Public Speaking Tips
Woodrow Wilson once offered the advice
‘Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone!’
and that is a pretty good place to start.
Experience has told me working with children and with adults that the starting point for most upcoming speech assignments is:
‘I don’t know what to talk about’.
I remember a frequent look on a new speaker’s face as they joined a Speakers Club and were informed that their first speech assignment would be to introduce themselves to the other members of the club at the next meeting.
‘How long does the speech need to be?’ they would ask.
‘Five to six minutes.’
‘Five to six minutes! I can’t talk that long. I don’t have that much to say!
Invariably as they started to introduce themselves at the next meeting they would have spoken for ten minutes and they still had not got past their time at primary school.
Know when to stop
That may not sound very helpful as a first tip. A bit like telling someone who is lost that they need to know where they are going.
However once you understand that after the initial fear of not knowing what to talk about, the real problem for most of us is knowing how and when to stop, you realise that our first tip has more to it than might at first seem; hence the quote from Woodrow Wilson.
‘Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone!’
I used to regularly tell school students that Public Speaking is a bit like driving a car; that you learn fairly quickly that driving the car is not the problem: stopping the car is!
So before we start stressing too much about having to stand up and speak, just for now let us put aside all anxieties about standing up in front of people, our deep-seated struggles with self-image, our shaking hands and bright red face as well as all our other (perfectly normal and understandable) manifestations of fear, because the most powerful antidote to all of that is first and foremost to know ‘what you want to say’ and where you want to stop.
Those of us who now regularly use Siri or some equivalent app to guide us on our journeys have probably got used to the AI voice announcing at the end of the journey:
‘You have now reached your destination.’
That means it is time to park the car and switch off the engine – and relax!
Your destination becomes the point, the meaning and the purpose of your journey.
And, of course, if your presentation does not have a clear purpose, then all these other anxieties are going to quickly bubble up in front of you:
‘What am I trying to say?’
‘Why am I here?’
‘Why should anybody want to listen to me?’
And with thoughts like that in my head, I can promise you, I am also going to start shaking, go red in the face, get flustered and lose my words.
However, as soon as I have a purpose to my presentation, I can start to counter those thoughts:
‘Why should anybody want to listen to me?’ – because what I have to say should relate to my audience.
‘Why am I here?’ – because I have an important message to share
‘What am I trying to say?’ – I know exactly what I am trying to say!
And that is a healthier state of mind.
Speak to your audience
Again I would hope this is fairly obvious.
However, I do not simply mean: know who is there so that you can relate your content to them, even though that is an important first step.
You need to do more than relate to your audience, your speech needs to speak to them.
I remember listening to a speaker who was telling a story about how she met this totally obnoxious human being, with whom she had an immediate antipathy and then informed us at the end that this man is now her husband and they have been happily married for twenty years.
She had a good chance of relating to her audience.
She was speaking to a room full of adults, who in all likelihood would have had some experience of a relationship that, starting out unpromisingly, turned out surprisingly well:
so all good in terms of ‘relating’ to the audience.
However, I imagine that if I had gone up to the speaker at the end and asked her what here presentation was about, she would have replied along the lines of:
‘It was about how I did not like my husband when I first met him, but how it all turned out well.’
i.e. the speech was about her!
If you really want to connect with your audience, then the speech needs to be about them and more often than not it only needs a small shift in emphasis to achieve this.
Instead, the speech is no longer about her and her husband, she is using the story about hereand her husband to make a point that connects to her audience:
‘How often in our lives we do meet people who are very off-putting at first, but over time that impression changes’
and now instead of thinking about her, she has us thinking about ourselves and how her story relates to our lives.
And that of course is what the speaker above did – the story of how she met her husband.
I can give you a big and long list of why speakers should use stories:
relatable, visual, easy to remember, in evolutionary terms we have been telling stories long before we could read or write, stories are easier to deliver than ‘data’ and contribute to a more vibrant body language and vocal engagement. All good.
However, following through on the themes above:
1. Know when to stop
2. Speak to your audience
the first thing you will realise about good stories is that they have an end!
Life does not have a neat ending (apart from the inevitable big one for each of us) and speeches seem inclined to follow life’s pattern.
Therefore by building your speech around stories, as well as all the benefits briefly listed above, you have the ready-made advantage of being able to use your story’s natural end to help you create an end to your speech – and so giving you an idea of when to stop.
And if you then make sure that your story ‘speaks to your audience’ you have the second guarantee that the content of your speech not only relates to the audience, but can be used to deliver your message to your audience in a way that they can absorb.
Handle your nerves
Hopefully you are now realising that each of these tips, which are all statements of the ‘blindingly obvious’, have a little more to them underneath;
because although ‘handling your nerves’ can and probably will on another occasion focus on relaxation and breathing techniques, visualisation and self-talk, my message today, is not about techniques, procedures or exercises, it is about having the right mindset.
First message on nerves:
your nerves will never go away (sorry about that)
However, if before you stand up in front of a room
- 1. You know when to stop,
you will have planned what your message so that even if you go wrong, stumble or forget you will be able to quickly remind yourself and your audience by referring to the purpose of your presentation.
This now gives you two choices.
(i) having arrived at stating your purpose (admittedly through a stumble and maybe a bit earlier than you attended) you can now listen to Siri and choose to park your car and switch off your engine early.
(Your audience will not know you have finished early, they will probably be thinking:
‘I like this person. Brief. Brilliant. Gone!’)
(ii) you use that touch down moment as a way of reminding yourself, relaunching and continuing on your journey until you have covered they key points you intended to say.
- 2. You make sure that the content of your speech speaks to your audience
you have taken yourself away from being the centre of focus (because that is what is probably making you nervous in the first place) and put the focus and purpose of your presentation fully onto the audience.
Now if you stumble or slip up, it does not matter quite so much, because the speech was not about you anyway (!) it was about getting the message across to them.
- 3. You tell them stories
This makes you feel and seem a more natural communicator. Your self-image and credibility no longer play such a big part in causing you anxiety, because you are telling your story, and you were there and you know what happened.
All of which means
4. You can handle your nerves better
because it is no longer all about you!