Friday, February 15, 2008

9 Tips on Becoming a Better Public Speaker

Time and time again, public speaking or presenting in front of an audience lists as one of the top fears or phobias held by people around the world. Why can some people speak effortlessly and with ease, while others fall flat on their faces or don't even bother? The truth of the matter is, to speak in front of an audience is not a natural thing to do. We all had to start from somewhere. No one is really naturally inclined, because public speaking is an art and as such, it takes consistent practice and refinement.

You ever wonder how Sen. Obama Barack got to the level where he is today? I bet you that it was through consistent practice and refinement that he was able to get to the level where he is today in swaying millions of people to relate and buy into his new vision for change in America.

It's not surprising that people aren't scrambling for opportunities to speak in front of an audience. The fear of being judged, being in the spotlight or being seen as an authority can stop anyone dead in their tracks. You have to acknowledge that the fear, pain and anxiety associated with public speaking is self-created, which is insane. The key is to face your fear, acknowledge it and just do it! You grow and learn so much by pushing your comfort zone.

Public speaking is one of those skills that helps develop your character and gives you that unshakable confidence in order to interact and communicate with people in an effective and confident manner. But in order to get better at anything we often look for guidance.

Here are a few realizations after reflecting on my first speaking engagement in front of close to a hundred people at the Ryerson Tri-Mentoring First Impressions Gala on behalf of Social Relations Institute.

1. Research your audience - find out or think of all the reasons why they're attending the event you're speaking at, what sort of value you can provide to them, why they're there and what they want to get out of the event, and what your message to them will be. Once you've answered those questions, try and weave your findings and ideas around the theme of the event and cater it to your audience. PREPARE and KNOW what you'll be talking about!

2. Brief notes and timing - have some brief notes or cue cards that you can refer to so they serve as reminders for you to stay on track and within your given time slot. If you're a Powerpoint savvy presenter, keep in mind that you shouldn't be reading your slides to your audience - any knucklehead can do that. A Powerpoint presentation should serve as signposts of what you'll be talking about. Also, you should be wary of cramming so much information that you get overwhelmed; you will also in turn confuse your audience with too much information.

3. NEVER memorize! - this is probably one of the most common ways of preparing for a speech in a class presentation, for work or at an event. When you're speaking to inform or persuade, memorization will come across as rehearsed or inauthentic. The purpose is not to remember your speech, but make a connection with the audience in order to get their attention and build a strong rapport with them.

4. Your mindset - Go in with the mindset of imparting a simple message that your audience can remember, relate to or implement in their own lives. The more the audience can relate and make sense of what you're talking about, the more effective you'll be able to inform and persuade people in changing their behaviours.

5. Visualize your success! - if possible, scope out the venue you'll be speaking at and familiarize yourself with the environment. When you do that, visualizing your success will be made much easier. You can imagine the entire audience applauding, the thundering of their clapping with hoots and whistles, and ultimately praising your speech/presentation. When you envision something to the point of it feeling real, you'll feel like you've done it and rehearsed it in real life many times before. It can give you that added confidence in order to deliver a high impact and outstanding speech.

6. Don't beat yourself up - if you don't do well as you originally envisioned, don't beat yourself up over it. You took action and did what the majority of people can't do - speak in front of an audience who see you as an authority in your field or topic.

Reflect on the things that need to be worked on taking into account your thoughts and experiences in a blog, journal or even with supportive friends/colleagues so you can learn, grow and deliver an even better performance the next time! Remember, becoming an effective public speaker is a process and journey - not a destination.

7. Measure your progress - you can do this two ways: as I mentioned previously, journaling or blogging, and videotaping your speeches.
Although the thought of watching yourself speak can make you cringe (as it happens to me), there are a lot of things that can be gained by watching yourself. It allows you to see yourself from the audience's perspective. You can pick up on little nervous ticks you may have, improve how you express emotion, and your body language to the audience.

Only 7% of our communication is done orally, the other 93% is done through body language and emotion. Since we can fully control our body language and emotions, we can tweak it so we can improve the way we communicate instantly.

If you want to go further with this, you can put your videos up on Youtube and share it with friends and colleagues so they can give you constructive feedback that you can take into consideration for future speaking engagements.

8. Turn public speaking into something enjoyable - instead of framing public speaking in fear, turn it into something enjoyable. For myself, whenever I feel extremely uncomfortable (as when I first started public speaking), I conditioned myself into knowing that there is a breakthrough to be had in my public speaking. It both excites me and pushes me to express myself fully, authentically, and passionately in order to capture an audience's attention to engage them.

9. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! - I can't stress this point enough. I believe it takes theory, skill and practice in order to be truly masterful in anything. Public speaking/Professional Presentation classes in school can be a great first start (for students, you can get credit towards yourdegree) to break you out of your shell and push you outside of your comfort zone. This is how I started out when I had taken by taking Professional Presentations at Ryerson University. It served as a great starting point and put on me this path of improving my communication to not only audiences but everyone in general.

Additionally, Toastmasters is another great way of honing the art of public speaking. I found out about Toastmasters through my Professional Presentations class, and I never looked back!
Toastmasters an International organization focused on developing communication and leadership skills in its members. As it is international, you most likely have a few hundred Toastmasters clubs in your area if you live in a major metropolitan city.

What are your thoughts and feelings on public speaking ? Let me know in the comments!


Terry said...


Those are some great pieces of advice!

Here are my 9 tips about feeling more comfortable in front of an audience:

1. As the days and weeks lead up to your presentation, practice creative visualization. Fear stems from the unconscious repetitive thoughts and feelings about failing. The key to successful visualizations is simultaneously feeling positive emotions attached to images that you see. Imagine the room in which you will present. Feel the empowering sense that this could be your break-through moment. This could be when you reach to a higher level than you ever thought possible. Imagine yourself now in front of the audience facing them, looking calmly and intently into their faces. Take a big breath and feel relaxation welling-up within you. Imagine giving the EXACT kind of presentation you want – however that looks, sounds and feels to you. When you are done imagining yourself delivering your presentation, hear in your mind’s ear the enthusiastic applause of your audience. See faces that are pleased, moved and touched by what you’ve done. See others seeking you out, shaking your hand, congratulating you on your performance. For as long as possible, keep experiencing that feeling of triumphal success. Repeat this process as many times as possible.
2. About 5 – 10 minutes before your presentations, use this breathing technique: with your mouth closed, count out 4 seconds in your mind during each measured, controlled inhalation and exhalation through your nostrils. Then slow it down even further to a 6, 8, or 10 count. That will help to soothe your entire nervous system, slow your heart rate, and lower your blood pressure. You will feel much calmer, your thinking will be much more lucid, and you will be able to communicate your ideas much more clearly in moments of stress. (A similar exercise is outlined in our binder on page 8-18. Zen)
3. Start with a personal story. Stories help you get into the “zone” of presenting. You are intimately familiar with the material and it’s easy to be more animated with an energetic, expressive voice, movement and gestures when telling a story.
4. Many clients prefer conversation to “presentation.” If so, start with an interactive opening. Ask the audience a question, preferably an open-ended one (who, what, where, when, why, how). Call on them by name. Engage them by expressing genuine curiosity in their ideas and thoughts. Your scary and silent audience can be quickly transformed into an informal gathering, sharing their ideas and perspective.
5. Change your paradigm about the sensation you are labeling as fear or anxiety. Instead of labeling is as “fear,” think of it as energy. Channel that energy into …
6. Strong movement, gestures and an expressive, energetic voice which will command more attention and project more confidence and charisma. 80 – 90% of the presenters that we observe do not expend enough energy. Hence, they come across as uninvolved, uninteresting, and unenthusiastic.
7. Sustain eye contact with individual members of your audience. You will project confidence and trustworthiness and your presentation will feel more like an informal conversation.
8. Get up in front of groups often. There is no substitute for experience. As the experience grows more familiar, your fears will lessen. You may eventually find that you relish the chance to present.
9. Don’t give up. As American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

I had a coach in High School who said that "you play the way you practice." I think this couldn't be more true of public speaking.

Will said...

Hey Terry,

Thanks for your very THOROUGH comment! I certainly appreciate it.

Maybe I should rename my entry it to "14 Tips on Becoming a Better Public speaker" with your added wisdom :)

But in all seriousness, yeah, you mentioned stronger body language, breathing, eye contact and personal stories. I do all of them to some degree, albeit subconciously, so I never thought to add them.