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Public Speaking Techniques Tested at the Front Line

8 tips to stay calm and make presentations like a pro

"Please, can I come and see you? Please!"

"Well it's half past eight..."

"I know, but I'm petrified! I have to talk in front of three hundred people tomorrow at nine and (sob) I can't do it..."

How could I refuse? Thirty minutes later on that rainy night, face to face, Lin was telling me how she'd always hated public speaking; how she'd even fled the room once, moments before going on to speak; and how, being a regional manager in her company, she was running low on excuses not to present to colleagues. For Lin, the next morning loomed like a career-busting tsunami.

She was typical. Frightened public speakers generally fear the same things: drying up, mind going blank, making an idiot of yourself. Lin also spoke about her terror of being seen to be nervous, being heckled, or not being able to answer 'the question from Hell' from a more well-informed member of the audience. Tomorrow's audience was, in her mind, an amorphous monster whose sole mission was to seek and destroy...Lin.

I suggested that a public presentation was more like leading a joint exploration into knowledge and that if others had contributions above and beyond what she brought to the presentation, then that was all well and good. Of course, she was too anxious to be convinced by this idea at the time, but I came back to it later as she entered a more relaxed state of mind.

I love a challenge and I resolved, there and then, not just to help her survive her public speaking 'nightmare' but to prepare her to give a spellbinding, fascinating, humourous, and uniquely informative talk. I knew she could do it. Why? Because I'd been there myself. I went from trembling in front of a dozen people to super-relaxed in front of hundreds.

We got to work, and some of what we did forms the basis of these public speaking techniques.

1) Prepare more than just your speech

Sure, you need to be fully up to speed with your content - it needs to feel part of you - and Lin had obsessively memorized her material. But you also need to prepare the way you're going to be, feel, and come across.

What we imagine about how we'll react to the future has an effect on how we experience that future. If I keep visualizing myself 'falling apart' during my upcoming dentist visit, then I am actually priming my mind to respond with fear when I visit the dentist for real.

Lin told me she wanted to feel totally relaxed when up in front of her fellow workers. After years of presenting day-long seminars to hundreds at a time, I reassured her that she'd need to keep some of her arousal. We all need a little buzz to add depth, energy, even credibility to our speeches. And the right level of emotional arousal actually helps you recall facts better (1).

Sit down and close your eyes. Breathe deeply (make sure your out-breath is longer than your in-breath, as this quickly switches on the relaxation response). Next, visualize yourself as if you are a member of the audience looking on, seeing yourself up there looking relaxed, friendly, and in flow. It's amazing how powerful this 'self-hypnotic' technique is in priming your mind to be like this for real.

2) Take control of your mind

Fear blocks thought, but it also works the other way. Forcing yourself to think has the effect of lowering - even switching off - fear. And the simplest way to do this is to use numbers. The first time I was about to begin speaking to hundreds, I found myself suddenly feeling anxious. I immediately thought to myself: "Okay Mark, if 10 is ultimately terrified and 1 is completely relaxed, where am I right now?" I put myself at a 6.

Now, in doing this, I made myself use the thinking part of my brain, which had the instant effect of 'diluting' the more emotional part. Just doing this made me feel calmer. Next I told myself I would only start speaking when I was down to a 3 - a reasonable level of arousal. I focussed on my breathing, being sure to extend and lengthen the out-breath as compared to the in-breath. In a minute or so, I was down to a 3. Doing this gives you the control back - it's an amazing technique; try it. : )

3) Ditch the notes and connect instead

A speech is a journey. You need recognizable landmarks to guide your direction, but reading from notes can make for a hideously uninspiring presentation. Lin had learnt her material and felt that her job was just to regurgitate it like a half-digested meal.

No! A great speech should feel like you and the audience are discovering things together. As if you are making connections there and then from a solid base of knowledge. It needs to feel spontaneous, not like a pre-recorded playback.

Learn your material so that you can relate it naturally - as you would if you were talking to a friend. PowerPoint can be fine, as it can display valuable information and also prompt you, reminding you where you are. But it should be secondary to you, not the other way about.

4) Be a human being

However serious or factual your material, you need to be human. A relaxed conversational style is more compelling and comfortable to listen to than an overly serious, monotone, or dry delivery.

Vary your voice tone and facial expression. Keep people focussed. Tell anecdotes and stories and as you tell them, act them out in the way you use your voice. If you're talking about how angry someone was, sound a little angry. If you're describing an inspirational vision for your company, then sound inspired and excited. The best storytellers convey the twists and turns of their stories with every part of themselves, not just their words.

Tell stories and use your words to paint pictures in the minds of your audience, but keep the main points simple and clear. Summarize why you told a story in simple points, but don't give lots of unnecessary detail where it's not needed. Edit your speech as you go. Every word, no matter how relaxed and conversational, should count.

5) Model great speakers

No, I don't mean strutting down the catwalk whilst displaying attractive audio equipment.

Watch and listen to as many relaxed, entertaining, and dynamic public speakers as you can. Focussing on how you are going to do it well, rather than on how you fear it might be (see Tip 1), sets your blueprint. Modelling someone - allowing their positive attributes and skills to rub off on you - happens through repeated contact with or viewing of these people in action. I modelled my early public presentations on how other speakers (whom I admired) gave their lectures. Pretty soon you become the speaker that others want to emulate.

6) Relate to your audience (but don't worry about them)

When you are presenting, you are just having a conversation; albeit a rather one-way chat. All you need to be is you. Public speakers don't have to suddenly become 'information-emitting machines'. Scan the audience with your eyes, smile sometimes, and don't just focus on the more friendly-looking ones at the expense of the natural frowners. Relax about facial feedback. It's easy to mistake blank looks or even frowns as indications of a person not liking you or your material - when, in fact, they may just be anxious themselves or concentrating hard.

Most people will not be grinning ear to ear and nodding enthusiastically all the time - and that's fine.

7) Use humour where you can

Public speaking humour can fix ideas, as well as illuminating unexpected perspectives. It can of course also light up your whole presentation. But it has to be done in an (apparently) spontaneous way.

If I ever find the whole room plunged into silence in response to one of my infinitely witty remarks, I'll immediately activate Plan B and run out the back. (See? That was a joke and you didn't laugh!) Am I bothered? No, I'm cool with that. Really, though, I'll comment on the fact that no one laughed and sometimes that gets a laugh. More often than not, people laugh at all kinds of rubbish jokes - you end up feeling wittier than Oscar Wilde; it's great! : )

If you appear terrified when making a joke, the audience may not respond as they would when you are relaxed, because you are sending mixed signals. Your words say, "Look, I'm being creative and funny," but your voice tone, body posture, and other unconscious signals say, "I am terrified!" And people rely much more on these unconscious elements of your communication.

Overall, I think sprinkling humour into your talk is worth the risk, because it makes your presentation more interesting and fun. And it's a wonderful feeling when you make an audience roar with laughter! (When they're supposed to! : ) )

8) Handle your audience - you're the daddy! (Or mummy!)

A great public speaker will lead the mood of the audience and determine (not dictate) the session. This means you decide when it's okay to ask questions, how long the session will last, and whether one person is asking too many questions at the expense of other people having their turn. You're the boss (although a nice democratic one).

Here are a few (mini) public speaking tips for managing your audience.

  • At the start of your speech, request that people raise their hand before any comments or questions. Or designate a specific time for questioning, such as at the end.
  • If someone does begin to interrupt or make asides, politely remind them of your opening remarks. Most people will respond instantly to this.
  • If someone tells you they totally disagree with your point, you can try to refute them or open the debate up to the wider audience - where, more likely than not, others will defend your position for you. Remain calm, though - there's nothing to hide. Remember, your job is merely to present ideas and information in a compelling way, not to get into arguments with one audience member at the expense of the others. Ask them to come and see you afterwards for further discussion, as you have limited time and much material to cover.
  • If someone asks you a question you don't know the answer to, then admit you don't know and either promise to find out for them or ask them to find out for you because you'd love to know. Even the greatest experts don't know absolutely everything, and admitting you don't know something will earn you respect. If you're relaxed about it, then so will they be.
  • Stick to the main points of your speech. You don't have to answer questions immediately or on the questioner's terms. If people wish to side-line, they can do it afterwards or during a break.
  • Remember: It's not about you justifying yourself to your audience. They carry half the responsibility. They are required to be polite, to listen and absorb what you're saying, to ask relevant questions, and to know when to keep quiet. Your responsibility extends only so far.

And lastly, enjoy it! When you go into flow, it's amazing how comfortable you can feel, how 'at home', even. As Lin said months later when she'd delivered many more speeches, "I rock at public speaking now; and I love it!"

Watch my video: How Fear of Public Speaking Works (and what this tells you about how to conquer it)

If you enjoyed this video you can read more about my 10 Steps to Powerful Public Speaking course here.

10 Steps to Powerful Public Speaking

10 Steps to Powerful Public Speaking course is 50% off until 31st May 2022

Follow Mark Tyrrell's journey from a presentation panic attack to confidently speaking to an audience of 500...

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  1. McGaugh (2000) summarized four decades of research showing that adrenaline helps memory, but only in small doses. Larger adrenaline doses can block the effective functioning of recall.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Job Skills