For many of us, the thought standing up and speaking to a group of people is terrifying. I still get nervous before an event, even after 20 years of public speaking to thousands of people; but I have learnt a few tricks.
Recently I was asked to run a series of speaking workshops for a corporate group before an important International Sales Meeting. This prompted me to reflect on what I wished I had known when I started out as a motivational speaker.
Few people start out as expert speakers.
Winston Churchill is considered one of our greatest orators. His speeches when Prime Minister during WWII roused the nation and remain ingrained in our consciousness. However, as a boy he stammered, had a lisp and was extremely shy. Famously, as a 29-year-old, he froze for three minutes during a speech in the House of Commons, before sitting back down heckled by the House. He vowed to overcome this embarrassment and prepared meticulously, writing out his speeches over and over again.
As a PhD student I found speaking at academic conferences difficult, especially at bigger events in front of eminent professors. Academia can be a very critical and competitive world.
A breakthrough came when I was mentored by a public speaking coach, arranged by my publisher. I was due to appear regularly on national radio to promote my book Learning to Breathe (and later Thin White Line), and they didn’t want me to flop on air.
The radio interviews were mostly live and quite short, with very little time to illustrate a point. Essentially, you are trying to convince a huge audience to read your book. Short powerful anecdotes that engage the listener became my main strategy in this setting.
Preparation is key
During a keynote speech I avoid reading from notes (either written or on slides). I memorise my introduction and use this to link to the audience in a human way. In a corporate setting, this involves researching people’s fears and hopes and the challenges they face.
I like to be very clear on how long I have to speak; who will speak before me and about what; who will introduce me and how; and what questions might arise during the Q&A.
I like to see room before I speak, walk the stage and visualise the audience. I always prefer a lapel microphone so that I can move on the stage and keep my hands free, and the sound is more consistent.
These small things are big factors in performance.
‘Be yourself; you can’t be anyone else.’ This was the best advice I was ever given. It means you’ll come across as authentic, which people respect.
Finally, remember it is a performance, no matter how modest the audience size. Most people in the audience want you to succeed.
More Speaking tips to follow. Comments welcome!