Most of us have heard claims that public speaking ranks second only to death as the thing people fear most. Â It sounds feasible, because public speaking is perhaps our modern day equivalent to being thrown to the lions in a different type of coliseum – the corporate conference room, to name one. After all, it’s one thing to possess a solid body of knowledge on a given subject; It’s quite another to effectively convey that knowledge or information in a manner that captivates. In short, it’s not easy to get a group of strangers to not only listen to you but to also remember what you said.
A close friend recently asked me if I’d be daunted by the prospect of “pitching” ideas to various decision makers in the corporate sector on a select topic. I appreciated the question, because it forced me to take a step back and realize that public speaking really is something most people avoid, even when it involves smaller audiences, such as less than six or seven people, even. It also prompted me to don a more critical lens when watching speakers so as to better discern what makes a speaker successful, and what makes a speaker ineffective. As a result, over the last few weeks I’ve been more closely tracking my observations of live speakers as a way to help provide more clarity around this skill, and hopefully, help ease the panic so many feel when faced with a public-speaking obligation.
1. Ummm..No. — Let’s start with the simplest and easiest tip. I realize that “umm” and “uhh” can sometimes serve as useful tools when you are speaking under pressure, or particularly, when you are speaking in a public relations capacity or directly to the press. These “crutch words,” as I like to call them, can buy you time and help you stay focused. However, when you use “umm” in between each and every sentence in your speech, you sound like you are nervous and don’t know what you are talking about.
Relying on “um” and “uh” is nothing more than a habit. Before your presentation, practice your speech over and over and make a deliberate effort to not say “um,” even once. Record yourself practicing. You will hear how sounds like “um” diminish your authority and make you sound like you are struggling — even when you aren’t. Eliminate this from your presentation technique entirely. You can do it, because it can become as much of a habit not to say “um” 46 times in a five-minute presentation as it is a habit to reach for “um” Â 46 times in five minutes. You get the point.
2. Stop Questioning Everything — There’s a disturbing trend nowadays that has unfortunately become so prevalent, people do it all the time, even on television. Tragically, it’s a trend that more women seem to have embraced than men. (I’ll explain why I believe this is tragic shortly.) It’s the tendency for speakers to raise their pitch at the end of every sentence so it sounds like a question, even when it’s a statement. I attended a college-planning seminar at our local high school, and the three women presenting on the topic seemed knowledgeable, but their credibility (at least for me) was immediately diminished by the fact that virtually every statement they made sounded like a question.
I don’t know where this comes from, but it should be returned promptly with a sharp word to the originator. It’s a terrible delivery choice, because everyone using it almost instantly sounds like a teenager who is unsure of him/herself and searching for validation. Unless you are striving to sound desperate or like Sally Field delivering her Oscar-acceptance speech (“You like me, you really like me?”), stop doing this.
If you are unconvinced,Â imagine former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or General Colin Powell speaking and using this technique. “It is the job of the Department of State to recommend additional security measures at U.S. embassies, worldwide? Then, the Department of Defense executes those requests?” And so on. Ridiculous.
I find this trend tragic as it relates to women, because in a world where women still make less than a similarly situated male doing the same job, and where we continue to fight for credibility in male-dominated professions, women are choosing to voluntarily give away their assertiveness, authority and credibility through this awful delivery technique.
Once again, record your own voice delivering a presentation. Stop posing every sentence as a question unless it’s a question. By “asking” everything you state rather then asserting a statement with strength, you run the risk of sounding like you are asking the audience to maybe, do you think, agree that this statement is okay…? You get the point.
3. Easy There — Above all, slow down. One speaker I heard recently was sharp and clearly an expert in his field, but because he was firing off his information so quickly, I had to check my program to see if perhaps I’d stumbled into the wrong room and was listening to an auction instead. Slow down. Words over a microphone do need to be paced differently from when they are delivered face-to-face, one-on-one.
If you’re faced with a time crunch — a lot of points to get across in a small window of time — boil your points down to sound bytes. Every detail is not necessary (always) to inform your audience. Further, concise points are easier to remember than ones that drone on and on with additional layers of detail.
If your speed-delivery problem is due to nerves, let’s attack that common problem head-on.
4. I’m Scared! — I’m convinced that with the exception of Donald Trump and a few high-profile politicians, no one really loves getting up in front of a crowd to deliver a speech. Most of us don’t live for the sound of our own voices, especially in a public setting. So if you’re feeling anxious or apprehensive about public speaking, you are not abnormal – you are among the majority of humans alive today.
Once you accept that nerves are a normal and expected part of public speaking, it’s time to make the nervousness work in your favor. There are a few ways to do this. First, you can learn to channel the nervous energy into simply energy. Rather than “listen” to your wavering voice and shaky tones, focus on using the nervousness to add flavor and flair to your speech. After all, we’ve all attended monotone speakers’ presentations, and that’s no fun either. I remember working with a portfolio manager who was so learned and intelligent, he’d bring most MIT professors to their intellectual knees. However, his presentations skills brought him the nickname “Toe Tag.” Â Use nerves to bring life to your speech, and to make it interesting. No one expects you to be completely calm, because the members of the audience themselves are sitting there, in awe of you, because they a) admire that you are up there, and b) are eternally grateful they are not up there.
Another way you can put nerves to work for you is to break your own “ice” right away. I remember presenting at a room of about 400-500 people on the subject of insurance marketing in the dawn of compliance crack-downs. In lieu of throwing up, I chose to start my presentation with a quick scan over the crowd of sales people and corporate heads with, “Well, thank God this isn’t intimidating or anything.” The laughter alone helped establish that the audience recognized this was a scary prospect, and that they empathized with me. Right away, the line between me and the audience blurred just enough to ease the panic.
I’ve never personally tried to “imagine the audience members in their underwear,” a recommendation from times past. I have, however, reminded myself that I must have something to offer or no one would have requested that I speak or put me on the program. You’re up there because you have something important to convey. Focus on that — your role as messenger, authority, teacher, whatever it is you bring — and aim to do a good job. As you get steeped in your objective, the nerves will have to take a back seat.
Most of all, public speaking is like ice skating. You have to practice, practice, practice to get good at it, and it’s the first spin around the ice that hurts the most. Keep at it. Over time, you’ll have fewer “bottom landings” on the ice and many more moments in which you’ll soar.