The best pieces of advice I ever received on public speaking
By Alexandra Gedge
How would you feel if you were about to speak here?
Some people seem born to be on the stage, whilst some get up there and simultaneously forget how to speak in full sentences, let alone say anything coherent about insurance. Personally, I fall somewhere in between the two; I’ve given some talks I have been pretty proud of, and some that were uncomfortable for the audience and agonising for me (usually the latter are the ones my subconscious likes to remind me of just as I’m about to stand and deliver).
Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum, at some point in your career it’s almost a given you’ll have to address a room full of people; most companies list ‘good communicators’ and ‘presentation skills’ as standard in their prerequisites for any job role. If you can get comfortable doing this as early as possible you put yourself in a great position for the future. Before your next pitch or talk, consider this:
1. People remember the first and last things you said. Not much else.
Not to dent all those fragile egos out there, but there’s a solid chance the attendees aren’t hanging on your every word. The audience is only human too; even without distractions the memory will not retain everything the ears hear. The statistics vary, but we forget somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of what we listen to, so don’t stress over minor details as long as the overall message is solid.
2. That being said, repeat yourself. Repeat yourself. Repeat yourself.
What’s the point of your presentation? To advise? To inform? To sell? Whatever it is, make sure your audience can’t leave without the message having been absorbed into their minds. Repetition is a good way to get through to people – if your message is consistent throughout the presentation they will take it away with them. So long as the audience remembers the key information, all those additional painstaking details can be recorded elsewhere for future reference, so they’re not wasted either.
3. Don’t gesticulate too much, or too little.
It’s great that you are excited about what you are saying, and audiences respond well to an enthusiastic speaker, but wild jazz hands are fairly distracting. Equally, standing stock still and unmoving may come across unnatural and fairly distracting too.
Someone suggested to me to keep my feet still; to move one hand as my ‘default’ if making a point or I have to fidget; and not to move too quickly so as to match the speed of my voice.
It has to be what’s natural to you, so practice in front of a mirror to find your contrived 'natural' movements.
4. Don’t be over-reliant on PowerPoint.
I once sat in a presentation which had a dancing pig animation in the background. It was very entertaining. Unfortunately, I remember the pig but have absolutely no recollection of what the presentation was about.
It’s all too tempting to fall back on a chunky presentation to reassure yourself that you’ve put all the content out there and to draw eyes away from you, but the visuals are there to reinforce what you’re saying, not act as a crutch.
If you have a few key bullet points, they can be included, but if you have lots of content to give the audience then provide additional notes. Don’t make them work too hard by trying to simultaneously read the presentation and listen to you. Again, they’re only human – not all of us can multitask that effectively.
5. People will judge you within the first few seconds.
We’ve all seen Mean Girls (if you haven’t, then go and watch it; treat yourself). As much as we’d like to say otherwise, we’re inherently a judgemental bunch. Good news: you can use that to your advantage. Stand up with confidence, say introduce yourself with confidence and observers will trust that you are confident. If they trust that you’re confident they’ll trust what you’re saying, with confidence. Easy.
6. Power dress.
This may seem like a silly one, but there’s nothing like a sea of roving eyes on you to make you feel self-conscious. It is commonplace during presidential and PM debates to see party colours reflected in ties or outfits. Wear something you feel good in, and don’t regret those Homer Simpson socks half way through.
7. Don’t fear the pause.
You know that moment when you’re looking for a word and there’s dead silence? Whilst it feels like hours for you, don’t stress! It doesn’t feel like anything other than a pause for the audience – some may just think you’re stopping in your sentence to take a breather. Relax and take your time.
I know it’s tempting to rattle through your presentation at lightning speed to get it over with quickly, but it will be easier on the ears of your audience if you give them breaks to take on board what they’ve heard.
8. Thank your audience during questions.
Partially because it’s polite, but mostly because the time it takes to say ‘thanks Steve, great question’ gives you valuable seconds to formulate a coherent answer to the curveball Steve just lobbed at you.
9. Throw it back to the audience.
One of my favourite ‘are you actually paying attention?’ tests is to engage the audience somehow. Try it at the start with ‘how many of you have ever…?’ or ‘put your hands up if…’
If you don’t entirely trust positive feedback from your audience then ask them to think about something - or write it down if the room allows - instead of shouting it out (avoids the risk of hecklers or of dead silence).
Asking them to think at the start, then again at the end and how that answer has changed, automatically gets your audience focused on your point and building connections for themselves, which is the best way to learn new information.
10. Most of all: practice, practice, practice.
It’s an obvious one, but I don’t just mean practice your presentation. Practice speaking in general. I had a friend who was terrified of public speaking, but a senior colleague made her do presentation after presentation on any topic under the sun until she had her manner just right.
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