Is public speaking at the top of your ‘most stressful thing to do’ list? Or perhaps you're one of the few who are in their element in front of a room full of people?
Being at either extreme can create issues. We've all experienced the over-confident rambler. Exploiting our polite attention, one elbow rests jauntily on the lectern. The interminable speech has no coherent message. Evidently, very little preparation has gone into it. This is usually due to the presenter’s misguided notion that they’re good at ‘speaking off the cuff’.
Then there’s the opposite. The deer in the headlights. The presenter who would rather tread water in the Indian Ocean at dusk, alone, than stand in front of us. We can hear their rapid and shallow breathing. They rush through sentences and shuffle detailed pages of notes with trembling hands. We hope for microphone failure, so everyone's shoulders can drop and we can head to the bar for a stiff drink.
Most people are somewhere in the middle. Even the most experienced public speaker feels apprehension before being in front of an audience. In fact, a healthy degree of nervous anticipation usually turns a good speaker into an excellent one.
Being confident, whilst showing respect for the privilege of having people’s time and attention is key.
Here are some public speaking tips that can help you achieve that balance.
The preparation stage
Have a clear purpose for your presentation or speech. Are you there to entertain, inform, or persuade? Is there a key message? It will help you remain on point for the audience.
Get to know your audience beforehand. Ask for a guest list, or check the names of colleagues invited to the session. Who are they? What are they interested in hearing about? Why should they care about what you have to say?
Spend enough time preparing. Don’t over-think it and spin yourself into a tightly-wound ball of nerves. But do put aside time to plan and rehearse. If it’s a formal speech, film yourself. It will reveal all manner of unconscious gestures and repetitive verbal fillers.
Keep notes very brief - if any. Some prompts are helpful, but avoid detailed scripting. Reading ‘verbatim’ appears unnatural and suggests a lack of subject knowledge.
Before you formally speak, introduce yourself to some guests, or chat with colleagues in the meeting. It reminds you that your audience is human, and they’ll feel more relaxed too.
Visualise it going exactly the way you want it to. The mind is a powerful tool. Experiencing positive emotions beforehand will boost your morale. You'll project more confidence.
The part where you're on stage
Take the heat off yourself. Don’t wear anything too restrictive, or warm. House lights and nerves raise the temperature. Although everyone is looking at you, try to see that this isn’t about you. It's about how you make the audience feel. Their ease and interest are your primary goals.
Stick to your time allocation. Stay on message. Don’t be tempted to ad-lib, even if it seems to be going swimmingly. Remember, less is more in speeches. Everyone will be silently thanking you for it, especially if your time spot is right before a comfort break.
Use humour sparingly and with care. Successfully landing a joke will depend on knowing your audience. Is it the appropriate forum? Will your quip tickle the audience pink? Or will it leave them red-faced, and you eyeing the nearest exit?
Enjoy it. This last one takes time and a few positive experiences under your belt. If you’re relaxed and calm, it helps your audience to feel the same way.
After it's all over
Ask for constructive feedback. Select a few colleagues or guests to offer comments. Be open to all feedback, positive and negative. It will help you to improve.
Self-reflect. We can be our own harshest critic, but trust your instincts. Note what gave you confidence and what didn’t, so that you know what to keep or change in the future.
Celebrate your achievement. Give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back and head to the refreshment table too. Well done, you deserve it!
Embrace the challenge of public speaking with confidence and humble reverence. A healthy dose of each, anyway. And seek every opportunity to develop this critical life skill.