DELIVERYAs a former professional actor, it never occurred to me that this wouldn’t be obvious to anyone preparing a talk. But I’ve realized this step is often missed by novice speakers; you must rehearse. Out loud. This is particularly important for more formal speeches. You can probably get away with being a bit more off-the-cuff in a team presentation, but this won’t fly if you’re preparing a keynote. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, you may not be able to rehearse your whole talk. This might be because you don’t have a lot of time to prepare, or perhaps you’re doing a two day workshop. Happily, you don’t necessarily need to rehearse every word of your talk. But at the very least, rehearse your opening and closing so you know you’ll begin and end with a bang. Another reason you’ll want to practice out loud is to prevent over-stuffing your content. To paraphrase the saying, “If I had more time, I would have prepared a shorter talk.” In fact, for bonus points, end your talk early. Your audience (and event host) will appreciate it. No matter how great your talk may be, no one ever wishes it was longer. Dealing with Nerves Even the most seasoned speaker will still get butterflies before a talk. The key here is embracing your nerves. Rather than fighting your nerves, your best off accepting them and re-framing your “nerves” as “energy.” Additionally, knowing your opening cold will help combat nerves. We already know strong openings are important for setting the tone for your talk. But beyond that, a solid (rehearsed) opening can be a useful guardrail. For most of us, it’s really only the first few minutes that feel like an out-of-body experience. By having a well-rehearsed opening, you’ll have more emotional bandwidth to deliver what you’ve rehearsed and be present with your audience. Lastly, here’s one final counter-intuitive tip; make eye contact with your audience. Your impulse may be to run and hide, but making eye contact will actually help you feel more settled and grounded. Be Vulnerable (But Not Too Much); Be Humble (But Not Too Much) Few things turn off an audience more than the speaker who claims to have it all figured out. Too many speakers (… ahem, high pressure, sell-from-the-stage salespeople) aggressively sell the their formidable talents and expertise, while missing the chance to be an actual human. While a certain type of potential client will be drawn to their unwavering belief in their own greatness, for many people (this writer included) it implies either a lack of self-awareness or honesty. On the other hand, no one is inspired by someone lacking in confidence and uncomfortable in their own skin. Good public speakers can come across as genuine and human but still speak confidently and assertively. No one wants to work with someone who is apologizing for themselves or clearly doesn’t believe they belong on stage. So there’s a balancing act here. While there’s no algorithm for how to “be humble, but not too much,” the simplest way of integrating this principle is telling stories about lessons learned. Candor with your audience about missteps you’ve made and how they’ve made you better can be great teaching tools and build rapport. Nail the Technical Basics Before we discuss technical elements of speaking, remember people don’t care that much about technical speaking. Unless you’re in the rarefied air of “speaking as sport,” no one is going to grab the hook if you occasionally say “um” or “ah.” With that said, the more you can clean up your speaking and avoid vocal clutter, the clearer and more impactful you’ll be. Additionally, be mindful of repetitive phrases. As an example, for a long time I had a bad habit of ending sentences with “right?” At best, this repetitive phrasing was unnecessary, and at worst, it was distracting. Furthermore, it was subconscious; I didn’t even know I was doing it until an attendee pointed it out. Ouch! Whenever possible, it’s great to watch video of your talks to see if you can catch any distracting vocalisms or physicalities. Most of us don’t exactly relish the chance to watch ourselves on video, but it’s a crucial source of self-feedback as you work on your craft. Other Pro Tips
- Since openings matter, it’s a great to prepare an intro for your presenter to read. This will allow you to control your framing to your audience. When done well, it also reduces the amount of credibility- building you have to build into your slidedeck, which allows for more time on content.
- Appreciate the constraints of the physical space and the conventions of the talk’s format. Speaking at a conference of 500 people is vocally and physically very different than a ten minute presentation for your team at a meeting in a conference room. These constraints will inform both your volume and the physical size of your delivery, and therefore should inform how you rehearse. Larger spaces will require a larger “size” performance; conversely, lots of gesticulating may come across as bizarre in more intimate settings.
- For those who new to speaking and/or who struggle with nerves, it can be helpful to minimize the unexpected variables on the day of your talk. Consider rehearsing in the exact clothes you’re going to wear. See if you can get in the room early to get a sense of the space you’ll be in. If possible, consider arranging a “sound check,” where you practice speaking with whatever amplification you’ll be using.
- Play with tempo, pauses, and volume. Few things will make your speech less engaging then plodding along at a steady tempo and volume. Great speakers vary their pacing and volume. And don’t be afraid of pauses. Pauses are your friend, as even a relatively brief moment of silence can quickly engage and draw in your audience.
- l once heard a speaking coach offer a nugget of wisdom that’s really stayed with me: “Your audience will never have more fun than you’re having.” It may be hard to imagine actually enjoying yourself if you’re not naturally drawn to public speaking. But ultimately, the more fun you’re having and the more comfortable you are, the more your audience can relax and enjoy your talk.
- To be great at public speaking, you have to get your reps in. Like any other craft, there are no shortcuts to mastery. If you want to be great, you need to find (or create) opportunities to work on your craft. Happily, any business leader will find no shortage of chances to speak to a group; examples include team meetings, sales presentations, and even podcast interviews.
The key is being intentional about seeking deliberate feedback. Get in the habit of picking one skill to hone each time you speak to a group (volume, pacing, physicality, minimizing vocal clutter, etc.). Keep a log of self-assessments, and for bonus points, invite trusted attendees to give you feedback on your focus for a given talk.
(Want help with preparing great in-services for your team? Read this article HERE.)
- For more practice, look into joining an organization like Toastmasters International. Toastmasters offers an affordable curriculum of speaking and leadership training and holds weekly and bi-weekly meetings all over the world. For those looking to really supercharge their growth, look into training with Michael Port’s Heroic Public Speaking.
- While speaking is a craft that has to be practiced in real time, book-lovers should check out the following books: