For many people the stress of public speaking is up there with divorce and moving house. But it really doesn’t have to be like that. Some basic knowledge about nerves and adrenalin and how they function can help you to see their presence as helpful (lots of energy available) and to counter-act any possible negative affects (tension, speed, loss of breath). Some simple voice work can also massively help to ground adrenalin and get the best out of it.
A change of focus as regards the event can also be enormously helpful. Many people are great communicators when in a role that makes them focus on the other person, such as teaching, mentoring or giving directions, but terrible when they have to stand up in front of a group. What has happened is that their focus has moved away from the needs of the listener, and the simple ‘actions’ that they need to take to fulfil those needs, and instead passed to a need for approval, acceptance and praise (or a fear of judgement) about their performance. Put your attention firmly back on the needs of the audience and leave yourself out of the picture and your public speaking will enormously improve.
Lastly, so many speakers in business situations start with a set of Power Point slides and announce that ‘these are my talk’. In fact your talk is you and the story that you are going to tell the audience (in order to meet their needs). Slides are a useful visual aid to be added in later, but they are not the way to remember your content. To feel fully confident and sure that you will remember everything you need to cover, you need to think like a storyteller, with a logical, sequential plot. A great opening, a clear ending, and clearly defined mini-events and stories making up the middle will make your speech memorable for your audience and easy to remember for you.
The following ten tips on better public speaking address the three main areas above. Look out for further blog posts when I will go into each tip more thoroughly.
If you’d like to print the 10 tips out to remind yourself, you can do so in a handy poster form here.
1. Use your whole feet and don’t lean away from the audience
Don’t physically withdraw from the audience. Use your whole feet (2/3 of weight at front) and balance your upper body right over your feet, not leaning back. If this initially feels intense, breathe in your belly to calm yourself.
2. Eye contact, parallel with audience
Your eyes should be parallel to the eyes of your audience (chin down, eyes leading). Linger long enough to meet each person. Again, this may feel intense, but making the wrong kind of eye-contact (either skating over people, or leading with your chin so you look either scared or arrogant) is as bad as no eye-contact at all.
3. Breathe low – release your belly and soften your knees
If you are hit by an attack of nerves, breathing in the belly helps to return you to a calm state. It is also the right breathing technique for a strong, rich voice.
4. Highlight the important words
Give the really important words sound, and space (add a tiny pause before). This is especially important if you are a non-native speaker of English as your emphasis, stress and intonation system may be different to your listeners, and you need to give them time to understand the really key words of your speech.
5. Separate out your thoughts
Take the time to separate out each thought and the speech will be much clearer. Experiment by saying each ‘thought’ on a different chair, moving round a table. Read more about this in my blog post ‘The Circle of Communication’.
6. Structure your piece in mini-stories
Speeches need a logical and emotional journey. Know how this divides into mini-stories, how each mini-story needs to start and end, and what content it must contain. This is both your structure and memory aid. Stop between the mini-stories and start the next with a new vocal tone, moving the narrative on.
7. Create Powerpoint slides after you’ve created your speech
Add visual interest with slides (photos, diagrams, keywords), but avoid bullet points that explain the content. Use cards as a memory aid for your speech, never your slides, people won’t listen to you if they can read your speech on the screen.
8. Use gesture instead of Powerpoint
A fact supported by body movement is far more memorable than words on a screen. Gesture with your whole arm and above your waist. Think of opening out space in your armpit. You don’t want tiny half-gestures made at your waist with a flick of your wrist – these seem nervous. But you also want to fit the gesture to the meaning. If you really want to have still arms, then you need to look at releasing tension in the shoulders so that the arm can relax as you speak.
9. Use patterns and repetitions
Use verbal patterns and repetitions and highlight these vocally. Alliteration (same consonant sounds) and assonance (same vowel sounds) are particularly effective to make phrases memorable.
10. Keep it simple and practice anything complicated
Most importantly, tell your story. Nothing should interfere with a clear narrative. If you are going to use equipment or have several speakers, practice in advance.