Public Speaking Tips for Practise
Practice makes perfect – or so they say.
That may be true for a technical skill, where we are moving towards some abstract idea of perfection:
a perfectly executed ice skating routine; a perfectly tiled bathroom, a perfect circle.
But let us not forget another equally true statement:
Public speaking belongs to the flawed world of human imperfection, not the sterile black-and-white world of some perfect ideal. Brad Pitt for some people is the ideal of the perfect physical specimen of a man. Even so, I wonder what he was like to live with! We don’t all like the same things. Not everyone is going to like the same speaker and how one person expresses their ideas may appeal more to some people than to others. So trying to create the perfect speech is never going to happen.
My point is that we need to avoid the alluring illusion that there is a perfect speech in us somewhere that if we continue to practise and polish will finally be realised. Perfection can quickly turn from an ideal to a burden.
Audiences change, emphasis changes, and since an effective presentation needs to come across more like a conversation than a lecture, the speaker also needs to be open to change and flexibility as they deliver their message.
The wife of a US president once tactfully said to her husband:
‘That is a fantastic speech, but not for that audience.’
However, there is still plenty to practise: practice to make the content flow more naturally; practice to establish the key points and the underlying structure and practice to deliver the speech more convincingly.
We need to prepare in a way that makes sure that:
- our message is clear to our audience;
- we come across as credible and worth listening to;
- the speech is well structured and well delivered;
- and that the audience can relate to us and our content.
Too much focus on some elusive idea of perfection puts the emphasis on the wrong place, as it becomes more about us and how we want to be seen and less about our audience and what we want to say.
Ultimately, our audience doesn’t really care about how ‘perfectly’ we present, they are only interested in how our words and message affect them.
Tips on Practising Public Speaking
Just do it
I remember reading a story about a social experiment with a pottery class and the task set was for each student to produce one excellent piece of work to put on show at the end of the session. The group was split into two halves. One half was urged to focus on one piece of work and use all their time to improve and perfect that piece. The second group was encouraged to quickly make something, put it aside, make something else, put it aside and just to focus on producing lots of work and then at the end to choose the one they liked best. At the end of the session when the judges came around to assess, consistently the best works on display were produced by the second group.
It will be the same with public speaking. The best way to improve is to do it and then do it again.
Yes – take advice; note what could have gone better and readjust, but you will improve quicker by the experience of getting up and delivering and learning from feedback, than you will by sitting at home and preparing the ‘perfect’ speech.
When I run Public Speaking courses, happily it seems that the participants learn a lot very quickly during the session and there is always a marked improvement from exercise to exercise during the day.
However, what sometimes used to happen was that the last presentation was a drop back in performance because the student suddenly felt this last delivery needed to be the best; after all it was supposed to be drawing all the learning principles from the previous exercises together into one big climax!
The apparent pressure to get it ‘right’ became too much!
What I have learned to do, as I introduce the final exercise, is to point out the possibility of extra pressure and the feeling that:
‘This one needs to be the best!’
And instead, I ask them to view it as just one more exercise.
And as in the previous exercises, to keep it simple, work out the key message, but don’t try to remember all the individual learning points together. That will be overwhelming.
I found that as soon as that pressure was removed, the standard of presentations went right back up again.
You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be clear.
See it from your audience’s point of view
Your audience is hearing you for the first time, so they do not know everything you intended to say.
If you forget something on the way that is probably not so important; if you forget your main reason for speaking, that probably is!
So as long as you keep your eye on the purpose and destination of the presentation and as long as you finally arrive at your destination, that is all the audience needs or needs to know.
They do not need to be told that you forgot something or that you left something out.
They won’t know unless you tell them.
And if you allow yourself this element of flexibility, you are now also capable of going in the opposite direction and maybe adding something that was not part of your original planning, but which might help you make your point more effectively to this particular audience on this particular day.
On the other hand, if you are required to deliver the same (it never will be quite the same) presentation to different groups, similarly they do not know or need to know that.
These days with all of our 24-hour news channels we are privileged to be able to follow a political representative as they move from a BBC studio to a Sky studio and on to Channel 4. At each interview, they start again from the beginning, for a brand new audience. They never say: ‘As I was just saying in the BBC studio.’ And when they repeat their clever soundbite or slogan on each occasion it is as if they were saying it for the first time.
Focus on structure
Until you are clear about the structure of your presentation – and structure always needs to be simple and flexible – you will not have a clear idea of where you are on the journey.
You will be like someone driving a car in a strange city with either a person or an app telling you step by step:
‘In two hundred meters, turn left.’
‘Take the second exit on the roundabout’
‘Turn right at the T junction.’
You have no idea where you are, you are just waiting for the next instruction.
This is similar to delivering a fully scripted speech. It is one line after another and you know that if you lose your place, you are lost completely.
Uncovering your structure is like taking the road west until you see the Town Hall, turning right immediately after, keeping on until you come to a large park on the right, and then over the hill to the final destination.
Now if you take a wrong turn you might be able to find your way back onto the route because you have a broad overview of how the journey should look and if the Town Hall suddenly turns up before you expected, that is no problem, you know where you are in the journey.
Vocalise, don’t Memorise
Too many speakers prepare by trying to memorise their words and once they realise that is not possible, they take the other option of writing everything onto too many PowerPoint slides and reading it.
Vocalising relates to the car journey above. Once you realise that the first part of your structure is to get from home to the Town Hall, repeat that part of the journey until you are comfortable getting to the Town Hall, and even if you take a slightly different route, you can still get there safely. So rather than memorising your words focus on getting from one key moment to another key moment in your presentation. The precise words are not as important as knowing the themes and the general direction. After a while, you may find that a certain set of words feels natural, but you are no longer dependent on remembering them exactly.
Don’t do this too much, otherwise, you are back to trying to be ‘perfect’. Use your recording device to get an idea of how you sound. Is your voice flat? Then try to introduce more variation. Are you speaking too fast? Then consciously slow down. It is always worth getting a bit of outside feedback here because often we cannot manage to be fully objective. (‘I don’t like the tone of my voice. I don’t like my accent!’ – Probably not important!)
I used to be a member of a Public Speaking club, where one member regularly crafted some wonderful presentations. Clearly what he did was write down his speech and then read it through with a clock next to him to make sure it was not too long. However, every time he delivered it in public he always overran, because if you read it to yourself, you will always read quicker than how you speak in public. So if you are timing yourself, do it somewhere removed where you can speak at the top of your voice and imagine yourself in front of an audience. My experience is that even having done that, in reality, it still takes 10% longer than you expect.
Practise in front of a mirror
Or these days film yourself on your smartphone; however, similarly to Tip 5, don’t do it too much
As soon as you start mechanically practising your gestures, you will start to look self-conscious or robotic.
Do it once or twice to make sure you are standing well and that your hands are supporting your words.
Once again it could be worth getting a bit of outside feedback here because often we cannot manage to be fully objective. (‘I don’t like my hair. My bum looks big!’ – Probably not important!)
Simulate the real environment.
Amalgamate tips 5 – 7 if you have the opportunity. Can you go to the room where you will be speaking?
Can you practise or at least visualise (next tip) how the speech should go. I find it most valuable to practise or visualise just the first few moments of a presentation, when I will be at my most nervous and stressed and just to run through the first couple of lines, either silently on the stage or out loud if that seems possible will help confidence. You will probably not be able to use a phone to effectively record what you do, so having someone supportive to reassure you can also be valuable.
Visualisation and Self Talk
These days this is seen as much more acceptable and less ‘out there’. We know that athletes and peak performers always run an internal video of success before performing, whereas it still seems to be acceptable for us to allow our worries to catastophise all the possible disasters that could occur. Why not consciously play a more positive preview in your mind and then when the presentation goes very well it won't be such a surprise!?
Obviously, good honest supportive feedback will help you improve and if you seek feedback from someone who has been where you are going and who can offer a few extra tips that might help eradicate simple errors or redirect some faulty assumptions, that will help all the more and probably save you a lot of time and the personal grief of having to learn from all your own mistakes.
The main benefit of feedback however is to offer encouragement, so that if you are in the second pottery group, you are getting a little bit of guidance, alongside the encouragement of:
‘Well done. Try again.’
We will never be perfect, but with a bit of guidance and repetition, we can always get better!
- Vocalise – don’t memorise.
- Focus on finding the underlying structure to your presentation – and then walk through it regularly
- Keep gathering valuable feedback: from yourself and from those qualified to offer it.
and of course
- Be nice to yourself!