Public speaking tips: what not to do

Speaking from experience. Oh no! Oh yes.

Everyone who’s done any decent amount of speaking (or even performing) has a story of things going wrong. I’ve had a few. Technical issues such as microphones or numerous computers not working. Impromptu speech sagas like getting the one topic that I’d prayed to never get. Even social faux pas like accidentally saying during a school prizegiving talk that “people will be celebrating” the deputy principal leaving for retirement. (I’d meant “commemorating”). So, so, so many things.

They say in comedy that you’re not a real comedian until you’ve bombed at least once. I say it’s the same with public speaking. There’s nothing like having had so many things go wrong that you’ve learnt from experience. While you’ll probably make your fair share of mistakes, here a few from me so you don’t have to.

DON’T: try to give a speech like another person rather than yourself

Pretty much every person I know prefers Allison before the ‘makeover’.

I did debating for several years at school and generally our teams did pretty well in the region. The debating format varies from county to country, but in New Zealand, it had three speakers with very clear roles: the first speaker, who was the leader both starting and finishing their team’s argument, and with little rebuttal; the second speaker, who did a little rebuttal but had he bulk of the team’s argument; and the third speaker, who generally had less argument but did the lions share of rebutting the opposing team’s argument.

As someone who loved information and was a bit of a straight man in a team, I was naturally a second speaker. I did that well. However, at times I had to do first speaker or third speaker. I found I didn’t do quite as well in either: I did’t have quite the speaking charisma to hold a team’s argument together and wasn’t enough of an improv person to be a third speaker. It was a valuable lesson in understanding my strengths and weaknesses.

DO: play to your strengths and weaknesses

Buzz Lightyear: the ultimate example of using what you’t got and running—or more correctly, falling—with it.

“Oh, it says ‘sport’. Crap.” I was at a regional speech competition and in the impromptu speech section. You were given a topic pulled from a hat and then had a minute to prepare a 2 minute talk. As a decided non-sporty person, I was pretty sure I could talk about anything apart from that. So I got a shock when that was pulled out of the hat.

However, I pulled myself out of the shock and turned it into a speech about how while I knew little about sport, instead watching Saturday morning cartoons, I knew that it was good in terms of teamwork, and character building and such. I’m not sure if the topic was the same one given to everyone, but as it turned out, my left-of-fieldness worked in my favour: I won that section. By deliberately putting my own spin on a topic (in American Idol worlds “making it your own”) I was able to be sufficently different enough to be able to play by my own rules.

DON’T: pace or fidget

There’s a reason that Scrooge McDuck paced in a room known as the ‘Worry Room’.

I love pacing and am a horrible fidget. In fact, I have pacing tracks in most places I’ve done work (much to the horror of one former co-worker who got dizzy at me moving around). What can I say? It helps me think. (And I’m not the only one to think so). However, I do everything I can do to not pace, rock from leg to leg, or fidget with my notes (this one is far too tempting). For one thing, if you’re moving around too much you risk turning your back to the audience at times so that they can’t hear you. In miked situations moving around can mean that moving away from the podium at all risks your voice disappearing.

DO: try to ‘own’ the space

I try to think about being anchored and strong when it comes to speaking: so that I’m not moving around but also feel strong and confident. However, you can still carefully move around if it adds to your presentation and helps your audience connect with you. At the very least, try to have a good strong pose (remember your mum telling you not to slouch?).

DON’T: be afraid to look at your audience


Disclaimer: I’m not great with eye contact in real life. I find it hard to hold someone’s gaze, and spent most of my childhood being told off for not looking at people when I was speaking to them. So learning to be able to look at your audience was a big thing I had to work on.

Do: strategically look at points around your audience

Try to remember to look at different parts of the audience over the course of your speech. A quirk of people’s perception means that if you look at a particular person in an audience, 6 or 7 people around them will think that you directly looked at them too. If you strategically look around the room you’ll be able to connect with your audience and make them feel as if you’re talking to them. Or, at the very least, try and look at the people you know who will be cheering you on.

DON’T: talktoofastandforgettopause

For the record: Rory Girlmore’s examples of public speaking in Girlmore Girls are actually pretty much what not to do.

I’m a fast talker. At school I was told that New Zealand English is one of the fastest accents in the world … and even my fellow countrymen (especially my mum) tell me I speak fast. If I’m nervous or excited I tend to ramp up the words per minute as well.

DO: script, phrase, practice, and pause!

I know that I speed and ramble if nervous, so personally try to script every word in a speech in order to find ways to say things as succinctly as possible. That way even if I give my speech with minimal looking at my notes, I at least am confident that I’ve made an effort to make it flow and can focus on things such as phrasing.

Then, practice! Presentations experts such as Nancy Duarte and Olivia Cabarne Fox have emphasised the need to practice. Steve Jobs apparently practiced upwards of 80 hours per Apple keynote! This includes practicing phrasing and pausing. I’m trying to remember to pause when someone asks a question as well as when I switch a slide: not only does it give you time to think, it also is shown to make you sound like your considering your answer. Cabarne Fox has one great tip if you’re particularly prone to forgetting to pause: use a highlighter in your notes to mark where you need to pause, and even also using a different coloured highlighter to show where you need to emphasise words.

DON’T: get upset or flustered if things go off-script

Keep calm and carry on, or something like that.

Things happen. You have to come on early, something doesn’t work…. I once saw a speaker entirely give up on his slide deck due to technical issues and give a speech without it. Some audience members suffered a little and whined about it on twitter (mainly because they weren’t used to slide-less presentations) but in general it went well despite a fairly massive problem. While this is the most extreme, the trick is that your audience may not be bothered or even notice if something goes wrong if you don’t draw attention to it.

DO: try and be prepared for those that could happen

I recently listened to an interview with an an events manager who said a lot of his job was to ‘prepare for the things that you know could go wrong so that you can then deal with the things that you could never have anticipated’. If at all possible, try and plan ahead: check the venue, the audio system, that you can read your notes. If something does go unexpectedly wrong when you’re on stage (the computer suddenly cutting out is a common one) do try to just focus on either resolving it or going on without it.

DON’T: Get too hung up if it all goes horribly wrong.

Always look on the bright side of life. (whistle)

How does someone end up accidentally insulting a school deputy principal at a school prizegiving anyway? What had happened was that I was the top year student for design technology, and that teacher had made an plaque for the deputy principal but wouldn’t be at the ceremony. I’d somewhat reluctantly accepted presenting it instead, but hadn’t been told I’d be asked to say a few words. I was embarrassed by my prizegiving faux-pas for years. Until I asked a fellow student who’d been at that ceremony about it. She couldn’t even remember it.

The point is, that even if it goes wrong, in the grand scheme of things people may not remember, particularly if you can try and handle it with grace. (Admittedly this wasn’t captured on tape as this was pre-internet, but even with Youtube, it’s unlikely to be the type of thing people seek out).

So, if you have a nighmare talk, take the advice of comedienne Sarah Millican and use the 11 oclock rule: give yourself permission to feel sorry for yourself until 11am the next day, and then banish it from your mind. (Apart from maybe finding ways to learn form it).

DO: remember to share your stories with others.

Every time you get up and do a speech well, there’s probably one person in the audience assuming that they could never do a speech since people like you get it perfect every time.

This is the second in a series of posts about public speaking. My first post was about common misconceptions of novice public speakers.

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