Public speaking. It’s a word that drives fear into the hearts of so many. Even some of the most confident and competent speakers you’ve seen may well shudder at the thought behind closed doors. Of course for some taking the stage does come naturally. If you are one of them then this article probably isn’t for you. If, however, you’re one of the remaining 99.9% who find the idea of public speaking unnerving at best and mentally traumatic at worst, then read on.
Turning a Necessary Evil into a Valuable Asset
Over the years at Outsourced Events, I have seen many speakers take the stage; some average, some good and some mesmerising. What they have all shared though is a connection with their audience that no Tweet, blog, podcast or YouTube video could come close to. The power of public speaking over pretty much every other form of modern communication becomes pretty obvious when you’re sat in the audience. As human beings, we are hardwired to connect with other human beings and when that human being is stood there talking in front of us, that instinct is at its strongest; and so too therefore is the impression it leaves on us.
So whilst, it is tempting to see public speaking as something to be avoided if at all possible, it can help to concentrate on it’s potential as one of the most valuable business skills you are ever likely to learn (and yes it can be learnt). It’s true that the more successful or knowledgeable an individual gets in their industry or field, the more pressure they will feel to get up on stage to impart their wisdom.
Instead of seeing this as a necessary evil though, it can help to regard it instead as a golden opportunity. Once you start seeing it as an asset that you can take with you in your career, your way of thinking around it may start to change and this is the first step in learning how to do it well. Sometimes a simple mindset change like this can really make all the difference in how you approach it.
Let’s talk a bit more about stage fright though and how to tackle it.
Dealing with Stage Fright
However determined you are on mastering the art of public speaking, nerves are an inevitability. It’s worth remembering that even the most confident public speakers get nervous. Of course that doesn’t always help when nervousness becomes paralysing stage fright.
But, like learning to project yourself and your voice clearly, this is something that can be overcome through a variety of techniques. I have listed some of them here, but it’s worth noting that everyone is different and some techniques may work better than others for you.
Reciting your speech in front of the mirror or others will help you become more familiar with your material and this will help relax you.
Learning techniques to help you relax like yoga, meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises can really help you keep calm and focused before going on stage.
It’s not all about you. Instead of worrying about how you will fare, try to shift your focus onto doing what it is you are here for, which is giving your audience something of real value. Pragmatic thinking like this can help dispel those stage fright demons.
A much talked about technique; making eye contact with individuals in the audience as you go can help make addressing a room full of people feel more natural and one to one.
Greet audience members
If at all possible, try to briefly say hi and shake hands with some audience members beforehand. This will help humanise your audience and can be a powerful aid to settling nerves.
So you get tongue twisted. So what? Even the most adept and articulate speakers do from time to time. Striving for perfection can actually damage your confidence so learn to accept the fact that you could well stumble over some words at some point and concentrate on the bigger picture.
Preparation and Scripting
Great talks and speeches don’t just happen (ok well some do, but on the whole most don’t). However confident the speaker, preparation and practice are absolutely crucial prerequisites for success.
Get to know your source material inside out. The more you can get a handle on what exactly it is you’re trying to say, the more free flowing and convincing you will be on stage. Any doubts or ambiguities on your material however, can feel magnified on stage in front of a scrupulous audience. What’s more, if you’re taking questions at the end of your talk then there can be nothing worse than not having a handle on all your arguments.
I could devote an entire article to script writing but let’s try to cover some basics here.
It helps to have an overarching purpose to your speech. Do you want to educate, inspire, challenge the orthodoxy, encourage new practices or simply entertain your audience? It is possible to do all of these, but you should really try to pin down your purpose to one thing.
Points of contention
Are there any potentially contentious things you want to say in your talk? If so, how do you think the audience will react? Understanding your audience will allow you to judge how you present these points or even whether to avoid them altogether.
Understanding your audience is crucial to preparing a speech that will inform and keep your audience engaged whilst you are on stage. Make sure you understand who is in your audience so you can judge this. Go in too technical and you may lose people. Too simplistic and you risk patronising them.
Is your audience old / young or a mixture? Male, female or a mixture? Native English speakers or is English their second or even third language? Are they likely to share any interests or hobbies? Middle management or CXO level? All this background information will help you judge your approach to style and tone; especially when it comes to humour, slang and use of modern lingo.
Find your Style
We’ve talked about style when it comes to preparing a script but there’s a wider point to be made about style, beyond that of language. I’m talking about your stage persona here and getting this nailed is crucial to holding your stage performance together.
Adopting a persona is not the same as trying to be someone you’re not. This means understanding what your personality strengths are and playing into them. If you’re not a naturally flamboyant or expressive person then don’t try to be one on stage. It will not only feel unnatural to you but it will come across as forced to your audience. If you’re more of an understated individual with a dry sense of humour then your stage presence should follow suit. The art of public speaking is really all about projecting confidence and if you come across as comfortable in your own skin then this will immediately put your audience at ease.
One trick that many speakers have recommended is to watch yourself on video. This can be an excruciatingly painful experience for some but it really is one of the best techniques out there. Seeing yourself on film will allow you to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. By analysing your body language and mannerisms, you often immediately see where you are going wrong and can adjust your style accordingly.
Some Finals Dos and Don’ts
I want to leave you with some final dos and don’ts. There really is no single tried and tested method when it comes to becoming a confident and effective orator and getting good is all about finding an approach that works for you and suits your personality (as well as a lot of practice).
That being said, there are some golden rules and timeless tips worth learning. Whether you use them or not, it helps to take these ideas on board and have them at hand should you need them.
Maintain eye contact
I’ve mentioned the eye contact technique but it really is such a good one I thought I’d mention it again. It’s worth adding that it’s important to not to fixate on one person for the entire talk (less they end up becoming somewhat paranoid) but rather switch from audience member to member.
Learn the art of the soundbite
Public speaking is about leaving an impression and one of the most effective ways of doing this is boiling down ideas and themes into simple soundbites (there’s a reason politicians do this so much at the end of the day). Don’t overdo this though, as to do so could risk your speech becoming all style and no substance.
Watch other speakers
Watching the experts is one of the most tried and trusted routes to success in so many disciplines; and public speaking is certainly no exception. Try to find speakers whose style you think suits yours and closely observe their mannerisms and body language.
Don’t drink alcohol beforehand
It’s often said that alcohol calms the nerves but becoming dependent on a stiff drink before hitting the stage is a slippery slope. The last thing you want is to be slurring your words on stage.
Keep a drink of water on stage
Talking consistently for a significant period of time can give you a very dry mouth. This can be exacerbated if you are nervous. Keeping a glass of water to hand is an absolute no brainer. Taking a sip of water from time to time also has the effect of lending a natural pause to your talk and can buy you valuable time to think about what to say next.
Don’t stick to the script
Talking of what to say next, it’s not all about sticking to the script. There are many schools of thought on this, with some people preferring index cards or notes than a pre-prepared script and using these to goad your memory into talking freely from one theme to the next. If you do decide to use a script, then it can help to briefly stray off it from time to time. The more rehearsed and verbatim you sound, the less effective you will come across. Former MP Gyles Brandreth recounts an interesting example of this at an after dinner speech he gave right after Tony Blair.
Keep an eye on the time
As much as you might initially want it to all be over, once you find your form, sometimes the opposite can be true. It’s important to keep an eye on the time and try not to prattle on for too long. This is easily done but not only can it throw everyone else off schedule, but it can lead to your audience losing interest. As Gyles Brandreth states “I’m often asked to speak for 40 minutes. I prefer 30. Some of the best speeches are just 10.”
Rest shaky hands on the podium
Even the most confident speakers get nervous on stage. They are often just very good at hiding it. Sometimes though it’s other parts of your body other than your speech centres that let you down. Shaky hands are common and can cause you to become self-conscious (even though the audience rarely notices). If you find you can’t stop your hands shaking try resting them on the podium if there’s one to hand.