How to Become an Effective Public Speaker
Photo by David Laws on Unsplash
Whether you are professional speaker or not, I’m sure you would agree that most of us would benefit from being able to more effectively communicate our message to a group of people in a public setting. Unfortunately, statistics show that for most of us fear of death comes second only to the fear of public speaking! That means most of would rather die than get in front of a bunch of people and push air over our vocal chords for a few minutes. Rarely is this fear the result of an actual lack of ability. Rather, it is the result of the tremendous psychological pressure we place on ourselves to perform well and project a favorable image in public, coupled with our beliefs about our own ability and self-worth, all combined in a situation where being the center of attention makes us hypervigilant of bodily sensations and reactions that are out of our control. And I haven’t even mentioned whether the content of the speech is good or not! The good news is that there are all kinds of tips and techniques out there to help you overcome your fear and become more comfortable with public speaking. But the bad news is that, honestly, none of them really ever worked for me.
At some point in my speaking career, I got over my fear (at least to the point that I’d prefer speaking to dying!) but I have no idea what the formula is. With that said, although I don’t have a foolproof formula, I can offer some tips and tricks I have picked up along the way. Reading this post will probably not free you of your fear of public speaking, but it will motivate you to continue practicing until that fear is no longer a significant factor. By getting some victories under your belt and being able to recall multiple instances of delivering effective talks, you will boost your self-confidence in your ability to do so in the future, and eventually that paralyzing fear will shrink to nothing more than a few butterflies of stomach out of excitement and anticipation.
My own journey of public speaking started over 30 years ago when, for the first time in my life, after having grown up as a very shy kid, I was given responsibility for the performance of several groups of people at work. Part of the job was, as you might have guessed, delivering messages to my people to motivate and influence them. After almost 20 years of doing that in different parts of the world, I was thrust into the next level of public speaking. I was a plant manager at the time and our plant had delivered a significant turnaround. I happened to be attending a manufacturing summit in Chicago and ended up submitting an application to be considered for an award, but when the organizers saw the application, they asked me if I would speak at the event. Speak at an event, publicly, in front of about 500 strangers, and experts in their field no less?! No way, I thought. But I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I decided to take the plunge. I was nervous, but pretty early on in the process of getting ready, I simply declared to my wife (who was going to travel with me) that my speech was going to make a greater difference for the audience than any other speech and that they would vote it to be the best of the event! When the day finally arrived, the crowd absolutely loved my content and the style of delivery, and my speech was a great success. That was the moment I became a “real” public speaker and the rest is history! Since then, I have delivered talks all over the world and even though I am still a little nervous just before I get on stage, my previous experiences leave me confident that I will be well-received and make a difference for my audience.
So that’s my public speaking story, but I’d like to share a few ideas with you that you can take for a test drive to see if they will work for you. This is by no means a comprehensive lesson in public speaking and it won’t make you a professional speaker (although I may do posts on more advanced methods if there is enough interest), but I believe it will get you off to a great start:
Every ounce of homework you do is worth a pound of benefits in the effective delivery of your talk. I would recommend you get clear on the following and actually write down the answers to these questions instead of jumping around in your mind from one topic to another:
Know your audience:
- Who are you speaking to? What is likely on their minds as they are listening to you? What are they dealing with? What accomplishments are they proud of? What challenges are they facing?
- What do they want/need from you? Are they there to learn something? Are they looking to get inspired? Don’t try to guess at this. Have a significant number of preliminary conversations with the members of the audience, not just their bosses and event organizers, but actual people who will be the “consumers” of your message to know what they would like to get from you. If there is a conflict between what an event organizer wants and what the audience wants, I’d suggest you work to resolve the conflict, but I have often found that getting random feedback from audience members complements the expectations of the organizers.
- Who are they to you? Why is it important to you that they get their objectives met? The answer to this question should never be, “So they bring me back or refer me to their colleagues!” It should be in the context of the greater purpose they are going to fulfill when they get inspired or informed or whatever it is they are going to get out of the session. Make their “why” into your “why” and go from there.
- Who do you want to be for them? Answer this question in terms of what they care about, not in terms of how they will think of you. If who you want to be for them is “impressive” or “smart”, get your mind off of yourself and think more along the lines of “Inspirational” and “informative,” and you begin to see yourself through the lens of the difference you are going to make.
- What difference do you want to make for them in the grand scheme of things? Think beyond what the audience will learn or take away and even beyond the greater purpose that this learning will serve in the priorities they are focused on. Think about the ripple effects of the positive effects of their experience in other aspects of their lives and communities and get excited about the potential impact of your talk on society, your country, or the world.
- Learn their language — Do enough homework to know how to phrase things in a particular way and what examples to use that are suited to your specific audience as ways to drive the point home.
Know your Message:
- What is the “informative” element of your talk? What do you want them to learn and what is the most effective way to get this point across?
- What is the “transformative” element of your talk? What do you want them to discover about themselves that has been in the way of their progress and what conversations will you have that will end up altering their internal dialogue and result in a different paradigm?
- What do you want them to do with what they get? What “calls to action” will you issue and when will you do it? Anybody can deliver a bunch of data and information and perspective. They key is to compel the audience to act on what they just got. How will you do that?
- What is the sequence in which you will deliver the key parts of your talk so that they make the right impact for your specific audience?
- Choose an appropriate method to stay on track as you deliver your message. This could include index cards, notes on the podium or other instruments. Whatever you do, please do not memorize your speech! It is fine to memorize the first couple of lines of your talk so you can deliver a powerful opening line, but reciting a perfectly memorized speech will never be as powerful as an imperfect speech that is delivered from the heart.
- Just before your talk, clear your mind of all the internal chatter that is about you and center your attention on the difference you are about to make for the audience. This is best accomplished by having a conversation with someone who is willing to assist you letting go of the noise and dwelling on the possibilities you are creating for others.
- Effective speaking is just as much about observing as it is about talking. Read your audience’s reactions and practice empathy. If you sense that they look puzzled or they have something on their mind, openly address what they might be thinking so you can put their mind at ease and have them rejoin you in the present. I often say something like, “You are probably thinking …” and then I address the topic that might be holding them back from being fully present and this brings them back.
- Strike the right balance of establishing yourself as an authority but not coming across like you think you have it all figured out. Let whoever introduces you tell the audience about your credentials so you don’t have to.
- Be vulnerable so they will do the same. Confess a couple of your own sins about the things you are speaking on so they know you are a real person and that they don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.
- Use humor wisely. Don’t be offensive. Don’t do it at the expense of any group of people, especially not anyone in the audience! Make as much fun of yourself as you do others.
- Pause… Don’t feel like you have to talk a mile a minute. If you forget what you were going to say next or even if you want to recapture people’s attention, silence is an excellent tool to use. Just pause for a second and then resume your talk.
- Watch how you move. By this I mean, don’t pace back and forth or practice nervous body language that distracts the audience. Obviously, using body language and gestures appropriately is fine to convey your message, so you also don’t want to stand completely still like someone has nailed your shoes to the floor. This one takes some practice, but once you find that balance, it will be fine.
- Spread your attention and eye contact across the audience. Don’t stare a hole into someone else’s head, but also don’t sweep the room back and forth like the Terminator looking for its next victim! Instead, lock eyes with a specific person for a second and then move on to someone else. Whatever you do, don’t do it in a standard pattern, because after a while it will look mechanical and annoying. Be genuine in making eye contact like you are talking directly to the person you are looking at.
- Focus on the people who are giving you positive energy. In every crowd, there are those who are smiling or nodding or answering questions or in some shape or form are sending signals that they are enjoying your talk. Then there are those who are checking their phone or have their arms crossed, or are frowning, or simply look like someone replaced them a very bored wax figurine of themselves. Focus on the former, and don’t be distracted by the latter. Also keep in mid that not everyone absorbs and responds to new information in the same way so don’t write off the latter as lost causes either.
- Use visual aids wisely. Every word you are going to say does not need to be on your slide and you don’t need to read every word that is on your slide! Your presentation is not meant to be a transcript, and in fact, using visual aids that seem outlandish until they are explained is one good way of capturing and keeping the audience’s attention.
“Reciting a perfectly memorized speech will never be as powerful as an imperfect speech that is delivered from the heart.”
I hope this gives you a place to start. If you are thinking, “Wow! This is too much work!” then you’re right. It takes effort, even for experienced speakers, to deliver an effective message. If you’re not willing to do your homework in getting to know your audience and your message and practicing the art of effective delivery, it may be time for you to consider that the reason you hate public speaking is not because you are afraid, but because you are not willing to do the work! If that is you, then all there is to do is declare zero commitment and invest your time and energy in those things that you do care about and at which you are willing to work to get better.
I know all of this can be daunting, especially if you are just starting to speak publicly, but getting on the court and practicing is the only way things ever get any easier. Over time you will have enough learnings and confidence boosters to become self-sustaining, and as you become more and more comfortable speaking in front of large crowds, your effectiveness and influence as leader will increase exponentially as well.
Originally published at theghannadgroup.com. At The Ghannad Group, we guide leaders in creating extraordinary cultures that deliver breakthrough results.