Confident Public Speaking – In a Nutshell

We all know instinctively that one of the best ways to raise our profile is to get out there, show up, and talk direct to our target audience. Not quite so simple to do, as most of us, professional speakers included, suffer from nerves. Speaking in public is, allegedly, people’s number one fear – outstripping pain and even death in some surveys. I don’t know many people – and that includes some really experienced speakers and presenters – who wouldn’t admit to getting the collywobbles in the run up to an appearance.  Indeed, most agree that some degree of nervousness is a pre-requisite if you are to engage properly with your audience.

We all feel anxious about this – but what is the true source of the fear? Fear of public humiliation or embarrassment? Fear of being exposed as a fake? Fear of losing the place, drying up or simply freezing – like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights? In truth we all will have our own personal viewpoint on this – which may well take in any, all or some of the above.

At various points, I find myself either presenting or being presented to, so I get to see both sides of this up close and personal.  Listening to other people present can often be just as excruciating as making the speech yourself.

I wanted to make a few suggestions and observations that might make the whole thing easier, or at the very least, enable you to feel more prepared.

Being nervous is OK

Interestingly, nervous speakers are usually given the benefit of the doubt – empathy kicks in and the audience finds itself willing the speaker to succeed. Unprepared speakers, however, get what they deserve. As do speakers who go – on – much – too – long.

Don’t write a script. 

If you need notes, use a series of index cards with key words on. There’s a huge difference between delivering a compelling presentation about your work and making a speech. I sometime put reminders on my slides, in tiny letters that only I can see, reminding me to tell a particular story or give a specific example. Often the tiniest prompt is all you need, and you can then be much freer in the way you present.

Before the event

Sort out as much as you can before the event. Get directions, check the availability of parking, find out who will meet you and when. Go onto Google maps and work out your journey time, and make allowances for delays. Talk to the organiser and check that everything you need – laptop, projector, screen, extension leads and things like flipcharts and pads, will all be in the room when you arrive. This may sound a bit basic, but you need to remove as much worry and uncertainty from the process as you can. If you arrive relaxed, you’ll have a head start.

Getting Set Up.

If you are canny, you will have arranged to get into the room as early as possible. I like to get in early enough to have a good poke around – to check where sockets and light switches are, that everything has been supplied as requested, and to finding out about housekeeping, fire alarms and exits, and where toilets are. When I’ve got everything set up, and tested my presentation, I then like to sit in various positions around the room to get an idea of what people can see. Just to check that I’m not obscuring anything by standing in my chosen position or that I’ve accidentally set something up that’s out of someone’s sight line.  And get yourself a good supply of water – stay hydrated.

Mental preparation – stage one

The first stage of mental preparation is visualisation. Well in advance of the event, find a quiet space and imagine yourself delivering your speech – walk around and talk out loud if needs be. This mental rehearsal is key to success – and it’s not a sign of weakness- the very best speakers – and the very best sports personalities – all do this – and do it regularly.

Mental preparation – stage two

Your body language will be giving away a lot about how you are feeling. If you are nervous or feeling unprepared, then position yourself beside the person who is introducing you and start to make eye contact with the group while you are waiting to go on.

Consciously relax the muscles in your face, and smile. Scan round the faces of the whole audience front to back and right to left and back – say a silent ‘Hello’ to all of them in your mind’s eye, and keep your hands steady by your sides or behind your back. For some, a steadying hand on the podium works a treat – just don’t accidentally look as if the building will fall down if you let go.

Stay calm and take your time. We all tend to deliver our lines at zillion miles per hour when we are nervous, so breathe slowly, and form each line in your head before you begin to say it. You can almost take twice as long to say things as you feel comfortable with before anyone notices – time seems to speed up when the adrenalin flows (just think of the ‘my life flashed before me’ notion). The truth is whilst you notice this, others don’t.

Use the ‘lighthouse’ technique

Every group you address, large or small, will always have people within it who nod and smile and give unspoken feedback. You can then find yourself addressing these people and accidentally ignoring the rest. Make sure your eyes scan the horizon, like the beam of light from a lighthouse, taking in every face in the room. That way everyone will feel you are making contact, and you’ll get a richer response as a result. Use inclusive gestures – open arms, or an open palm.

Believe – in yourself and what you are saying

It’s imperative that you deliver with energy and conviction – if you want other people to find your message compelling and believable, you have to believe it yourself.  Only 7% of how you come across is down to the words you use – 38% is tone of voice, and a massive 55% is body language – and these two will reveal any lack of conviction on your part. That’s where creative people have a head start – we genuinely love and are enthusiastic about our chosen craft – and that will shine through despite any nerves that might be showing.

Start well

I often find asking a few simple questions will get people focussed quickly. A bit of participation like ‘Hands up those of you who have… (Insert the question of your choice here)’ warms the audience up and gets them associating personally with you and your content) or introduce a quirky fact or dilemma relating to your craft (Did you know that glass was a liquid?, or who invented the zip fastener?) something that you will resolve or explain later – add in a bit of suspense.

Show and tell

The other distinct advantage you have as a creative person is that the visual material you show people, either on screen or in the flesh will draw people’s attention away from you. So your primary task can be to tell the story of the work. Choosing the right images – the ones that really fire your enthusiasm – images of things you’ve really enjoyed making – can make all the difference to how you feel about your talk. And whatever you do – don’t cram slides full of text – it’s downright boring!

Moderate pace and tone

There’s nothing like a bit of feedback to boost your confidence and keep your energy going. One way of ensuring you get this is to keep your audience alert by changing the pace and tone of your voice. It’s amazing how this alone can make the difference between a lively engaging experience and a truly dull one. Speed up and slow down deliberately (subtly, mind) and alter your intonation – apart from anything else – it keeps you awake too.

Finish Well

Plan to finish well. Finish with something that really floats your boat. You’ll then transmit that enthusiasm over to your audience. And let them know that you’ve enjoyed their company – thank them for coming.  And don’t be coy – enjoy the applause.

Public speaking is only one option! If you struggle with issues around confidence and self-promotion, you might like the exercises and suggestions in my latest book - The Art of Shouting Quietly. It’s great way to find out about techniques and tools for self-promotion that suit your personal preferences.You don’t necessarily have to expose yourself in front of large groups of people in order to make an impact. There are other ways.

All the best for now.