Hanging On Your Every Word – 5 Tips for Better Public Speaking

Posted on June 20, 2012

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Public speaking can be daunting, especially if you’ve ever been subject to an embarrassing moment in your past—you know the kind of moments that can transform your life? Take Jerry, for example; self-proclaimed school geek. Jerry knew he’d take some teasing from upper classmates when he started his freshman year. He was used to it.

“It never seemed to matter what I did to fit in, I just didn’t. So I stopped trying. I was a quiet, shy kid. You know the kind, head down, back of the class, trying so hard not to be noticed. My first day of high school was already overwhelming. New town. New school. New people. New everything. That first morning we all met in the auditorium for a presentation by the principle and other administrators and teachers. During one of the presentations, the teacher asked for a volunteer from the audience. I slumped down in my seat, dropping my head and trying to disappear all the while thinking, “He won’t pick me. He can’t pick me! But he did. As I walked down the tall cement staircases with the entire student body staring at me, I thought I might die… I wish I would die. However, I didn’t. As I reached the lecture and speaker, he stepped around the lectern and positioned us just in front, facing the audience. He held a microphone in his hand and welcomed me to my first year of high school. He said it would be the most important four years of my life; that what happened during the next four years would be a driving force in the remainder of my life. I couldn’t imagine how that could be possible; four little years and an entire lifetime before me? What happened next did affect me.

He asked me to speak my name, what school I’d come from, and what my personal goals were for high school. I could barely breathe. As he pushed the microphone in my hand and stepped away, giving me the opportunity to share, the kids in the front row started laughing and pointing. Some of the kids were turning around talking to people in rows behind them and soon the entire auditorium seemed to be pointing at me and laughing. I was dumbfounded and speechless. I turned toward the teacher to hand him the microphone before running off the stage to go and kill myself, the teacher started laughing. Seriously, he did. He was trying not to laugh, but even he was smiling and obviously found something about me very funny. He leaned towards my ear and through his muffled chuckles said, “Your pants are unzipped.”

Mortified, I looked down and saw not only my zipper gaping open, but my newly pressed shirt tail was sticking out of my zipper and pointing straight out. You get the picture, right? I stumbled off the stage with the shriek of laughter following me through the hall ways. It followed me through the next four years too.  I got over it—or maybe I should say I survived. The next four years I studied hard, kept my head down and ended up graduating with honors. As I headed off to college that fall I believed my past was behind me, or so I thought. However, every time I was asked to give a speech, or any public appearance, I’d always get sick. I just couldn’t do it.

Finally, as a grown man, I was tired of my fears dictating my success. I’d passed on job opportunities that involved any sort of public speaking and I missed opportunities to meet attractive women (who oddly enough were interested in me) because I couldn’t speak up, or out. So I hired a teacher, a speaking coach, to help me. She was one of the best in her field, had references and recommendations from top corporate leaders and even from several professional speakers I’d heard of. She was the best. If anyone could help me, she was the one—but she didn’t. It wasn’t as if she didn’t try. She taught me inflection of voice, how to know precisely what moment to pause to deepen the effect of my words and how to be prepared. Nothing worked. I simply could not stand in front of her, or anyone, and speak professionally.

It would be years later, decades even, before I’d finally understand, and change. I had to let go of the fear of that young-man and stand in the power of my own success, experience, and abilities. I had to stop being that freshman boy and simply remember to check my zipper!”

Jerry’s story illustrates just one example of why some people find it difficult, if not impossible, to do any sort of public speaking. And while I know many professionals may disagree, however it isn’t always the best move to hire a public speaking trainer. The majority of public speaking training is focused on the mechanics of body language and speechifying that while interesting, isn’t what the average professional is being asked to do. Many times, more importantly that speaking skills, is understanding the ‘why’ of the hesitation or fear and moving forward from that perspective.

Professionals need to influence others and move groups to action, present to senior executives and boards, and inspire change operationally. Most rising executives want to be noticed and secure a seat at the table. To achieve these professional feats, they need presence, credibility, and passion. And yes, you can learn these skills in some presentation trainings — just not in most of them.

My advice to anyone out there who is considering honing their presentation skills: if you opt for training, make sure your instructor will be able to show you how to do the following.

1. Get ready – get comfortable.

It’s stating the obvious, but for most people, presenting is difficult when it’s uncomfortable. Staring down a board of directors with bad news, for example, might be one of those times; or proposing a new business line to the senior team.

You’ll do better if you can find a way to be as calm as possible, given the stressful situation. For many people, this means practicing so you feel you have the information down pat. For others, it’s figuring out what gets you in the zone — deep breathing, music, laughter, warm-up conversations in the room, etc. I recommend setting a situational intention to focus your conscious thoughts behind the emotion you want to impart to others.

2. Get set – accept discomfort.

If the stakes are high, no matter how much you try to get comfortable, some butterflies are going to remain. Instead of trying to eradicate the feeling or letting it spiral, accept the anxiousness. Acknowledge it, and realize that it has no bearing on your performance. At all. You can physically perform just as well, nervous or not.

Plus, nerves can even help you emote and show energy. After all, nervousness is excitement directed inward.

3. Get going – speak to the individuals, not the group.

Common public speaking advice is to know your audience. But in typical corporate presentations, which are to groups and teams, you do know them. The problem is that they are all over the map in what they care about so it can be hard to tailor comments. A frequent misstep is to try to cover everyone’s concerns or speak to the middle.

Learning to top-line your points to hit the right ones is a critical skill. For mixed groups, my general advice is to speak to the highest level in the room in the level of detail they care to know. Let the others ask questions to fill in the gaps or clarify specifics. Meetings gravitate to the highest level naturally.

Remember, you are speaking to individuals with individual concerns. Don’t litter your comments with what you care about the most, and beware of falling in love with your content. It’s about the other person, not about you.

4. Get excited – bring twice the passion, and half the content.

Many corporate presentations have too much detail, slides, and content and are delivered in a drone or flat manner. While we may do this with good intent because we want to make sure we cover any questions and show others we know our stuff—unfortunately though, well-cited research shows that people forget about 90% of what they learn within 3-6 days. So while it’s smart to get your content down, we generally over steer on the amount of it. (Hint: Put non-essential slides in an addendum to have just in case.) Also, consider this; if you want to be memorable, put equal focus on bringing energy and passion to your presentation. Show how much you care through stories, examples, imagery, and dialogue.  I was an opening (15 minute) speaker for a large corporation who’d hired me to open for  Zig Ziglar. I was terrified, not because the audience was over 20,000 people, but because I was opening for one of the greatest professional speakers I knew. While pacing in the green room, trying hard to align my nerves with my mission, Zig tapped me gently on the shoulder and gave me some of the best advice I’d ever heard. He said, “Don’t worry so much about what you are saying because people won’t remember most of what you said tomorrow, but they will remember how you made them feel.” There’s power in a passionate purpose. We invest psychically in people we feel have the wherewithal to make change happen. Your presence plays a large role in that. Another friend, Mark Victor Hansen, once told me, “They won’t remember as much what you said, as how you appeared. Be a peacock!” Mark certainly has his image polished, colorful and memorable.

5. Get engaged – ignite discussion, don’t replace it.

Most corporate presentations aren’t speeches at all — they’re discussions. You’re aim to incite discussion and facilitate outcomes, not to use up the air time with your points. If you can engage people in the conversation, you are ahead of the game. When people are talking, they’re engaged.

Any presentation can be constructed as facilitation. Create your main points, ask a pointed question, and manage comments. Then repeat. This skill takes practice, so learn it any way you can, whether through a training or observation of others. And remember, for some of us, hiring a professional speaking coach can be the best move. People will feel far better about your ideas if they felt that you wanted and accepted their input. Plus, any idea that feels like it’s ours we’re more likely to buy into. And isn’t buy-in of our ideas the ultimate goal?  We wish you the best of success to you in your professional speaking journey. For more insight about how to incite discussion and facilitate outcomes or for information about how to market your ideas or yourself contact us at NetLinked Solutions.

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