Public speaking is among our (as a species) greatest fears (glossophobia, for you Balderdashers). As it turns out, standing up to yell and generally cause a scene wasn’t a great survival trait back when we weren’t the planet’s apex predator, so it’s an activity that’s frowned upon by our amygdalae.
There are whole books on the subject of becoming a better and more comfortable public speaker, but I’m going to save you the trouble of reading them! Who am I to give advice? I’m somewhere between “I do this for a living” and “some random guy”, in that I’ve spoken to large audiences at conferences, done live product demos, been interviewed for TV, radio, and Internet, and delivered countless captain’s talks to my soccer teams. So, I’ve not spoken in public as much as some, but have probably done so more than most.
So, without further ado, here are my seven tips to improve your public speaking. Why seven? Why not!
Know Your Material
It’s not always possible to know your audience, but it’s within your power to know your material.
It’s not always possible to know your audience, but it’s within your power to know your material.
I really hope this goes without saying, but the truth is that I’ve seen plenty of presentations in which the speaker was ill-prepared. Knowing your material just has so many benefits that you can’t argue this point:
- you can probably speak without slides, so you’re set if there’s a technical problem
- you’re much less prone to reading from the slides, so your body language is far more engaging
- you can field questions (but it’s fine to admit if you don’t have the answer, just offer to follow-up later)
- you’ll be able to be interviewed on the subject; alternatively, you’ll be able to have meaningful conversations on the subject when folks who were blown away by your presentation approach you afterward
Importantly, I’ll explicitly make the point that I’m not advocating for memorizing your material (more on that, below).
I’m a firm believer that we as a business culture are over-reliant on slideware, when it’s really the content that carries the day. Personally, I think we should all worry about learning how to speak without visual aids as the first step, then master speaking with a slide deck. The great speeches in history didn’t have PPT behind them. Thinking back, I got my own start in public speaking competitions in elementary school…no visual aids at all!
Finally, it might be worth reminding yourself that in many or most cases, you know more about the subject matter than the audience (hint: that’s probably why you’re speaking). Seriously, just a simple reminder of this fact will help you speak in a natural, engaging, confident manner and will cause people to sit up and pay attention.
Know What’s Important
Here’s a common scenario in business: you get off a flight (let’s say for the heck of it, at the end of a 28 hour journey), hop in a cab and make the 40 minute trip to the customer’s building for your three hour presentation that’s been planned for a month, check in at the front desk and call your contact, and find out that “things are crazy today and the CEO’s only got 20 minutes”. Do you know how to make the most effective use of that 20 minutes?
If you do, then I’d say your in the minority. I’d go as far as to say that most folks don’t know what the most important part of their presentation or speech is, and would handle this situation by blasting through the material. After speaking like John Moschitta Jr. for twenty minutes, you breathlessly leave thinking “Wow, I saved that one” while the customer thinks, “Um, what?”
It is imperative that you know the main point of your speech. If all else goes to hell, you must make that point.
It is imperative that you know the main point of your speech. If all else goes to hell, you must make that point. Then, know the next 2 or 3 things. Maybe they’re distinct points, or maybe their purpose is to support that main point. In any case, think of your content as having tiers of importance. Draw a mental picture, or even a physical one, to keep track.
Think About Questions
I’ve often said (to my team, to anyone who’ll listen) that one thing that separates great speakers from the rest is their ability to answer questions. Really, anyone can learn material enough to present it, but answering questions succinctly and coherently is an incredible skill.
Anyone can learn material enough to present it, but answering questions succinctly and coherently is an incredible skill.
Obviously, it helps to know your material, but that’s only a start. I advise people to shadow a true expert and pay attention not just to the presentation aspect, but more importantly to the fielding of questions. By doing so, you’ll see what works and you’ll build up a library of answers to the questions that come up frequently. It’s just not possible to cover everything in a single speech or presentation, and most of the value for the audience is in how the material is tailored to them; by asking questions, they’re taking an active role in shaping the content, and by answering the questions well, you’re giving them a perfectly tailored pitch.
On a related note, one tactic that I’ve seen some folks use is to deliberately leave out something obvious, thereby forcing the audience to ask a question. This both breaks the ice to get the audience engaged and can set you at ease answering questions by starting with a freebie.
I’d personally advise against “seeding” questions with friends in the audience. Not only is this disingenuous, but a clearly rehearsed answer exposes the whole shenanigan for what it is and makes you look kind’ve pathetic.
Finally, talk to the organizer to find out if your time has to accommodate questions or if there’s an extra dedicated period, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have the answer (maybe just offer to find out and follow up).
That’s right, I’m talkin’ ’bout practice.
The right amount is up to you: too much and you risk coming across as overly rehearsed, not enough and you might not have worked out the kinks.
Practice, or “a dry run” as we seem to call it in the tech industry, lets you figure out timing, determine the optimal flow of material, and get experience fielding questions.
I like to make sure I’ve done a dry run in front of a range of people (they could be in the same audience, or you might want multiple sessions): people who are subject matter experts, people who don’t know much about the subject, and close colleagues who aren’t afraid to ask so-called “obvious” questions.
These dry-runs are also a valuable way to increase information sharing in the organization.
These dry-runs, provided they don’t come to dominate calendars, are also a valuable way to increase information sharing in the organization – they’re not just beneficial to you, so be sure to include anyone who could benefit from learning a bit more about the subject.
When people tell me I’m a great speaker, I ask them why they think so. Invariably, the response includes something like this: “your passion was so obvious!”, “you were really energetic!”, “you were so into it!”.
I’ve really embraced that strength and made it a key piece of most of my presentations. For instance, most of the decks I prepare have lots of very simple slides (I did a webinar a couple of years ago that had ~90 slides for a 45 minute slot). I’ve also paid attention to other speakers who rely on energy, and studied their techniques. After all, sometimes energy can get a bit out of control, so I want to know how other people rein it in.
You will have a particular natural style, and your best strategy is to embrace that style.
But maybe you’re not an “energy” person. That’s OK! You will still have a particular natural style, and I believe your best strategy is to embrace that style and take it to its logical completion. Maybe you will become known for a thoughtful, methodical delivery that has people hanging on your every word because they know you waste none, or maybe you will develop a reputation for being able to explain complex topics logically and in extreme detail – as the rappers say, “do you”.
…But Always Look To Improve
Not every speaking situation calls for the same style, and the other side of the “be genuine to your natural style” coin is that you will become acutely aware of your relative deficiencies.
This knowledge will let you expand your comfort zone by deliberately stepping beyond it, to increase your arsenal of tactics.
You can increase awareness by being self-critical, and there are plenty of constructive ways to do this. For instance, if your session isn’t going to be recorded already, see if someone can record it for you (or record a dry run). Watch it. Maybe watch it on mute and study your body language (Are you running all over the stage? Are you crushing the podium in a vice-like grip? Do you get T-Rex arms?). Maybe watch it with no video and study your voice and words (Does your voice rise and fall too much? Do you have a tendency to overly repeat words, especially connectors and transitions? Do you “um” and “ah” too much?).
Having a good, honest bunch of people in your practice runs is especially helpful.
Having a good, honest bunch of people in your practice runs is especially helpful – just keep in mind that, much as speaking styles vary, so do audience styles. What works for one audience member might not work for another, so be sure to talk to a representative sample before coming to any conclusions.
Personally, I believe I have a tendency to ramble. This is a byproduct of my excitement and energy; I’m so into a subject that I just go on about it for a bit too long. Self-awareness lets me catch this as it happens and deftly (I hope) tie things off. I also have a tendency to smack my right hand into my left as I make a point, so I try to reserve this only for the really important things.
I have incredible admiration for speakers who can simply and concisely convey a point, as I feel it takes me too many words to get something across. Consequently, I really pay attention to my colleagues who are able to eloquently explain a point in the fewest words possible: I look at how they’re breathing, the pace of their words, the logic of their response, etc. For several years at work, I list “public speaking” as an area for development on my self-evaluation form, and I mean it. I will never be done developing this skill.
Find and Create Opportunities
Life is full of opportunities to speak, if you look for them. There are so many relatively low-pressure options out there, and these will help you get ready for the high-pressure moments!
Life is full of opportunities to speak, if you look for them. While I never sought out these activities as an effort to practice public speaking, I list them as examples of the varied opportunities that are out there:
- Growing up, a friend and I did the public address announcements at the local arena when my friend’s little brother’s team played
- As a member of the student government in high school, I did the morning announcements every day for a year
- In university I was involved in a few organizations and those had me presenting to younger students
- Running multiple soccer teams, I had to get everyone on the same page before matches and with our half-time adjustments
- I was at a graduation party for a friend and his mom asked if anyone could give a speech/toast
- I was MC of a wedding and delivered speeches at a few more
- I’ve delivered multiple information sessions on behalf of my company to prospective co-op students
- At work, I encourage people on my team to use part of our team meeting to try out new content or to just give a short presentation on anything at all
And that’s just me, and off the top of my head. Are you on a local board? Speak up a bit more. Do you want to show your vacation photos to friends or relatives? Set up a night and treat it like a presentation. There are so many relatively low-pressure options out there, and these will help you get ready for the high-pressure moments!
And of course there are whole organizations built around helping people develop public speaking skills.
Bonus: Some Things to Avoid
Again, this is my opinion, but I would advise you to avoid:
A memorized or over-practiced speech comes across as a monotonous drone; since your brain isn’t really working, your body and voice go to sleep, and your audience will follow.
- Memorizing/Over-Practicing: OK, maybe a soundbite or two is fine, but don’t memorize chunks or the whole thing. A memorized or over-practiced speech comes across as a monotonous drone; since your brain isn’t really working, your body and voice go to sleep, and your audience will follow shortly thereafter. You’re also likely to panic if something interrupts you (e.g., a question, a technical glitch). Know your material, and know your key points, and have some “milestones” in your speech to keep yourself on time, and then trust yourself to be awesome.
- The Agenda Mistake: Quickly letting your audience know what’s coming might be useful (e.g., it could get their brains going, or if someone is considering leaving then they know to stick around for a certain section), but the agenda slide can be a real problem. It’s quite common for someone to have an agenda slide, and when they made it their intent was to blow through and quickly just read off the items. However, the temptation is there to “add value”. So instead of blasting through, you spend a minute on each item. Finally, you go to the next slide and sheepishly realize you’ve already talked about this. Oh, and the next thing, too. Do you repeat or skip? Plus, when you added the agenda slide at the last minute, you thought “that’ll only take 15 seconds”, but in reality you spent 5 minutes on it. Now your timing’s totally ruined!!! So, um, watch out for that.
- Seeded Questions: Addressed above, and lame. Here’s a better idea: be interesting.
As I said, this is based on my own experience, and what works for me might not work for everyone. I’m interested if you agree or disagree with my points, so please don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts.