The greatest public speaking tip I was ever told
I can’t remember a time before or after that moment when someone stared so painfully blank at me for such an extended period of time. It still causes me to cringe slightly with embarrassment whenever I think of it. The Turkish Takeaway we sat in was warm enough, but there was nothing except pure ice running through my veins as I waited for what felt like an eternity for him to respond to the verbal diarrhea that had apparently spewed from my lips.
The day before this, my boss had told me that my favorite international speaker was going to be in the office, and to my absolute adulation, he wanted to have lunch with me. I was a mixed bag of emotions, that kind of excitement mixed with nervousness which, when paired, made you want to throw up just a little bit.
Fast forward to the next day, the Turkish Takeaway, and the perfectly sound piece of advice this man whom I greatly admired shared with me.
“Matt, it’s essential that you learn to speak less to your notes, and more to the crowd.”
A great piece of advice, and one I’m sure would have been added to had I not prematurely blurted out, “oh, I’ve got a terrible memory though, I can barely remember anyone’s name.” As he stared blankly at me for what I thought would be the remainder of my life, (because I was ready to kill myself at that point) his blank stare was quickly turned into a smile and an understanding laugh. Never have I been more grateful for a leader who wasn’t just willing to tell, but teach. If you find a mentor or leader like that, someone willing to let you ask stupid questions as well as give you clear and concise answers, be sure to soak in what they can pour into your life. You’ll thank me for that later.
So, what was this masterful teaching? It was something remarkably simple. It was also something I wish someone had told me a decade ago.
Don’t simply break down your message, find a way to visually link each aspect.
I’ve always known to break down what I’m saying into sections, it helps it flow and be interesting to the listener. You may have your own way of doing this, but if not, feel free to use mine. It looks something like this:
- Introducing the idea
- Expanding on the main point/problem
- Offering a solution to the main point/problem
- Conclusion and wrap up
Note, this is the simplified version of this. I’ll look at expanding on what each of these points look like at a later date.
Breaking down your talk in a way similar to this, both when writing and presenting, is incredibly helpful. If you’re getting feedback when you speak in public and hearing words like, “disjointed” or “a little all over the place” your problem could be more to do with learning to structure the order of what you’re saying well, and working on remembering it all at a later date.
Breaking down your talk in this way to try and remember it all however, is not always going to give you success. Some of you, those I would deem, the lucky ones, will find it easy to remember all you’ve written and present it flawlessly. I am not one of those people. I’m a visual learner. I’ve lived in the same suburb for a number of years, I still couldn’t tell you most of the street names in the surrounding area. If you tell me that you live on that random street two blocks past the supermarket with the broken sign however, I’ll know exactly where you’re talking about. So, for those of you more like me when it comes to speaking, you’re going to need to find a way to link those five points I listed above in a way that makes sense to your brain. It’s not enough to know everything that’s written in each section on the page in front of you, because if all you’ve remembered is each section, it won’t always link in your brain. We have to find a way to make what we’re saying in each section, link to the next section, and the next section, and then to the overall message we’re presenting. If you can’t find a way to make it all link together in your head, it will be incredibly difficult to make it all link and sound interesting when you’re saying it out loud. It sounds daunting, but if you find the right visual, you’ll nail it.
This has been the simplest and most helpful piece of advice I was ever given, and it completely changed how I present when speaking in public. The visual that international public speaker gave me that day was the one he used, and to be honest I loved what it represented, but it ultimately didn’t help me, so I had to find my own. What I’ve found has worked for me is what I will share with you now, but if it doesn’t work for you, or if you have your own way of doing this, please leave a comment and share it with the community, it could change someone else’s speaking ability exponentially.
Talk to the Hand
I haven’t said that in what feels like forever, gosh I don’t miss high school. But I digress.
In seriousness, the visual I use when remembering what to say is my hands. It’s incredibly useful visual, because they’re always with me, the seldom leave my side (little dad humor for you), and they hold enough parts for me to visualize each broken down section of what I’m saying. I like to use my fingers to break down each part of my talk, whilst remember that each finger is attached to the hand, and therefore each part is connected to each other by the overall theme of what I’m saying. I even connect each finger, the same finger every time, to a specific part of my talk, so that I can remember where I’m going and what I’m trying to get across. Here’s how I break it down:
Thumb: I use my thumbs to encourage people, giving them a thumbs up when they do something awesome but I’m too far away to say something. I visualize the thumb in the same way when speaking, it’s my introduction, my encouragement, the way I make that initial connection with the audience. It’s where I share about myself, flick off a joke, build common ground with the people in front of me by relating who I am and what I’ve done, with things that may be the same or similar to them. Taking time in your introduction to let people know who you are as a person, being real, can be incredibly encouraging for you audience. You don’t have to share too much, just find a way to bridge the gap.
Index Finger: What do you do you do most often with your index finger? If your answer was picking your nose, I am both disgusted by that truth and slightly impressed with your honesty and commitment to the cause. The answer I was actually looking for however was point. Our index finger, for the most part is an indicator of direction, as such, I use the visual idea of it to indicate or point people in the direction of where my talk is going to go. It’s a time to introduce themes, ideas, facts, and stories. We’re not yet in the brunt of the main theme just yet, but people know that’s where we’re going because we’re pointing them in that direction. It’s a good idea to give people at least a hint of where you’re leading them when speaking, remember that, just because it makes sense in your head, doesn’t mean everyone else is following along with you. Don’t be afraid to take a few minutes to lead people along the path that leads to your main point.
Middle Finger: You know where this is going right? The middle finger is the great full stop of the hand, awkwardly positioned in the middle of everything else. It’s at this point in your talk that you will be expanding on your main point, laying down the problem or reality of what you’re speaking about. This is usually the “in your face” facts that you want people to know about and you are not giving any apologies about them. If you are pointing your middle finger at someone, it’s very seldom you actually care how they’re going to react, in fact, you’re usually wanting them to get slightly shocked or even offended by the gesture. I tend to write my talks in a similar manner, to lay down comments, facts and figures that might shock and offend peoples comfort zones, to give insight to area’s where the audience had previously not known about or completely ignored in the past but it’s in their best interest to know these things. Interestingly enough, your middle finger is (usually) your longest finger. Likewise, your middle point should be the area you spend the most time speaking to, don’t rush this and push through any awkwardness that might come, you’re going to ease up soon enough, but this is the one chance you have to lay down the cold hard facts of your talk.
Ring Finger: Your forth finger, or ring finger, must be the most neglected finger on our whole hand. Seriously, the only time I ever took much notice of that finger was after I got married and had this slight weight added to the one on my left hand. Even then, it only lasted a short while before I went back to ignoring it. Do not do this when you’re speaking. Something I’ve seen speakers struggle with, and something I’ve struggled with myself, is rushing through the solution section of your talk and losing half the audience on the way. Your index finger is used to signify if you are married or not, and when speaking, your index finger point is always married to your overall presentation, so give it the time it deserves. This is the time where we offer a solution to the heaviness we may have just given the people before us. It’s the time where we can say, “yeah the world is gone crazy, but here are a few things we can do to make it better.” I can’t stress this enough, do not skip past this point. It’s incredibly important to marry everything else you’ve said so far together with solutions that you’ve already thought through. Not only does it help it all flow, it puts people at ease and gives them the sense that you know what you’re talking about — it’s kind of important they know that.
Little Finger: The “pinky” finger, also known as the first finger you’ll probably hurt when doing something simple. What is it about the small fingers and toes we have that make them choose to try and murder themselves so frequently? Do our other appendages get jealous and purposely direct them into walls? Regardless, our little finger represents our conclusion, the wrap up. It shouldn’t be long (like the little finger) and it shouldn’t lead into anything new (like a new finger), it just needs to be there or people will notice something is off (like if you were missing finger). Take some time to thank people, broadly wrap up the your overall talk, and find a way to gently transition into whatever is next on the agenda for wherever you’re speaking.
If you can use this or a similar visual to help you remember everything you have to say, you’ll greatly improve over time with your public speaking. I find the most helpful part about using the hand is that it’s always available to reference if I get lost. Remembering where I am in my talk by linking it to a finger, lets me transition between thoughts and ideas easily.
You may even want to practice by writing each section on a different finger and then writing the overarching theme on your hand.
However you do it, learning to link each section of your talk together, and not simply break it down into sections, will help you to remember more, ad-lib in creative ways, and ultimately help you be more comfortable with what you’re saying, regardless of who the audience is.
I hope this helps some of you budding speakers. Let me know your thoughts or any other struggles you have when it comes to speaking in public. I would love to help.
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