All the great speakers were bad speakers first.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Let’s the discover the secret on how to speak in public!
In my last blog post Prep for Successful Public Speaking with 3 Simple Steps, I shared my three step formula for writing and delivering a speech successfully. This is the first stage of learning to be a competent, even great public speaker. You’ve stepped out there in front of a small group, and spoken without losing your confidence. Now, you’re wondering “I know I can get up and speak, but am I good at capturing people’s attention? How can I be better?”
Let’s start with “You are already a good speaker!”
How do you know this? If you’ve ever participated in a class or in a learning environment and shared your views, or discussed how you feel about a particular issue, you are a good speaker. All you need to do then, is formalize the skill and develop the ability to speak.
You make the biggest impact when you are confident.
The only thing that stops you from being confident is your own self and your nervousness. How can you overcome this hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach?
The first part of the answer lies in understanding why you would feel this way. The Illusion of Transparency is a well-established phenomenon in psychology which explains this. It’s a tendency for people to think that their mental state is apparent to others or that they are ‘transparent’ to others.
This is nothing but an overestimation and is common for public speakers.
And when combined with the Imposter Syndrome, a persistent feeling that one is really a ‘fraud’ and not capable of presenting in public, it packs a punch.
But don’t worry about it. Instead, follow this mantra below.
Start with – I may not be perfect, but parts of me are pretty awesome!
Being aware of the illusion can improve the quality of your speaking performance, from both the your own perspective and in the eyes of observers.
Overcoming this fear begins with giving yourself a good talking-to. You start by understanding why you feel this way – why the nervousness and where it is stemming from.
Focus with your body first
But knowing this and being able to deal with your physiological responses are two different things. The pounding heart, the stiff muscles, the breathlessness – how to overcome that? Again, focus on understanding that these responses are commonplace and nothing more than your body’s natural reactions, caused by a burst of adrenaline.
Next, move onto your muscles.
Think of each muscle in your upper body and slowly imagine yourself relaxing that muscle. Spend a minute on each arm, your shoulders, and your neck. Rotate your neck if you can, and also your arms within your shoulder socket. If you’re amongst a group of people and find you cannot do that, then discreetly exercise each finger. Place your hands under the table if you are seated, or in your pocket one by one. Straighten and flex each finger by turn.
The act of focusing on parts of your body will move your mind’s attention away from the cause of nervousness and this will help calm you down.
To manage your pounding heart and breathlessness, inhale deeply. Try and breathe from your diaphragm. Take five deep breaths, and release slowly. Again, if you can’t do that, then take a glass of water and take small sips – no more than 10, before you are due to present. This will help control the anxiety, and also remedy a potential parched throat.
Managing speaking and yourself
Let’s move on now to the delivery aspect of speech. You have a written speech, you’ve set aside the nerves. So how can you deliver it better?
Check out my top five tips to embrace public speaking with confidence.
My previous blog post on public speaking talks about this, but I’m repeating it for a reason. Think of how you can begin your speech so that you create immediate interest with your audience. You can start with a story or an anecdote, or you can refer to a conversation related to the event you are attending. Maybe ask a question – in an episode of Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck starts a eulogy to a police officer by asking “Where were you on 9/11?” Powerful.
You could start with a joke, but be careful with humor and ensure it is not potentially offensive to anyone. And of course, don’t forget to include your elevator pitch in your opening remarks. You can, If possible, include the elevator pitch in your introduction. As a speaker, this gives you room to expand upon it in your introductory remark.
Also read: Want to perfect your business pitch?
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Manage filler words
It is natural to fall back on words such as ‘and’, ‘therefore’, etc. When there is a gap in what you say, you automatically seek to fill that gap. Well, don’t.
Train yourself to resist the temptation so say these words, or worse, say ‘ah’, or ‘um’. You can do this by asking a friend in the audience to give you feedback on how often you use these words. Give yourself a target to reduce the number next time you speak. With each round, you will get better.
Sometimes, pausing can make a point more effectively than speech. E.g.You ask the question “Do you know how many people turned up at the community soup kitchen this Saturday, after the snowstorm?” Then pause before you give the answer – you will have created an interest and possibly awareness of the need for funding or volunteering at that soup kitchen. People will be thinking about your answer before you give the answer, and you might have the engagement you are seeking.
How well you show up in an online interview can ink the deal for you!
Maintain eye contact
Would you like it if someone were talking to you but would not look at you? An audience is no different. This article in Forbes stresses the value of looking at your listeners – “the impact of eye contact is so powerful because it is instinctive and connected with humans’ early survival patterns.”
Studies on student engagement in classrooms have shown how teachers who maintained eye contact had higher student engagement and better scholastic outcomes. Start by looking at a few friendly faces. You can even cheat and place your friends in the audience so you can feel comfortable looking at them when you speak. Once that works, move to looking at faces in different directions. As with everything, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Avoid fidgeting, however great the urge may be! Everyone has nervous ‘tells’ – gestures which give away our anxiety. Some touch their hair behind their ears, some sway from one foot to another, yet others might pinch their nose or massage their temple area. The best thing to do is to keep your hands by your side in a natural way or use them occasionally, but don’t overdo the gestures or it will distract the listeners. Practice in front of a mirror and identify what gives you away – once you are conscious of it, it’s easier to control, even if you can’t completely stop doing it.
As the world becomes more connected and yet disparate, the ability to reach out and communicate effectively has a direct impact on individual growth. There is a plethora of advice and training on public speaking but the reality is that time is more and more at a premium. The simple tips above will go a long way in helping you become a more proficient speaker before any kind of audience.
Here’s a last tip – a great piece of advice from Morgan Freeman.
In an interview with Showbiz, he suggests “To improve the sound of your voice, yawn a lot. It relaxes your throat muscles.”
Now, who wouldn’t want to follow an advice from the voice of god.
Never a yawn wasted.
Supreet Bains-Sharma is an award winning public speaker and trainer. With over 20 years’ experience in coaching, mentoring, learning and development, she has delivered training and coaching sessions on Leadership Development, Business coaching, Presentation styles and Public Speaking, Train the Trainer, among many others.
She is an Advanced Leader Bronze with Toastmasters, and also a Senior Certified Professional with the Society for Human Resource Management. She also serves as VP, Mentorship at her local Toastmasters Club, and believes mentoring to be a key instrument in growth and development.
Supreet has a creative approach to delivering strategies to help individuals and organizations grow their communication skills and is passionate about inspiring others to grow and achieve results. She provides a variety of services through her company, Ark Consulting Services.