Nine rules for brilliant public speaking

8010129003_aa442cfb0f_mClammy hands, cold sweats, constricted airways, dry throat, a queasy stomach – if you described the symptoms to a doctor he might diagnose the onset of a fever or worse.

The ailments have followed me through my working life and even though I’ve had to confront them on numerous occasions they still cause me discomfort.

They’re triggered by an anxiety about speaking in public, a skill for which many of us are ill-equipped and one that almost all of us are required to perform in our professional lives.

Many of those nervy feelings returned to me over the weekend as I listened to communications students at the University of Washington give 10-minute pitches on topics of their choosing.

Even though it wasn’t me doing the talking – I was there to judge and give feedback – the familiar fear took hold; it was as if the nervousness of the candidates was contagious and I had been re-infected.

Body language provides many clues to a speaker’s level of comfort and our subconscious minds are quick to distil signals of fear and uncertainty.

During the course of the day I saw many of the other factors that would determine whether the presenters took the audience with them or lost them along the way.

Confident public speaking is a gift given only to a few but it doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful public speaker, even if you’ll probably never enjoy it, so here are a few coping strategies from me and some pointers to achieve a successful outcome.

Confidence stems from ability Know what you want to say and practice, practice, practice how you plan to deliver it. If you’re incorporating media in your presentation, don’t read from your screen, don’t speak in the direction of your deck and don’t read information off your deck. You are the star. The audience has come to hear you talk. Face them. Make eye-contact with them but don’t stare – that’s creepy and disconcerting.

Stories are powerful Tell a story and distil your message to the one or two key points you want the audience to take away. Avoid the temptation to dazzle them with the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Information absorption decreases with overload and most of what you say will be forgotten within 24 hours. You can deal with secondary issues in a Q and A.

Make your speech appropriate for the audience you are addressing If your talk is full of insider jargon people will spend more time processing the information than comprehending it. Jargon by its very nature is exclusive and your aim is to be inclusive and readily understood.

Stand and deliver Great actors command a stage and you must do the same. Go to the venue ahead of time and familiarize yourself with the layout and the acoustics. Project your voice. Occupy the space, and by that I mean plant yourself firmly and stand tall. Don’t slouch, don’t fidget, don’t shift your weight from side to side, don’t look at your feet, the back of the hall or anywhere else to avoid eye contact. Don’t fold your arms, cross your legs or adopt the figleaf pose – unless you really do have to visit the bathroom.

Modulate your voice Try recording passages of your presentation and playing them back to yourself. What you hear in your head and what audiences receive are wholly different. I can put whole rooms to sleep with my monotone delivery so I try to adjust the pitch of my voice to maintain interest. Overdoing it will come across as unwarranted and phoney and people will tune out. Finally, if all your phrases sound like they end with a question mark, well, just stop it, it’s annoying. OK?

Pause for effect Anxiety has a tendency to make people talk faster partly as a way of conferring excitement and also as a way of getting the wretched business over and done with. The casualty here is comprehension. Slow down. You’re familiar with what you’re going to say because you’ve been over it multiple times. The audience hasn’t and they need a bit of time to absorb what you’re saying. When you make a key point or give out a killer statistic let it hang in the air for a second or two, it’ll help you gather yourself for your next segment and it’ll give the audience a brief respite.

Mixed messages Ask yourself whether you want people to listen to what you’re saying or to look at a slide that makes the point for you and makes it memorable for them; when the two are mismatched attention will wander. Don’t add an image for every point you want to make and don’t pack your deck with myriad graphs, charts and miniscule type. And please don’t read what everyone can see for themselves – the audience can skim over it faster than you can spit it out and they’ll be antagonized if you do.

Be brave Step out from behind the desk or podium and remove the barrier between you and the audience, it helps to foster an atmosphere of openness and confidence. Do move around and use occasional gestures to emphasize points you want to make, just don’t wave your arms around like an Italian traffic cop. And don’t pace up and down endlessly tracing and retracing your steps, you’ll come across like a caged animal.

Finally… Watch the clock. There’s nothing worse than a speaker who’s over-fond of the sound of their own voice. Learn to pace yourself and keep to time.

If you have other helpful tips for successful public speaking – or pet peeves to share – I’d love to hear them.


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