You’ve agreed to deliver a speech or talk, put in the hours preparing and writing said speech and the day has come to knock it out of the park/ Zoom meeting. Except that you’re feeling…pretty petrified, actually. No matter how long you spend trying to craft a seamless slideshow or getting your head in the game, this public speaking business is prone to push your self doubt and freak out buttons, even if you’ve nailed pitches and presentations in the past. Here are our top tips for public speaking perfection.
Firstly, heed the considerable speech giving wisdom of author and lecturer Mark Twain:
“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.”
Secondly, know that those jangling nerves combined with your run-throughs in front of the dog will most certainly pay off – you’ve done the hard graft and now’s the time to let your peers in on your considerable wit and insights. Just bookmark the following expert tips and give them a once over next time you’re feeling daunted by the prospect of stepping up to speak. This lot will give you the edge and put your pre-speech heebie jeebies to bed.
Use fear as fuel
It turns out that there’s power in those public speaking jitters. Trust Phil Waknell, Chief Inspiration Officer (what a title) and Podcaster at global presentations specialist Ideas On Stage, TEDx speaker and author of the upcoming Business Presentation Revolution:
“That nervous energy can make your talk really fantastic, it’s just a question of controlling it. It’s the simple things that can make all of the difference.
“Most vital of all is that prep time – give yourself space to thoroughly get to know your talk and consider whether it achieves your objectives and will resonate. Rehearse it several times (five is the sweet spot) so that the words come not from your head but your heart. Even if each version is different, you can guarantee that the fifth will be much better than the first.
“From there, visualise success rather than failure: imagine that the audience has absorbed your call to action and is giving you a big round of applause. If possible try to make a connection with members of your audience before your talk if you haven’t already – it helps so much to know that you’re presenting to a friendly, receptive crowd rather than a potentially hostile audience.
“My final piece of anxiety-busting advice is to avoid coffee before a big presentation if you can. In my experience it not only ramps up your stress response and makes you speak faster than you ordinarily would but it also tends to dry out your mouth and throat, weakening the impact of your voice.”
In essence, hold the latte – your nerves will give you all of the pep you need.
Think like a rock star
Less smashing up a hotel room, more spontaneity and setlists. We’ll let Phil explain:
“Instead of reading your speech aloud, or worse, reciting a PowerPoint presentation word for word, imagine that you are a rock star writing out a playlist before a concert. You’d just decide on the song titles and order in which you’re going to play them to the best effect; you wouldn’t write out all of the lyrics.
“Take the same approach to notes and cue cards for your speech. Write key words rather than full sentences and keep your notecards to hand. Chances are you’ll remember the structure and flow of your presentation and won’t need them but knowing they’re available if required can make you calmer and able to deliver the most compelling speech possible.”
Feel as though you’ve lost the plot? Chances are that your audience will be none the wiser according to Phil:
“If you forget what you’re supposed to be saying, remember that no one else has seen the ‘set list’ and that you’re probably the only person in the room who knows! Pause, breathe and begin where you left off.
“If you say something that’s clearly wrong or very off-piste, by all means have a laugh about it, correct yourself, smile and keep going. Nobody expects you to be perfect – they would far rather you were human than robotic and unrelatable.”
Speaking of which…
Personality over props and PowerPoints
Especially in a digital setting, Phil highlights that it’s important to prioritise passion, positivity and authenticity over static slides or polished PowerPoints:
“In online contexts in particular speeches need to be shorter and punchier as retaining people’s attention spans is tricky. Your audience may not be able to pick up on your body language as they would in person so focus on being as passionate and charismatic as possible in order to convey your points.
“Sometimes this might mean choosing to avoid slides completely so that your audience can see you in a larger window; people tire quicker if they’re being presented with a reel of slides and a tiny speaker next to it, so big up your natural presence.”
Just keep the emphasis on the au naturel element:
“Don’t think of yourself as an actor performing a monologue as someone else: you need to be yourself. Present a speech as a conversation with an audience (even better if it’s interactive) and you’ll be convincing without having to put on a show. Everyone wants to see the real, imperfect you rather than a fake imitation of what you think they want to see.”
That extends to your environment too – set up your space exactly as you want it if you’re presenting from home. Experiment with lighting beforehand, attach a post-it near your camera to prompt you to look your audience in the ‘eye’ and stand up as you would if you were giving a speech IRL to amplify both your voice and physical poise.
Sail through scrutiny
Don’t quiver in terror when question time comes. As always, going in with a game plan will steady the public speaking ship if unexpected subjects come up. Take Phil’s word for it:
“Prepare two lists of potential questions in advance – those that are most likely to come up and difficult queries or debates that could arise. Even if you do get a question that’s not on either list, chances are that one or more of your ready-made answers will help you to respond.”
Still stumped? Phil’s all about owning it:
“Be honest, apologise and offer to look into it and respond offline afterwards once you have all the facts to hand.”
Don’t be harassed by hecklers
Finally, if you’re facing hecklers, don’t let them throw you off course:
“If someone is being hostile or disruptive bear in mind that it’s not just awkward or unpleasant for you but also for your audience. You’re not alone here.
“Don’t get angry or be tempted to raise your voice in response to a heckler. Remain calm, smile, let them speak for long enough but definitely not too long and then thank them for their contribution. State politely but firmly that you’ll be happy to discuss their concerns later but for the benefit of the rest of the audience you need to move on. It’s rare that a single disruptor will continue to cause problems when it appears that the rest of the crowd is on a different page.”
Don’t feed the trolls and kill it with kindness – that’s wisdom for life, not just the podium.
If you found this article really useful we have many more tips in our public speaking series. Part One is ‘Getting your Mindset Right,’ Part 2 is ‘Pro Tips for a Knockout Speech‘ and Part 3 is ‘How to write a whip-smart speech.”