By Carolyn Landesman
The fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears people have. Most people would rather die than speak in public. However, if you have aspirations to become a senior manager, community leader, an entrepreneur or even a promotion at work, then speaking at ease in front of a group is critical to your success. If you can’t learn to speak in front of others, this will hold you back from reaching your potential.
Speaking in public does not need to be delivered in an auditorium with a thousand people. It could be as simple as making a speech at a wedding, giving a presentation at work or even speaking to a small group of people in a meeting. Regardless, here are 11 ways to avoid a public speaking meltdown.
1. Craft your speech intentionally
When you give a speech and you don’t know the purpose, your audience or the length of time you should be speaking for, the speech will become a train wreck no matter how much you practice before hand. If you don’t know your audience and who you are speaking to or why, the speech will bomb.
Know your audience. The speech is more about them and what you can offer of value. It’s not about you. What do you want them to take-away from your speech? Once you know that, you can craft your speech with an intentional message or objective in mind.
If speaking to an audience of women, jokes that denigrate women won’t go down well. Ensure your speech is relevant to the audience you will be speaking to and the language you use is appropriate.
2. Use your allotted time wisely
Most people tend to underestimate the attention span of the audience and the length of time it takes to deliver your speech. If you are allotted 15 minutes to speak, make sure you finish within that time frame. As a rule of thumb, aim to speak for 20 percent less time because when you are speaking live, it takes longer than you anticipate. Being on time shows respect for your audience. It’s always better to leave the audience wanting to hear more than talking so long they get bored.
3. Know your subject matter
The most powerful speeches in the world come from recounting a personal story. If you were asked to describe the town you were brought up in, your childhood or a defining moment in your life, it would be easier because you are recounting something that was true, for you. You would be more comfortable recalling memories that happened in your past than making something up about your future.
However, if you were asked to speak on a topic you know nothing about, even if you had time to research it, you would fear giving this kind of talk. Why? Because in this case you would NOT be an expert. Not being an expert immediately erodes your confidence.
If asked to give any speech, make sure you know the subject matter inside out. Even if you don’t know everything about the topic, learn more than you need to know and only speak about what are confident speaking about.
4. Don’t read your speech
There is nothing more boring than listening to someone reading a speech or presentation word for word. It never comes across as being natural. Worse still, with your eyes constantly on your notes, you fail to make eye contact and build rapport with your audience.
When you write out a speech or presentation, you use the written word and not conversational language. What trips you up is, trying to remember what you wrote instead of focusing on the essence of the speech.
Never, ever, ever memorize a speech or presentation word for word. If you do it will sound unnatural and you will lose the audience.
It’s okay to write out your speech to define your purpose and tweak the structure. This helps to make sure your opening is strong; the body of the presentation stays on point and you finish with a strong conclusion. After you are happy with the structure, make bullet points of the main points and practice talking to those bullet points without reading. Every time you practice with just headlines or bullet points, you gain the confidence to speak without notes.
The speech then becomes more natural grown from your expertise, experiences, convictions and your personality.
5. Make sure to plan structure around your speech
Ever listened to a speaker who keep repeating themselves. They rambled on about something irrelevant or went off topic? Your eyes glass over and you begin tune out hoping not to fall asleep. Without structure, its easy for a presentation to become a rambling out of control mess with no purpose. Do this, you will not only lose the audience, you will lose track of your overall message.
Know the purpose of your presentation and have an overall objective, for instance, to inform, entertain, inspire or persuade. Once you know the purpose of the presentation, you can then begin to structure it accordingly. Organize the presentation in a manner that achieves the general purpose or specific purpose of the presentation. Ensure the beginning, body and conclusion all contribute to that purpose.
The structure of speech will differ according to the time you have to present. For instance, in a 5-minute presentation, the audience will only remember 3 key points.
6. Practice practice practice
Not practicing your presentation is a sure-fire way to create excessive anxiety and nerves. It’s also disrespectful to your audience. Do Olympic athletes go into competition without spending years in training? Were they naturally on top of their game when they first began? Of course not.
Why would you stand in front of an audience and wing it? If you did, you set yourself up to fail unless you have a lot of experience at impromptu speaking.
Rehearse your presentation by weaving it into a conversation with your friends. Practice in front of a mirror. Record yourself and play it back while driving in the car. Deliver your speech in front of a friend or colleagues, those who will give you honest feedback.
Anyone can make a speech or presentation if they know their topic, are well prepared and practiced.
7. Use your nerves to your advantage
Finally, no doubt the following will go through your mind right before you are scheduled to speak.
- What if the audience doesn’t like me?
- What if I forget what I am going to say?
- What if the speech isn’t perfect?
Worrying about the speech or presentation will not settle your nerves.
Turn that on its head by asking yourself… “What if the speech was amazing?” How would that make you feel? How would the audience respond?
Going into a presentation or giving a speech with nerves is a good thing. You don’t want to get rid of the fear completely, instead channel that energy into your speech or presentation. Instead of worrying about your delivery, find ways to improve it.
Use the power pose Amy Cuddy talks about in her famous Ted Talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.
8. Be yourself
It’s easy to want to compare yourself to great orators like John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King who eloquently inspire an audience. Not being yourself leaves you open to an audience not liking you, worse still, you come across as a second-rate speaker.
Be yourself. Be authentic.
If you are a slow speaker, embrace that and use your rate of speech to deliver important pauses with impact. If you are a fast speaker, use that to inspire with punchy quotes. If you feel more comfortable moving around than standing still – move with purpose. If you like to stand still, make your points with power.
Of course, when you add gestures and use vocal variety, your speech will always come across as being more powerful. If that’s not you – don’t do it. Don’t imitate others.
9. Dress for the occasion
Not dressing for the occasion will always put you on the back foot. It will make you uncomfortable and eat into your confidence. More importantly, be comfortable in what you are wearing, if not it will show.
When you feel good about the way you look, this immediately increases your confidence levels. The audience will sit up and take note as you take the stage or stand in front of the room.
10. Arrive early
One thing that will always trip a speaker up is arriving late. It’s important to get a feel for the layout of the room you will be speaking in. This also helps to calm your nerves.
If you are using a microphone or audio visuals, being early allows time to ensure you don’t have any technology problems. If technology fails you, have a back-up plan ready, perhaps a whiteboard or flip chart to highlight key points.
11. Maintain eye contact
During your speech, ensure you maintain eye contact with the audience. If you have notes, bullet points or an outline, put them on 3 x 5 cards. As you change each card, use this as a cue to look up at the audience. Maintaining eye contact gives you an air of confidence and makes you feel secure.
If your nerves are getting the better of you, before you begin your speech, find a few people in the audience you can make eye contact with. One on the left, one on the right and perhaps someone middle forward and middle back. Pretend these are your best friends and most ardent supporters. This will help calm any nerves you might have.
On a final note
By following these 11 simple tips, you can overcome your fear of public speaking with ease.
In a Nutshell
- Know your audience and craft your speech intentionally.
- Use your time wisely. Ideally aim to speak 20 percent less time than allocated.
- Know your subject matter inside out. Learn more than you need and only speak about what you are comfortable with.
- Don’t read your speech word for word. Makes notes or bullet points on 3 x 5 cards.
- Structure your speech with a strong opening, body and conclusion.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Use nerves to your advantage using nervous energy to add power and enthusiasm into your speech.
- Be authentic. Be yourself. Don’t try to copy another persons style.
- Dress for the occasion and be comfortable with what you are wearing.
- Arrive early and set up well ahead of time.
- Maintain eye contact with the audience throughout your speech. If using cards and bullet points, use these as a cue to look at the audience.
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