Seven “Easy” Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking

When it comes to public speaking, nothing is easy. I have done over 100 events each year for 20 years, and before starting the Leadership Difference, I was responsible for training and development for two major companies. Before my career in leadership development, I worked as a television reporter and producer, and my first real job at 18 years old was a radio disc jockey. So, it is not a stretch at all to say that I have been paid to speak for over 35 years. (Goodness gracious, that is hard for me to type. Where does the time go?)

In that period of time I have experienced wildly different situations, audiences, and expectations. However, there is one thing that never changes: I get nervous every time I take the stage. Now, I am not talking about the “I think I may throw up” level of nervousness, but there is always a level of butterflies. Right before I am introduced, I get a feeling similar to when I would step into the batter’s box when playing baseball. It’s the adrenaline that accompanies the desire to perform at a high level.

One of the courses that I teach is called A Call to Action: Making a Persuasive Presentation. I love that workshop because I get the chance to help people with their public speaking skills. Since public speaking is often listed by people as their number one fear, the work we do in this class can literally be life changing. Being an excellent public speaker has many advantages both professionally and personally, and like any skill, requires a lot of practice to perfect. So, the word “easy” in the title is a little misleading. However, if you can remember and execute these seven tips, I can assure you that your next presentation will be a success.

  • Be authentic. Most people are very interesting when you talk to them; they have unique personalities and life experiences that make them captivating. It is rare that we meet someone who is fundamentally boring. Somehow, most people lose their entire personality when they take the stage. You can see them laughing and interacting with another person off to the side, but just before they are introduced to speak, their charisma departs the room. It’s like their lifeless doppelganger replaces them as they walk to the stage. Remember to be you when you are on stage, just a little bigger version, and you will endear yourself to your audience.
  • Establish your value early. As adults, we have all attended boring classes, unnecessary meetings, and useless training seminars. With the addition of the siren’s call of technology, attendees will zone out quickly if your presentation isn’t more urgent than their emails, phone calls, or texts. Within the first two minutes, confirm the learning objectives/deliverables with your audience to ensure that what you will be presenting is valuable to them. If it is, they will listen. If it is not, perhaps you should re-evaluate the need for the session.
  • Use specifics, not soft terms. A portion of your audience has very sensitive BSAs. (The A stands for antennae, the BS you can figure out on your own) If you use soft words — several, many, a few, often, sometimes, hope, maybe, might, etc — you may lose credibility with these folks. Use confident language accompanied by factual information to be more compelling.
  • Remember that there is an audience. This may sound crazy. Of course there is an audience, that’s why I am nervous. Fact is, I find that many speakers end up talking to themselves in the presence of an audience rather than to the audience. Their presentation has all the energy of a third grade class reading out of a textbook. Use audience member’s names, ask open ended or rhetorical questions, do audience polls; any technique to let the audience know that you are aware they exist.
  • Use your voice as an instrument. Repeat after me, “PowerPoint is a visual aid and I am the show.” Bad presenters turn PowerPoint into public notecards that they read in front of the audience. PowerPoint is designed to be a tool for underscoring your soundtrack. Concentrate on making the soundtrack (your voice) engaging by using variance in pace, volume, intonation, tonal bolding, and dramatic pauses. Why do you think Christopher Walken is so riveting? It’s because you can never predict his cadence. Now, you don’t have to remove all punctuation in your script (as Walken allegedly does), but you can add some serious drama using your voice as an instrument.
  • Show them something besides words. Remember show and tell in school? Do they still do that? It was everyone’s favorite part of elementary school. Show and tell required the presenter to bring in an object and talk about it. Usually the object was passed around, which added a kinesthetic element to the presentation. Bring in items, show pictures, do video clips…people love to look. And, keep in mind, people watch your facial expressions and hands so make sure they are as interesting as your words.
  • Tell a story. Storytelling was the earliest form of public speaking. From the time we were old enough to understand words, we loved to hear a story. A good storyteller includes enough details that the audience can imagine the situation in their mind’s eye. The story can even be mildly self-deprecating to further endear the speaker to the audience. You can tell a humorous story, too. Just don’t tell a joke. Jokes are hard to pull off and usually have a punchline that can be offensive to someone. But a funny story — that’s always a winner.

Seven things are a lot to remember when you are dealing with the stress of public speaking. I recommend this: start with the first tip and be authentic. Once you become comfortable being yourself on stage, you can then focus on establishing value immediately, avoiding soft language, and so on. Soon, you will be asked to speak more and more. Just don’t expect all the nerves to go away. The nerves just mean that you care, and I am proud to say that after 35 years, I still do.

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