Underwear, Directing Traffic and Public Speaking

20 03 2012

Public speaking.  <GULP>  This phrase typically causes panic, knee-knocking and butterflies in a person’s stomach when mentioned.  Or, just plain, old-fashioned F-E-A-R.  Know what I’m talking about?  Good!  Let’s get started.

At one time or another in your life, you’re likely going to be asked to speak in public.  Whether it’s speaking to a group of 2nd graders or Fortune 500 executives, here are a few tips to help you get past the fear and give your best when you’re given the stage.

Adding needless punctuation. Sounds odd, right?  Here’s what I’m talking about:  I went to school with a person who had brilliant ideas, but couldn’t communicate them clearly to a group.  When there was a natural pause, they filled it with “uh” or “um.”  It was almost as if every comma, period or semicolon was replaced with “uh!”  There were even people in the audience that were taking score, adding a tick mark every time the words were uttered.  There were over 200 instances in the 7 minute speech.  Don’t fill your time with needless punctuation.  Instead, take a deep breath, pause for a second or two, gather your thoughts and move on.

Directing traffic.  Have you ever seen someone flail their arms and hands as they speak?  I’ve seen some that look like they’re trying to land Air Force One.  Fact: It’s annoying.  Erratic movement detracts from the content being presented.  Practice your speech or presentation in front of a mirror and you’ll see just how much you’re doing it.  You might even consider recording yourself on video so you can watch the playback to adjust.  Subtle gestures and movements go a long way.  Practice a few movements so you don’t look like a robot when you’re presenting.  You don’t want to land the plane, but you also don’t want your gestures to look forced.

Hiding in plain sight.  You might be more comfortable speaking with a lectern.  Why?  You get to hide behind it, lean on it, there’s a place for your notes or even a spot for a glass of water.  Who wouldn’t prefer that?  Note: A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands.  A lectern is the upright object on which he or she places her papers.  Here’s the thing: you can’t always avoid using a lectern to speak more freely from the stage.  It might be the only place that has the microphone.  But, if you can, I would suggest getting out in front and talking directly to, not at, the audience.  For some reason, it’s tougher to do this from behind the lectern.

Mic check: two, three.  Your voice carries.  A microphone isn’t usually warranted when you speak to a group.  We get it – you think you have a big mouth.  I sometimes fall prey to this weakness.  As a former broadcaster, I can typically command a room with my “radio voice.”  Guess what?  I’m not as loud as I think I am.  The people in the back of the room can’t hear as well as the people directly in front of you.  Use the microphone.  I’ll say it again.  Use the microphone.   Yes, you have to.  It doesn’t matter if a few people say they can hear you.  What if they are recording your speech?  We all know how terrible a YouTube video or audio clip is when the person’s voice is muffled or so low you have to crank up the volume.  Your audience will get more from your content if they don’t have to struggle to hear it!

Don’t forget the visuals.  As you’re giving your presentation, think of how a visual representation will help the audience connect with your content.  You might need a few words or bullet points, but know that slides ARE NOT your presentation.  They’re aids.  Not a crutch.  I have a friend who is a wonderful storyteller, commanding the attention of everyone in the audience as he weaves real-life stories and pop culture into his presentation.  Slides?  Yes, he has them.  In fact, during his last keynote, he used over 200 slides for a 30 minute presentation.  Guess what?  His slides don’t make a lick of sense without him telling the story!  So those people who always ask, “Will the slides be available afterwards?” won’t have much to use if they don’t pay attention in real-time.  The caveat in this situation is that it doesn’t apply across the board for everyone.  If you’re giving a financial presentation, you’re probably going to need content with number and figures on your slides, with them needing to be available for reference afterwards.  Each case is unique.

Practice, practice, practice.  Need I say more?  The best way to polish your presentation is to practice it a few times.  Some people are good to go with just one or two run-throughs.  Others need to deliver the entire presentation over and over again.  Ask your friends or family to listen to your presentation, giving you feedback afterwards.  They’ll notice the “um’s” and flailing arms more than you will.  If you don’t have the option of a LIVE run-through, video the speech a few times for later review.

One last piece of advice:  Don’t picture the audience in their underwear.  It’s just weird and I doubt you’ll feel any more comfortable about giving your speech if they’re all in their skivvies in your head.  Did I make you laugh?  🙂

What is your best piece of advice regarding public speaking?  Have a funny moment you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you!

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