When I was in high school, given the choice between giving an oral report and a written one, I always chose the written report. In college, I did the same thing. My reason: fear. I was terrified of public speaking.
When I graduated from college, my father gave me some advice. He said, “If you want to succeed in the business world, you will need excellent presentation skills. Take a job that will give you the chance to practice speaking in public.”
I listened to my dad. A year after graduate school I worked for the training department of a bank, designing and presenting supervisory training programs. At the first workshop I was to teach, my co-presenter didn’t show up. I was on my own. All I remember about the workshop is that I got through it. Afterwards, I made the decision to learn all I could about presentation skills. I never wanted to feel that kind of fear again.
It’s 20 years later and today I do public speaking almost every week. And I love it. Why? Because along the way, I learned some secrets, which I will share with you.
But first, forget the advice you got about picturing the audience naked. It doesn’t work. It’s not real, and it doesn’t do anything to help you connect with your audience – which is your ultimate goal.
Decide what you want to have happen as a result of your presentation. By focusing on what you want to convey you start to forget about yourself and move into thinking about your goal. Do you want to impart information? How can you do that clearly and concisely? Do you want to motivate your audience? If so, what do you want it to do? Do you want to persuade your audience? If so, persuade it to do what? After you determine your goal, you can figure out how to get there.
Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Why are they there? What do they know about the subject? About you? What do they want to walk away with? Putting yourself in their shoes will make the difference between a presentation that doesn’t hit the mark and one that they will enjoy and remember. And, thinking about your audience’s needs moves you from thinking about yourself to thinking about others.
Organize your thoughts. When I outline a presentation, I start in the middle by writing down the key points I want to make. I think of stories I can tell and data I want to include. Next I figure out how I will close my presentation. Last, I figure out how I will open. When I begin to speak, I often have memorized my opening and closing and know my outline. That leaves me free to speak extemporaneously and naturally throughout the core of my speech.
While you are writing the outline of your speech, anticipate and answer questions the audience might have. Ask yourself: What are the weak points of my case? What is the most difficult thing I have presented? What can I do to express it in another way? If you are prepared, you won’t be so scared.
Speak from your heart. Don’t be bashful about showing your personal commitment to the ideas you are presenting. The most compelling thing you can do is be real – to be authentically, genuinely yourself – and no one can do that as well as you. Forget what you were told about standing still and not moving your hands when you speak. Do what comes naturally.
Connect with your audience. Ask questions of participants. Make meaningful eye contact with as many people as you can. The former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, often asked its citizens, “How am I doing?” The key to connecting with any audience is not knowing how to give to them, but knowing how to receive support from them.
Tell a story. Who doesn’t love a story? Who doesn’t want to be drawn in and captivated? Powerful personal stories increase the impact of any presentation, increase retention and believability, and help you clarify your message. Tie your message to the story. Tell how the story shaped your thinking, taught you a lesson, or allowed you to see things or do things differently.
Begin when you are ready. Take your time, and get centered. Breathe. Focus. Look at your audience. You may have stage fright. So what? Most of us do. Honor it and move through it. In surveys, many people report that their fear of public speaking is greater even than their fear of death. You may never completely get over the fear of speaking in public, but you can learn to move through it with grace.
Becoming a polished speaker takes time, but it’s a skill that can be learned. Use every opportunity you can to speak because the more you do it, the better you become.