Public Speaking tips for Beginners
Not all Public Speaking beginners start at the same place. Most of us have existed for many years on the earth before anyone ever mentioned Public Speaking to us. Over that time some of us grow up very happy to be the centre of attention, while others would rather slip by unnoticed.
Some of us like talking to strangers, whereas others find it very difficult.
Add to that differing levels of individual self-confidence, self-image, and even self-respect and you have a very uneven starting line.
Small children are often very good at Public Speaking because self-confidence, self-image, and self-respect are qualities that develop for better or for worse over time and most small children still live in an unselfconscious world where they believe what interests them will interest others and if they feel they want to say something, it must be worth saying.
Even so, for many of us, the doubts and fears that later develop are already there, programmed or pre-programmed into sensitive, malleable minds.
I remember the tragic case of a school music project I took part in with one of the London orchestras, and although this was a music project rather than Public Speaking, much of the same type of anxiety was on show: standing up and performing in front of others, having people look at you, having to deliver your part at a specific moment.
Our job was to develop confidence, and engender a sense of fun and togetherness by creating very simple musical compositions using a class of students and lots of very simple banging, clanging, and shaking instruments. The result was often surprisingly uplifting and impressive.
We chose one child to bang the big drum. It was the biggest instrument, it was the loudest instrument and to be chosen to strike it seemed like a big deal.
We decided to choose a child that seemed a little under-confident to give him a boost. We suspected had already been a little bit bullied at school, as already at the age of eleven or twelve there were traces of anxiety and negative thought cycles etched on his young face.
During the day we rehearsed and built up our group performance and each time the big drum came in his smile grew bigger, self-doubt seemed to evaporate and we could see a blossoming before our eyes.
Today he would be the centre of attention for a good reason! He had something where he could succeed in front of others. He could do it!
Come the big afternoon performance, Head Teacher and Head of Year came in to hear the result of the workshop. There was a creative buzz in the room, lots of enthusiasm, and that busy unfocused din you have when an orchestra tunes up before everything settles down and we were ready to start.
With a little bit of conducting the clangers clanged, the bangers banged and the shakers shook.
I gestured over to our big drum soloist and saw that the big smile was gone; back was the anxiety, the painful negative loop of all his self-fulfilling doubt. He froze; he was unable to hit the drum, burst into tears, and ran out of the room. It was tragic to see.
He was back to where he was at the beginning of the day, only probably one hundred times worse,
because now the world had yet another child growing up who would forever be semi-traumatised at the thought of standing up in front of other people because he was sure to carry that one humiliation on a loop with him throughout the rest of his life.
Fortunately for most of us, our experiences will probably not have been quite so devastating, but I am sure many of us still carry the memory of a line forgotten at a school nativity play, a reading at an assembly that went wrong, or a total brain freeze in front of the whole class – and today any thoughts of Public Speaking bring them flooding back.
So – when it comes to Public Speaking we don’t all start from the same place.
However if through your role or your work, you realise you either want to or just need to deliver a presentation, even though we may not start at the same place, we can all start with the same advice:
(i) Start from where you are,
(ii) forgive yourself for any perceived disasters or inadequacies from your past, and
(iii) take small steps.
Not everyone will become a great moving orator, but everyone can become an impressive, apparently confident presenter – and hopefully, that should be enough for us.
To help take those next steps here are some tips – whether you are at the beginning of your journey or are already some way along.
And if you relate too closely to the crushing tragedy of that story, I am here to tell you:
It is OK. You are OK!
With a few small steps you can learn to overcome the negative that may still be with you and become a very accomplished speaker.
On the other hand, if you feel much more buoyant and confident, I am also here to tell you:
Even so, don’t try to get too far ahead of yourself too quickly. Take it one step at a time!
Whatever you choose to do needs to feel ‘possible’. I have witnessed many potential speakers biting off too much, because they think that they should be able to. We need to realise that fear and anxiety are emotions and no amount of logic can overcome an emotion. Only another emotion can overcome an emotion and that may be as simple as allowing yourself to feel proud of a small step. As you progress I would like you to be able to free yourself from heavy reliance on notes. That is not going to happen immediately, so even if you feel you would not dare stand up without a full script in front of you, try to commit to saying your first few words without looking at your notes. Make that good first impression with your head up and then once you have done that, you can go back to your notes.
First impressions! The opening moments are the most stressful, so I would suggest that if you only take one very small step, put all your delivery focus onto delivering that first sentence well. Practise it, repeat it many times until it almost says itself
(At this stage, don’t focus on what comes next - just make sure that your first words are secure).
Delivering your first words well will make you feel better about yourself and give you a little bit more confidence to go on.
And delivering your first words well will make a strong first impression on your audience.
Looking to the future, if you deliver that first sentence well, next time you could think about delivering more of the presentation without looking down.
Keep your words simple
Starting with your opening words, keep the language simple.
If you choose to start with:
‘I would like to present a precise statistical analysis’
there is a good chance of getting all mixed up in your words, especially if you are feeling nervous.
The ‘prs’ and the ‘sts’ in those words will lead you to mispronounce your ‘r’ and lisp over your ‘s’
So particularly when considering your first words, avoid obvious stumble hazards.
‘Today I want to look at the numbers’
is much less likely to lead you to grief!
‘Slow down’ in general is good - although slightly vague - advice.
I always spoke too fast (and still do)
And general observations to that end never seemed to help when I was back on stage again, I still rushed
So once again, start small.
Rather than taking the general instruction to slow down, focus on your first words again and practise delivering each word clearly and separately.
If you are relying on your notes, either you will be glued to them, for fear of getting lost, or you raise your eyes from them every now and then and risk losing your place. So, print out large clear headings so that if you look up it is easy to find where you are when you look back down.
Clarify you message in your own head in a nutshell statement – almost like a slogan or a strapline.
Can you sum up the purpose of your presentation in a short phrase?
It means that you will have established a clear message that your audience can grasp,
and with a clear idea of what you mean in your own head, if you find yourself getting lost or confused, it is much easier to bring yourself back on track.
Donald Trump is very good at this. Most of his messages are summed up in three monosyllables:
Lock her up
Build the wall
Drain the swamp
Send them home.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Focus on what really matters
…and that is not you! Most of our anxiety is based on us being too focused on ourselves. You do not have to be brilliant. Most of us are not. Focus on being good enough - and good enough is having a clear message that your audience can understand and learn from. Keep your eyes on the message, not the messenger.
Be nice to yourself
Most people dread Public Speaking and then get down on themselves for not being great at it.
Standing up in front of people is stressful – even if you have not had an early life experience as bad as the one outlined above. So accept that. Speak to yourself as you would speak to another person.
We can be devastatingly critical of ourselves, in a way that we would never be if we were supporting another person.
So encourage yourself; praise yourself for the little steps.
We are all children inside, and we need to offer ourselves childlike support.
They are on your side
Most people want you to do well (maybe not better than them, but well!) So ‘good enough’ will make them very happy indeed. And even if you feel not everyone wants you to succeed, focus on the ones that do.
Do it again
Getting good at anything takes time and practice.
If you put too much pressure on yourself, you run the risk of demotivating yourself.
So take small steps;
acknowledge any small achievements;
praise yourself for what you have overcome;
then take note of what you can do for your next step.
And one last suggestion that wraps around all the others:
Listen only to supportive and constructive advice.
Then get up and do it again!