Many people get jitters before a big speech; it’s such a common fear that some avoid it altogether. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that Americans feared public speaking more than death, which meant that the average person at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
While we’re above ground, however, public speaking can do us a lot more help than harm. No matter your industry, there are two groups of people: leaders and followers. Accepting invitations to speak means that you get to lead the conversation and actively participate in it. It’s vital today that every professional establishes his credibility. Furthermore, those who are established enough to be invited to speak owe it to their industry to do so. If you’re a thought leader, you can help others in your field, change your own thinking, and expand the beliefs of an entire industry.
Of course, all this is moot if your speaking skills leave something to be desired. It’s really irritating to have to sit through a boring presenter. Don’t be the person who drives the crowd into a daydream featuring them playing ping pong with Forrest Gump.
Focus Your Approach
Good speeches have clearly defined objectives. It’s essential that you know what you want to communicate and are aggressive in getting there. It’s easy to be distracted by shiny objects (is that guy wearing Armani? Is that a hat or a dead animal on that woman’s head? Oh, no, they’re taking the cheese tray away!). The problem with allowing yourself to get sidetracked is that the audience can tell – and rather than boosting your image, it’s lowering your contribution in their eyes.
Think of yourself as a hard-hitting journalist on Sunday morning television. No matter how much – or how often – others try to talk around your objective, bring it back home each and every time. Anchoring back to that central focus creates a cohesive story for the audience and ensures they remember something other than the color of your socks.
If someone asks you a question, don’t go down the rabbit hole – it will simply eat up time better spent talking about your main point. Taking questions at the end is always good to do, but don’t get off-message. I once gave a presentation on an “Extreme Retail Makeover” my company had completed. I spent so much time answering questions about our side of the equation – branding, website redesign – that I didn’t spend much time talking about the real story: what happened to that guy during the makeover. I spent a lot of time talking without saying anything relevant.
Speak from Your Heart
It sounds cheesy, but it’s good advice. A friend was about to give a speech to 300 people and was drowning in nervousness. We sat at the bar outside and had a drink to take the edge off his nerves. He kept poring over pages of notes, absorbing nothing and getting more nervous by the minute. I reached over, grabbed the papers, and ripped them up. He freaked out. I flipped a sheet over and drew a heart. “This is what you do – speak from that. Forget your notes,” I advised. He went on stage, without his props, and killed it. He knew what he needed to say all along – and he made a much better impact on the audience.
Use your passion to center your speech – don’t get too caught up in extraneous details. Those details can add great color to what you’re saying, but they can also take over. Would you rather sound like you have a lot to offer, or simply have a lot to offer?
Engage Your Audience
Sympathize with your audience – speakers are really boring. (I’m sure that’s not you, but someone out there is.) Lots of boneheads go on stage and are so impressed with themselves that they forget that other people are actually listening to them. Make it your mission to not bore your audience.
Just tell a story! People will remember your central ideas more clearly if they have real-life experiences to attach them to, but don’t go overboard – people’s eyes will glaze over the fourth time you name drop Bill Gates. If the audience is making better eye contact with their watches than they are with you, that’s a clear signal that your speech has skidded into lame territory. Work on your content so you can be captivating for the amount of time you’re scheduled.
Next month, I’m giving a speech where we’ll use electronic voting paddles so the audience can react to what I’m saying in real time. I will get their input, which adds great content to the talk, and they’ll get to participate, rather than wonder about the dead animal on that lady’s head. I can tell you that people will enjoy that more than sitting through 100 PowerPoint slides as I read the words aloud.
The point is that you need to be creative and find a way to engage your audience differently. Use an intention-based approach. If it’s your mission to really give something valuable to your audience so they leave more enriched, then you’ll win. The people who want to help their audiences connect with ideas have the most success.
Timing is Everything
Keep it as short as you can, but get your message across. Have you ever been upset by a speaker who didn’t take up his full allotment of time, allowing you to get to cocktail hour a little early? Enough said.
Whether public speaking scares you or not, sucking at it is optional. Practice with a co-worker, a friend, or even in front of a mirror, but work on your delivery. Focus on when and where you pause, and get your timing down. If you approach it like a professional, you’re likely to get the positive outcome you’re looking for. Who knows – you might even end up liking it!