Advice to Public Speakers
The first and probably most important piece of advice for developing your skills in Public Speaking is
Having spent a few years as the President of a Speakers Club, I found that one of the main reasons people joined was because of work. They had managed to navigate the professional world without having to speak in front of people and now they had either received a promotion or their role had changed and they were required to run team meetings or present to clients and they were petrified! Sometimes avoidance and procrastination are not the answer. So the first tip to new speakers is: ‘Do it!’
You don’t need to chase opportunities, but don’t run in the opposite direction when one presents itself.
And it will. You can always join a speaking club. In the UK the first two obvious ports of call would be:
https://www.toastmasters.org and https://the-asc.org.uk and check if there is a club near you.
Organisations like the Rotary Club are often looking for speakers, as are organisations for older people who schedule talks for the members or patients. You don’t need to be brilliant or polished and if you have a passion for butterflies and want to share it, many would be delighted.
At work if a small suitable opportunity arises, take it. Deliver part of a larger presentation on an area of expertise; say a few words about a colleague leaving. Take small steps.
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
Maybe try not to start with a 30 minute presentation without notes in front of 200 people.
When we were training new Public Speaking trainers to deliver workshops to school students we would start them off with a small presentation task, either introducing an exercise for the students or more often explaining one short speaking principle or top tip. It is obviously better to speak well and confidently on a subject for 90 seconds than to struggle for ten minutes.
When I trained to become a ‘cellist the route I followed was a very systematic path of small wins.
My teacher was very critical of music teachers who allowed their students to splash about in large, famous, technically demanding pieces of music, ‘for fun’.
Most budding ‘cellists would love to be able to play, for instance, the Elgar ‘Cello concerto.
My teacher’s attitude was that if it was beyond your ability, apart from it sounding grim, it might set up some psychological barriers and embed some bad habits.
Therefore I was encouraged to play pieces well within my technical ability. It was the accompanying scales, studies and exercises that developed my technique.
Therefore if an opportunity comes up at work, grasp the opportunity, but don’t bite off more than you can handle, maybe ask for something not too far out of your comfort zone (Bearing in mind it will always feel a little outside your comfort zone!).
Hopefully you are fortunate enough to have a reasonably understanding boss or manager, who realises that a few well judged small steps will develop you to being able to take the bigger ones yourself.
- So if there is a presentation on the vision of the company, maybe you could offer to focus on one part or aspect of the project.
- If you are reviewing the quarterly progress of the organisation, is there one area on which you could speak with authority?
Find out where you fit into the programme?
If you are not the only speaker, always make sure you know what comes before you and what comes after.
If you have opted to make a small contribution to a bigger presentation, make absolute certain you know exactly who is passing over to you and how they are going to do it.
One of the most common reasons for a speaking disaster is that even though the speaker knows what he or she is intending to say, they are not properly prepared for the hand-over:
- ‘To give you more detail on this, I am now going to hand over to Mary.’
- ‘Oh Yes me...OK…sorry I was not quite expecting that…’…and it gets worse from there
This may be your first time, you are now flustered and everything seems to fall apart.
And now despite all the preparation you had put in, you find yourself floundering, which at that moment will only go to confirm why you have always avoided speaking in the first place.
Even though you had carefully prepared exactly what you were going to say, you had not thought about how that would join up with what precedes and what follows.
On several occasions I have heard a hand over like:
‘I am now going to ask Mary Dwyer to explain it from here.’
‘Hello my name is Mary Dwyer…’
That is not a disaster, but it signals to the room that there is a disconnection between the speakers.
So don’t leave it to chance. Are they going to introduce you by name, in which case you not need to repeat it, or are they just passing over to a ‘colleague’, in which case you might want to explain who you are.
On many occasions I have checked in with the speaker before me and confirmed not just where in the presentation they are going to hand over, but also quite specifically, exactly what words would they be finishing with.
I would then tell them what I intended to say for my first words to make sure they were on board with it and understood how it fit together.
In case you are thinking:
‘That sounds quite assertive – What are your last words? - And - Here are my first words!’
you can explain that it is precisely because you are a little nervous about the presentation that you are asking for that clarity.
I am inclined to compare any team presentation to a chair.
Each speaker is like a separate piece of the chair, solid and well-made, but if the individual pieces are not joined up securely the chair will collapse!
Find a subject that you can talk about with enthusiasm.
‘Set yourself alight and people will come from miles around to see you sparkle!’
Enthusiasm obviously communicates better than boredom or indifference, but there is a more important reason than that.
An audience cannot tell the difference between someone who is excited and someone who is very scared.
From a few feet away they look just the same:
- excited voice
- red cheeks
A popular saying goes:
‘We all feel butterflies in our stomach when we speak, but the enthusiastic speaker has learnt to make the butterflies fly in formation.’
Stories remain the most natural form of communication.
They are easier to remember than lots of words, facts and data.
And that means it is easier for both the audience and the speaker.
A good story will contain a message and the best source of stories is your own experience.
So look for stories that taught you something:
- stories of success that taught you to do the right things;
- stories of disaster that taught you not to do the wrongs things
and then tell us what you learnt.
If your stories are relatable and connect with the people in the room, they will imagine themselves in your position and therefore in turn what they would have learnt, or done differently.
Practise your contribution until you know it well. If you are intending to use a lot of notes or slides, record yourself speaking so that you can improve your diction, vocal variation and probably slow down.
The chances are you will feel flustered when you stand up, so you want to be as confident as you can be in the bits that you can control.
I think it was Neil Armstrong, who replied when asked what it felt like actually walking on the moon, that it felt just the same as the drills and practice he had gone through thousands of times.
Control what you can control, because you may not feel completely in control of your nerves!
And as highlighted above, pay particular attention to how you are going to join on from the other speakers if find you are not alone on the programme
Giving and receiving feedback are not the same thing.
Giving feedback should be approached with an attitude of wanting to support and encourage
Receiving feedback should be taken with an attitude of wanting to learn.
I remember being part of an organisation where each member was encouraged to ‘sign up’ to a set of words that almost became a personal mission statement:
‘I will listen to advice and feedback from my mentor and I will not be offended!’
Sometimes valuable feedback is not always delivered with tact or sensitivity.
Try to keep your ego and desire to push back to criticism in check.
Our job in receiving the feedback is not to be distracted by how we feel it has been delivered and how it makes us feel receiving, it is just to remember that our goal is to learn to improve.
Do it again
Don’t evaluate too much and certainly don’t focus too much on how you feel after your first presentations.
No one starts brilliantly, but we can all get better. If you have ever heard a stand-up comedian trying out new material, it can be a pretty gruesome, and often an extremely unfunny experience, but each comedian knows they have to go through that stage to reach the show that they aspire to.
Happily, Public Speaking should never be as uncomfortable as being a comedian, especially if you take the opportunity to:
1. Start speaking
2. Start Small
3. Find out where you fit in
4. Show passion
5. Tell stories
7. Seek feedback
8. Do it again