Your heart thumps in your chest; your breath is short and shallow. Your palms start to sweat, and you wonder if you can run fast enough to get away. From what? A rabid dog? A poisonous spider? A clown? No, your kid’s grade three class. Public speaking, whether to a group of 8 year olds or a gathering of senior executives, triggers a primal fight-or-flight response in nearly everyone. Great speakers are not immune; they’re just able to overcome the natural urge to crawl into a fetal position. You can too.
Fake it til you make it…
In her TED talk, social psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy describes the nearly paralyzing fear of speaking that threatened to derail her education. A professor told her to give every talk she could: “You have to fake it. And eventually, one day, you’ll realize that you’re not faking it anymore.” That’s what you have to do; the following tips will help you become a better presenter. Until then, fake it.
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A no-pressure atmosphere and supportive peer feedback is the backbone of the Toastmasters approach. You go, whether you want to nail your next job interview, client meeting, or cocktail party, and practice. Members work through the Competent Communication manual, which has 10 exercises that build a good foundation for public speaking.
They put these skills into action with impromptu talks and by taking on different roles in the meetings. Toastmasters gives people the opportunity to boost both communication and leadership skills – not to mention confidence. At about $6 per month, it’s one of the best investments you can make in your career and in your life.
Have something worth saying – then Say It!
You can have a terrific bag loaded with high-end clubs, but that’s not going to make you a great golfer. You can wear LeBron James Nikes but that doesn’t mean the Heat’s going to come knocking on your door with a contract. A lot of presenters put form before function: they build beautiful PowerPoint presentations and produce professional-quality videos. But that’s wasted money, and wasted audience time, if the content itself is not relevant.
And even if your content is spot-on, no one comes to a talk or a meeting to see your back as you read a PowerPoint. You can just save everyone a lot of time by emailing it to them. Speaker supports – art boards, flip charts, video, audio, lighting effects, etc. – can support a talk, but the key word is support. Your presentation should be strong enough to carry the day without them.
Imagine the electricity goes out. Are you screwed? Or can you go on and deliver a dynamite presentation? I saw Simply Red in concert when I was in university. For his first song, he just stuck his head out of the stage curtain and sang the entire song acapella. Then the curtains opened, and his full brass band kicks in. Truly impressive. He demonstrated he could carry the day with just his talent – but look, he has a bag of tricks too that can add even more value to the show.
Too often, presenters concentrate on what they want to say as opposed to thinking about what the audience needs or wants to hear. I’m a 50-year-old white male, for instance. If I’m speaking to an 18-year-old Asian woman, I need to be thinking about what’s relevant to her. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s going to be completely different.
There used to be a Pizza Pop ad. Absolutely disgusting. A kid squeezes the Pizza Pop at the camera; it’s an explosion of processed cheese and sauce. I always hated that ad and wondered how anyone could eat those things! But guess what, I wasn’t the target audience. Kids loved it. Partly because their parents hated it. But the point is, the ad hit the target market. Consider what’s important, or interesting, to your audience. You’re on their time.
- Start well and end well
You can have some crap in between, but you need a compelling opening and a clean close that brings it all together. The end should always circle back to the beginning. It’s like giving your audience a parting gift: you’ve wrapped up this presentation into a neat little package that they can, hopefully, use in their own work and lives. And speaking of closing, that’s my cue.
As nerve-wracking as public speaking can be, the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment for a job well done (or, at first, a job simply done) is just as intense. Your heart will still race, and you’ll still have that momentary impulse to flee. Ignore it. It’s not like a clown is chasing you. If that happens, run. Run.