox, so you never miss a thing?
See you next week.