Public speaking for nerds

Impostor syndrome sufferers, unite!

Earlier this fall, I took a course on public speaking. Now, I’ve spoken in front of groups before. Quite often, actually. I used to be a teacher, and I was pretty good at it. It didn’t seem so hard back then. But standing in front of a room full of kids that don’t know how to tie their shoes is a lot different than standing in front of a room of peers, or clients, or bosses. All those things I’d worked so hard to develop suddenly seem painfully obvious; barely worth a mention. Surely everyone knows this stuff. Why am I wasting their time? My voice shakes, my hands shake harder. I’ve actually had people ask me if I was crying during a presentation (I wasn’t, really).

I doubted this course would change anything. I thought I was doomed to be an awkward nerd-mumbler for the rest of my life. And when I got to the class, I felt even worse: I’d somehow ended up in an “executive education” course. Everyone there had fancy important-sounding titles and good posture. Visions of public mortification danced in my head.

But I forced myself to sit down and just try. And slowly, over two days of listening, discussing, and practicing, I learned the recipe. So here it is: the secret sauce. Everything you have to do work the crowd like a champ.

The public speaking success script

  1. The grabber
    Terrible name, I know. Start off with something that “grabs” your audience. A few sentences, a short story. Something to create a connection. It can be:
  • Personal: share something about yourself
  • Factual: Relevant factual info for your message
  • Literary: A quote or story that relates to your message

2. The subject
The subject is your topic. The subject isn’t about your opinion — it is fact. There’s nothing at stake, nothing to disagree with (yet).

“I’m here to talk to you about…”

3. The message
The message is one sentence (just one!) that states what you want people to believe after you’re done speaking. You don’t want to change people’s behaviour — that’s temporary. You want to change their beliefs.

“I believe that…”

4. Structural statement
The structural statement tells your audience how you will prove your message, and what organization pattern you’re going to use to do it.

“Let me tell you five reasons why.”
“Here are four ways we’re going to cut costs.”

5. Your points
Now you can go through your supporting points, one by one. There are a few structures you can use:

  • Reasons: when you’re trying to convince people that your idea is valid
  • Ways: To show how you will/did achieve your message
  • Situation/response: when you have a distinct problem, and need a distinct solution. When you first have to convince people that there is a problem
  • Present future: Here’s what we’re doing now/here’s what we should do. Here’s what we used to do/here’s what we do now.
  • Chronological: to show that a series of events in the past prove your message.

6. Restated message
Now that you’ve laid out all of your supporting points, and everyone is appropriately dazzled by your intellect, just restate your message. That same sentence. Just say it one more time.

7. Call to action
Okay, you’ve changed everyone’s minds. Now what do you want them to do? Be specific — don’t ask for “consideration” or “support”. Your call to action needs to be concrete, time-sensitive, and assignable.

Now, go forth and use the script. Everywhere.

Every time you make a presentation, hold a meeting, or even write an email, follow this script. Just try it. And with practice, you too can sound like a normal person in front of a room full of other normal people. If I can, so can you.