Being an effective speaker can be beneficial to your career. Why? Because people perceive great speakers to be experts, and people like to work with experts. Speaking in front of others can enhance your reputation and increase the opportunities given to you.
If public speaking is so beneficial, why doesn’t everyone love doing it? Unfortunately, on virtually every poll of the greatest fears of American adults, public speaking is number one.
People are afraid of:
- Making embarrassing mistakes.
- Damaging their career or reputation.
- Freezing while making a presentation.
- Appearing dull.
- Looking nervous or petrified.
No wonder people avoid situations in which they’d have to speak in front of others.
Train the butterflies
You can overcome many of these fears, though for most people their apprehensions never disappear entirely. You may still have some butterflies, but you can get those butterflies to fly in formation and add energy to your presentation by trying these tips.
Even speaking professionals occasionally have butterflies, so rather than worry about having them, use them to your advantage. Use that nervous energy to make yourself more exciting. Channel those butterflies into energy in front of the group and display energy and inflection in your voice. Make yourself exciting! You are on stage!
Build in participation techniques to break up straight lecture and engage your listeners. Try polling your listeners, asking questions that cause them to think and raise hands or respond, speak and participate.
Give listeners the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) of your presentation up front. Tell them the benefits they’ll receive and make them want to hear what you have to say.
Rather than thinking of your listeners as a group, imagine you’re having a conversation with a collection of individuals, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Engage your audience by making eye contact with them. Don’t allow your eyes to dart quickly back and forth from side to side. It doesn’t establish contact with anyone, and makes you look nervous. Instead, lock and talk, lock and talk. That is, make eye contact with one person and lock on them for two or three seconds while speaking, and then make eye contact with another person for two or three seconds, and so on. In small groups, you can make eye contact with everyone during your presentation, and they will feel as though you are talking to them.
Use positive self-talk and remind yourself that you’re ready. For example, “I am prepared, I know my topic and I know what I’m going to say. They are going to like this presentation!”
Help your audience see you as a presentation professional
Eliminate filler words
One of the biggest distractions in a presentation is the speaker’s use of filler words such as “ah,” “um,” “ya know,” ”OK” and “like.”
The Solution: The first step to eliminating distracting words is recognizing that you’re using them. Record yourself or ask a buddy for feedback on what your filler words are and how frequently you insert them. This will help you become aware of them. Then, when you feel an “um” coming on, catch yourself and silently pause, replacing the “um” with a short moment of silence. This takes a little practice, but by being conscious of filler words, it will become easier to avoid them.
Use gestures, body language and movement to enhance your presentation
Gestures help us express our thoughts and feelings. They can be planned and rehearsed but are more often natural. I have observed countless people on telephone calls with their arms and hands flailing as they express themselves on the phone. Their facial expressions change, too – their eyebrows move, brows furrow, they smile – and they do all of this subconsciously, even though the caller on the phone can’t see them.
Why? Because gestures are physical manifestations of your conversation. The gestures associated with various emotions help people express themselves, but also can be a distraction.
The Solution: Let’s start with hands and arms. Keep your hands out of your pockets, because that restricts your hand and arm movements, preventing gestures and making you look dull. It’s okay to let your arms hang in a neutral position by your sides. This may feel unnatural, but it’s actually very natural. Your audience won’t think a thing about it. Empty your pockets before you speak, leaving no loose change and nothing to fiddle with, which will always make you look nervous.
One stage movement I find irritating is a speaker who paces continuously back and forth, back and forth, like a target in a carnival shooting gallery. Not only is the movement distracting, but if they look down at the floor while pacing, they lose contact with their audience. The three largest muscle groups on your body are your glutes, quads and hamstrings, and that’s why people pace – to burn off nervous energy.
The solution is to plant your feet occasionally. Planting your feet causes you to subconsciously release that nervous energy through upper-body movement using gestures that come naturally. These again are natural manifestations of what you are saying, and they help you conversationally express yourself and communicate what you’re saying to your listeners.
However, if your presentation is more than a few minutes long and your group is large, you can’t remain planted in one spot. You might take a couple of steps forward, perhaps right to the edge of the first row, and even lean forward a little to emphasize a point. Then you might back up just a few steps to a more neutral, less-aggressive position. You might move to stage left or stage right just to increase your presence with more of your audience. Don’t turn your back on your audience and lose contact, not even for a second.
Vary the pitch, rate of speaking and volume of your voice
This adds interest to your presentation. When you raise and lower your vocal pitch or inflection, your presentation becomes more interesting to listen to. You may speed up a sentence or two to add excitement and emphasis. Or you might slow down a sentence to let your words sink in. You also can use pauses, which not only separate ideas, but can add emphasis to parts of your message.
Listen to professional radio announcers or popular podcasters. These personalities have no visual or physical presence. Listeners cannot see their facial expressions, body language or gestures. They make their vocal presentation exciting by using inflection, raising and lowering the pitch of their voice, speeding up and slowing down and using pauses for emphasis.
Help listeners hear you clearly
If in conversations people frequently say to you, “What was that? Excuse me? Could you repeat that?” it could be an indication that you need to enunciate more clearly. Professional schools of broadcasting use a whispering exercise, where students read a passage aloud in a whisper, because when whispering, you accentuate your lip and tongue movements to compensate for the reduced volume. This makes your words more understandable. Then, when you resume a normal speaking voice, the accentuated movements of opening your mouth wide on the vowels and hitting the consonants hard can carry over.
If you’re not using a microphone, it’s still not necessary to shout. Talk to people in the back row and your voice will be heard by all.
Do it with flair!
People will never get more excited about your presentation than the level of excitement you exhibit while speaking. You are the leader in swaying listeners’ opinions and getting them excited about your topic.
Prepare and practice
Amateurs frequently create presentation notes, and the night before will read them over and over. Everything makes sense to them. Yet, when they get in front of their group, they can get confused, distracted by the audience or skip something important. Or, worse yet, their mind goes blank. The reason is that they never truly engaged their brain by having the words pass through their brain and out their mouth.
The Solution: If you play a musical instrument, you’ll ordinarily practice and rehearse before performing. The same principle applies to speaking in front of groups, but you have to practice properly by practicing out loud. Saying your words out loud helps transfer your remarks from short-term to long-term memory. By rehearsing aloud, the words will come back to you when in front of your audience. So rehearse out loud and record and listen to yourself. Continually edit your speaking notes, and then rehearse again.
If you’re using visual aids like PowerPoint, each slide will help trigger what you want to say about the slide. Each slide becomes a memory cue for what to say.
After all that practice, be sure to get a good night’s sleep to be rested and physically at your peak.
If you lose your place
You might occasionally lose your place or misspeak, but that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world.
The Solution: If you lose your place, just say, “Excuse me,” and take a moment to check your notes (and get the butterflies back in formation), and then get right back into your presentation. Your listeners won’t be offended by that. They’ll probably be pleased you cared enough about delivering the proper message to them that you had prepared notes and took a moment to check them. And don’t forget to make eye contact with those “individuals.”
Concluding speaking tips
There is no substitute for preparation and practice. Prepare your presentation ahead of time and edit, edit, edit for clarity, for getting to the point and for impact. Remember the number-one best rehearsal tip: practice aloud. Rehearse out loud, record and listen to yourself, continually edit your speaking notes and then rehearse again.
Reread this article with a highlighter or colored pen and mark key ideas that will benefit you, things you want to do in your next presentation. Then review your notes again before your next presentation.
Get a good night’s sleep to be rested and physically at your peak! And don’t forget to eat nutritious food before your presentation.
Finally, get out there and do it. Volunteer to speak. You’ll learn from every speaking opportunity, and speaking in front of others will enhance your reputation and increase the opportunities given to you.
These tips from the pros have armed you with the knowledge and power to be a successful speaker. All it takes is practice and rehearsals on your part. I wish you much speaking success!
Wayne Coleman, Certified Master Facilitator, is a professional trainer with The Training Clinic, based in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He has conducted TCIA’s CTSP On-the-Job-Training workshop for 12 years. Founded in 1977, The Training Clinic specializes in Train-the-Trainer and Effective Presentations workshops.
This article is based on his presentation on the same topic during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org. Under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.