Comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked that because Public Speaking ranked higher than death on a list of fears, many would choose death over speaking in public. Consider the cost to your career or your organization if fear causes you to avoid making presentations. Speaking engagements provide opportunities to boost credibility, make direct personal connections with many individuals at one time, and advance your mission or sell your product.
While choosing death over speaking in public seems extreme, as a Public Speaking coach and teacher, I can attest to having witnessed intense fear as well as the pitfalls of overconfidence.
Midway through a speech, a very nervous college student ran out of the classroom crying. Fear had gotten the best of her. She only took the course because it was required. I paused the class, went down the hall to find my student, and talked her off the ledge. I let her describe her anxiety, and then addressed each concern with a question. Did you prepare? Did you practice? What was your self-talk prior to taking the stage? How could you have mitigated nervousness? Did you apply the strategies we discussed in class?
She realized she tried to short-cut the process, not because of laziness but because of nerves. Her second speech was better; she completed it but still had a lot of work to do. Each subsequent speech was an improvement upon the previous. To her surprise and to the delight of her classmates, this young woman had a refreshing air of confidence by the end of the semester.
On the other end of the spectrum was a retired professional athlete, who I had not had the pleasure of coaching. I had seen him in action on the playing field and after games at press conferences. His confidence was unrivaled, not arrogant but professional. As an entrepreneur with a new business, he was invited to deliver the keynote at a large awards dinner. No doubt, his name on the ticket was the reason the event sold out quickly. Anticipation filled the room as he approached the stage. His business talk began with a relevant sports analogy. Within a few minutes, however, it became obvious that he had no game plan for this arena. It appeared he had not thoroughly prepared for this new sport. His message became redundant and his key point was lost. I think he knew it, too, but could not get out of his own way. It was painful to watch.
Like writing, there is a process to preparing for oral presentations. No amount of confidence will make up for a lack of preparation. The reason many audiences lose interest in presentations is because the presenter lacks organization or a well-crafted game plan. Coincidentally, careful organization and preparation increases confidence and quells nerves.
I entered the speakers’ circuit after spending decades communicating from behind a microphone in the confines of a broadcast booth. Like many, the challenge of addressing a live audience freaked me out, so I embraced it and embarked on a lifelong study of the art and science of Public Speaking. I developed a formula for communication practices that would meet the needs of both budding and seasoned professionals because there’s always room to up your game. Here are five tips to help get you started:
- If fear is gripping you, try turning off the negative chatter box in your head. Rather than thinking “I’m not the best subject matter expert,” “I’ll bore the audience,” “I’ll probably forget half of what I want to say,” etc., feed yourself positive thoughts: “I’m confident my approach to this topic will inspire the audience.” “I know this subject so well that I can fluidly deliver it in an easy-to-grasp manner.” “I’ve practiced and I know the three points I want to make, so my audience will hear my complete message.”
- Prepare and practice. Regardless of how well you know the topic, you must prepare every step of the presentation, especially the closing remarks. I coach speakers on my three-by-three method for organizing a presentation.
- Check your expectations. One hundred percent audience buy-in is not realistic. Shoot for one hundred percent respect.
- Never make assumptions about your audience without thoroughly doing your homework. Learn as much about your audience as possible before preparing your talk in order to address it properly.
- You are the presentation, not your PowerPoint. Use PowerPoint as a visual aid, not as a teleprompter. Don’t Let Microsoft Co-opt Your Presentation.
I have hundreds more tips …wait for it, in my handy pocket guide, Impact: Deliver Effective, Meaningful, and Memorable Presentations. My Speaking for Successprogram is designed to help professionals at every level increase confidence, exude credibility, and speak with conviction.