I know how horrible it feels.
You’re in a class, a professional position, or a situation that requires you to give a speech in public. When you find this out, the hands of the universe crank the earth’s gravitational pull up a notch. Your feet feel heavier, your knees start to wobble, your stomach and heart drop to your crotch, and your brain feels like it just digested Pop Rocks and Fanta together.
You feel like you might pass out.
It’s a scary feeling that’s never invited. Luckily, there are thousands of professional public speakers, some who are even shyer and more introverted than you, who can provide us with invaluable lessons on how to combat these feelings, rise to the challenge, and leave an entire audience moved beyond belief.
Understanding a subject is a minimal standard for speaking. Any average speaker can memorize facts or statistics and spew them out like a busted fire hydrant. What transforms a speech into something tremendous, magical even, is the ability to passionately believe in the idea, product, or thought you’re speaking about. People will feel it if you do. When asked about how he became such a great public speaker, Simon Sinek response with a coy smile, “I cheat. I only talk about things I care about. I only talk about things I understand.” He continues with,”You can’t manufacture passion.”
There’s a common misconception in public speaking that you must build up your audience or prep them with facts and stats for a “ta-da” conclusion. But Harvey Diamond reminds us that, “If you don’t know what you want to achieve in your presentation your audience never will.” Not knowing your end game is self destructive because it relies too heavily on the attendants ability to follow your speech until you reach the end, or understand the point of your speech. If you state your end goal and deconstruct each point in a logical manner, it will be much easier for the audience to follow along and engage deeply in your message.
An inscription found in a 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb reads, “Make thyself a craftsman in speech, for thereby thou shalt gain the upper hand.” I doubt you have trouble gossiping with your friends about last nights episode of The Bachelor, or which player had a breakout performance in last night’s Monday Night Football game. Speaking on a grand scale is, in theory, no different than this. Professionals don’t think of their speeches as a performance or something they have to procure. Instead, they think of them as a gigantic dinner party with all of their close friends.
I’m not sure when, or where, or why we were taught to speak this way, but memorizing every part of your speech or relying on cards to get you through is terrible. Chuck it out the window. Now! Likewise, if you put your entire speech on one slide that people can read, why would they pay attention to what you’re saying? Approaching a speech this way makes you stiff, and causes extreme paranoia and discomfort if you suddenly forget your positioning. What’s more beneficial is to keep your main point (mentioned above) and the constructional puzzles pieces that make up the point always in the forefront of your mind. Memorization and hefty PowerPoints make a speaker sound robotic. That’s never engaging nor fun.
There’s benefit in having a mentor for almost every facet of life, and public speaking is no different. If you don’t have direct access to a professional speaker in person, watch your favorite speakers on the Internet. Be sure to make note not only on their content, but also things internal to their presentation like posture, nonverbal tendencies, pace, motion, and eye contact. Or, in the words of Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, “You must find someone who wants to help you grow as a speaker.”
Mark Twain once brilliantly stated, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Practice is essential to delivering a strong, sincere, and succinct message to your audience. Start out by just reading your speech out loud from a piece of paper or computer document. After you’ve mastered that, incorporate a timer. Got that down? Practice in front of one person, then 3, then 10. Record yourself, too. It will help you discover parts of the speech where you hurry, or aspects of your speech that aren’t crystal clear.
Going fast is too easy, but can often leave you with filler time that you’ll scramble to fill. Professional speakers are deliberately slow in delivery. Not painfully so, but a pace that will encourage everyone in the room to hang on their every last word. It’s better to cover missed points in the Q & A (more on that later) than blabbing a million words per minute and expecting your audience to receive it all. I don’t think any public speakers’ quote regarding this matter will top Lily Tomiln’s: “For fast acting relief, try slowing down.”
This is the most common trap to fall into. It’s also the easiest. When speaking, we feel forbidden to stop talking. So when we get stuck, or momentarily forget our train of thought, we unconsciously start reaching for dribble like “ummmm” and “uhhhhh” to fill the void. Purposefully silence yourself in these moments until you regain your train of thought. You may think you look foolish, but you really look professional, collected, and confident when doing this. As Sir Ralph Richardson puts it, “the most precious things in speech are pauses.” Use them liberally.
You don’t have to know everything, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. If someone asks you a question that you don’t know, fess up and ask their opinion. Invite the audience to be a part of what your message, not just someone who consumes it. This will remove the pedestal-like perception of public speaking and encourage communal interaction.
Again, we’re all human. Everyone gets tummy butterflies when they stand to speak. Everyone wants to sound smart, not dumb. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, trusted, and respected. The best thing you can do in a speech, and what the professionals do already, is to be ultimate versions of themselves. With the tidbits in this article, adapted from some of the world’s top speakers, you’ll be well your way to delivering a strong presentation, promoting a powerful message, and producing a captivated audience.
“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.”
John F. Kennedy
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