by Mike Matera
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
— Mark Twain
Don’t Read This Unless Public Speaking Makes You Anxious
It can happen at any moment. You may be asked to give a presentation. Perhaps your colleagues want you to say a few words at the office party. Perhaps you need to pitch a new idea to a client. Or maybe you’ve been asked to make a speech at a wedding.
Public speaking is more feared than is death in our culture. But speaking in public doesn’t have to be so daunting. Like any skill, it gets easier and less forbidding with practice.
There are a few elementary–but important–things you need to address if you want to deliver an effective presentation. Here are some simple insights that will help your next speech go more smoothly, rewarding you as well as your audience.
Perhaps you’re nervous about speaking in public. It might interest you to know that even the most experienced speakers feel anxiety before addressing an audience. Nervousness is simply your body’s way of preparing for a demanding situation.
Your heart starts pumping faster. Your breathing becomes more rapid. But the extra blood and oxygen can help you think faster and speak with more energy. You just need to gain control.
As you’re introduced, take a couple of deep breaths, then exhale slowly. Do that as you’re standing up, and once more before you start to speak.
Act as though you’re not nervous. Be deliberate and confident, no matter how doubtful you feel. Even if you’ve momentarily forgotten your opening, ad-lib something. Your audience won’t notice whether you’ve forgotten anything, and your “butterflies” will dissipate as you get into your talk.
Finally, be natural and conversational. Regard your audience as a gathering of friends, and resist the tendency to be stiff and formal.
The thoughts and ideas you express are crucial to the success of your presentation. Equally important, but often overlooked, are your gestures, movements, and use of visual aids.
Eye contact is important–it’s how you’ll connect with your audience. And it’s simply a matter of looking at one person for a few seconds, then at another. Each time you focus on someone, you’ll establish a short but important relationship. You’ll communicate sincerity and concern. And your audience members’ faces will mirror the impact of your words and gestures, allowing you to adjust your speech to their needs.
If you don’t have to hold anything, it’s fine to keep your hands at your sides, or in a clasped position below your chest. Be careful not to wring your hands, however, or use them to shake a lectern or podium.
Try to move as you speak. You can do so in the front of the room, or along an aisle. Purposeful movement will keep your audience focused and energized. And it keeps your presentation from becoming the ever-dreaded lecture.
If you use a white board or flip-chart, make sure your letters and illustrations are large enough to be seen from the back of the room. Always stand to the left of the board or chart–even if you’re left-handed. That’s especially important if you write as you speak; people read from left to right, and you want to be out of their way when they do.
When writing or drawing, there are a couple of things you’ll need to avoid. For one thing, never speak when your back is to your audience. For another, keep unused writing utensils out of your hands, so you won’t distractingly twist or manipulate them.
As for props, be sure they’re relevant to your topic, and large enough to be seen by your entire audience. If anything you intend to use is mechanical or electronic, be sure you know how to operate it smoothly. And make sure it’s in working order before you start.
Preparation is paramount. It is unnecessary, however, to memorize an entire presentation. In fact, giving a memorized talk can make you seem mechanical. And it may keep you from properly focusing on your audience.
That said, your talk will have more power if you use a memorized opening and conclusion. You’ll minimize nervousness, because you’ll get right into your presentation. And you’ll be more focused and deliberate.
As for the body of your talk, limit it to only three or four main points. An overly-detailed or digressive presentation may overwhelm your audience, appear unfocused, and run much longer than its allotted time. Print your points on a sheet of paper, or on index cards. You may also simply rely on your overheads or flip-charts; whatever method you choose is fine as long as it keeps your talk organized and flowing.
Rehearse your talk thoroughly. Try speaking in front of a mirror or into a tape recorder. Get feedback from friends or family members. And remember: the best way to improve your public speaking is to speak in public as often as you can.
Don’t Worry About Mistakes.
Afraid you’ll forget a point you wanted to make? Or did you skip over something in the middle of your talk, only to realize it halfway through the next section of your presentation?
Relax. Act as though everything you’ve said was intended—in that order.
You’ve probably seen many a flustered speaker suddenly stop talking. Some gaze skyward, stare straight ahead, or fumble through notes, desperately trying to recall what was supposed to come next.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, realize that stopping or backtracking is totally unnecessary, since no one in the audience likely knows what you planned to say next, anyway. Just keep going. If a chance to work in the point you missed opens up later on, go for it. If not, it’s no big deal. This sort of thing happens to even the most polished of public speakers, many of whom adopt the old adage, “the show must go on”. Hesitation or backtracking will prove far more disruptive to your talk than your simply forging ahead.
Start with a relevant, memorable quote (for a great source of quotable ones, try Quoteopia.com). Or, if time and circumstance permit, begin with a short anecdote or story. That draws your audience in, and it keeps you from seeming hesitant when you take the podium. You just launch right into your planned intro as though you’re sharing a tale with friends.
Include two or three important supporting points in the body of your talk. If it’s a speech about recycling, you might break it up like this:
- Point 1: Benefits of recycling
- Point 2: What happens to the items you recycle
- Point 3: Next steps: what you can do right now
Conclude with either a specific call to action (if it’s a persuasive speech), or with another relevant quote (particularly appropriate for inspirational speeches). A quote at the end works even better if you began your talk with a short story (though there’s no harm in having two quotable quotes to “bookend” your speech). Or, simply summarize the points you made in the body of your talk. In any case, a good conclusion–like a solid intro–makes your speech more powerful and memorable.
Practice, Practice, Practice.
To improve your public speaking, you need to do it regularly, especially in an environment in which you can receive feedback and perhaps even formal evaluations. Taking a public speaking class is one way to develop your platform skills. However, that route can be expensive, especially since you’ll need to keep taking classes in order to keep your presentation abilities sharp.
A better solution is to join a public speaking club, preferably one that has reasonable semiannual dues. Toastmasters clubs, for example, provide an excellent way to hone your presentation skills, since they meet regularly, and you can keep going as long as you like. Whether you’re a seasoned member or first-time guest, you’ll have an opportunity to speak at every meeting. And you’ll be in a supportive environment, where you’ll learn by both listening and doing.
Ready, Steady, Go!
There’s no need to let fear get the better of you when it comes to public speaking. As we discussed earlier, even the most experienced and professional presenters get nervous before giving a talk. The key is to learn how to channel that extra energy into the mechanics of speaking before an audience. In time, you’ll find it to be very similar to having a conversation with acquaintances—a lot of acquaintances, perhaps, but fellow humans nonetheless. You may even grow to like getting up in front of a crowd to make a point or pitch, and it will definitely open up numerous opportunities for both your personal and professional development.
Mike Matera is a professional seminar leader, trainer, and WordPress consultant. Discover how he can help you solve your communication problems at www.mikematera.com.