Is speaking scarier than dying?

Not according to this list, but that one tells a different story. Either way, we can probably agree that there is something gut-churning about public speaking. And yet, we all have to do it in our careers, some more than others. As always, the first step in dealing with a problem is….

  • To admit that it exists. Anxiety is real and it is natural, but it does not have to be paralyzing. Your greatest allies are time and repetition. James Dyson built more than 5,000 vacuum cleaner prototypes before one was marketable. After acknowledging anxiety, you have to….
  • ….face it. And this may mean the occasional failure but very few people have succeeded without failing. Colonel Sanders peddled his 11 secret herbs and spices to more than 1,000 places before one bit on the combination. And once you have done these two things…..
  • ….you overcome it. Elvis was fired after a single performance at the Grand Old Opry and told to drive a truck instead.

Those three steps presume that you will speak regularly. Here are three other things to keep in mind for the here and now:

  • The audience wants you to succeed. People don’t show up heckle speakers so keep in mind that you are in a supportive environment.
  • You are the master of the domain. You are the subject-matter expert: you control the content, the flow of the presentation, how questions are handled, etc.
  • After practicing, practice some more.

Finally, here are major considerations as you put the speech together:

  1. Words matter. A recent mailer promised “the first step toward a debt-free life.” Unless the $35,000 figure being dangled is a gift, I have yet to figure out how more debt equals less debt.
  2. Audiences matter. During the holidays, a radio ad aimed at men promised romantic delights if only guys would buy hoodie-footie pajamas for the women in their lives. Really? Who is the woman who uses “I am freezing to death” as a come on line?
  3. Stories matter. In the 1940s, it was taboo for women to smoke in public. But the owner of Chesterfield cigarettes saw a market being wasted and the ensuing PR campaign painted cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ with the message of women being emancipated from a discriminatory society.

Take the parts that are useful and go be memorable. For the right reasons.


The Ten Suggestions

More presentations and speeches have been ruined by fear than by any other factor.  In a sense, it is ironic because no audience wants a speaker to fail.  On the contrary, people are voluntarily giving their time and, often, their money because they are interested in the speaker, the topic, or both.  You would think that knowing a supportive crowd awaits would lift a speaker’s confidence more than shake it.

I am not going to lecture you on overcoming fear; there are reams of articles for that.  What I do want to offer is a short list of ideas to keep you on track and, if all goes well, to help your audience be engaged in the presentation:

1) Think like a salesman: in a sense, you have already done this by virtue of the fact that people will show up to listen.  It could be the audience is a captive one – an internal meeting, a presentation that audience members were told to attend, etc.  Still, it is your job to make their time worthwhile, to provide information that is credible and convincing, and the first sale is to yourself.  If you do not see you as the subject matter expert, this will end badly.
2) The lectern is your friend: that thing you stand behind is not a podium, it is a lectern. The podium is on the floor. That aside, the lectern provides a place for your notes or to rest your hands.  Do not molest it by which I mean avoid gripping the lectern to a white-knuckle level.  if you do not “speak with your hands”, a former Toastmasters colleague would suggest to let them hang at your sides and “let the sweat drip off your fingers.”  One note of caution – do not allow the lectern to become more of a barrier between you and the audience than it already is.  Nothing wrong with stepping out from behind it if you are comfortable with movement.
3) Be yourself: too many people try to emulate other people’s styles and carrying this act for an entire speech is exhausting.  Besides, nothing kills credibility faster than phoniness.  There is nothing wrong with incorporating elements you have seen elsewhere so long as you are comfortable with them.  But you must develop your own delivery.
4) Know the audience: while you cannot always know the depth of every  individual’s knowledge of the topic, you can have some idea of who will be listening and, from there, make assumptions about the level of explanation that will be needed, the word choices likely to resonate, the type questions that will be asked, and whether questions should be taken along the way or saved for the end.
5) Let the audience know you: nothing is more humanizing than being human, whether it’s a personal anecdote, how the information being presented benefited you or someone close to you, or some other way through which the audience can relate to you.  Some of this will be stylistic features like smiling, making good eye contact; maybe there is something in your bio that lends itself to a quick story that puts a face alongside your credentials.
6) Few points are better than many – this does not mean speaking for as short a time as possible but in keeping the key points to a manageable number.  Single digits will be most effective and, yes, I realize this list cracks that ceiling but the assumption is that no one reading this needs all ten.  The point is to not overload the audience and it also allows you to go into greater detail on the key aspects of the presentation.  What do you find more illuminating:  a mile wide and inch deep presentation, or vice-versa?
7) Use humor only if you are comfortable with it: being funny is hard, much tougher than being dramatic, and not everyone’s personality is geared to telling jokes.  You may have also noticed that jokes these days are under scrutiny for any potential offense, real or inferred.  As with conquering fear, there are numerous resources about this.
8) Do not read it, say it – what could possibly be more boring. And that’s all I am going to write about that.
9) Bring something new – this seems obvious but how often have you heard a speech made up of things you already knew?  Some of you may be looking at this article in that vein.  People like learning new things, particularly about subjects they know something about already.  For instance, chocolate milk was re-branded as a post-workout drink a couple of years ago by the same people behind the “Got Milk?” campaign.  That is presenting a familiar product in a unique light.
10) Keep your contract – if you take away nothing else, remember this point.  A 20-minute speech means 20 minutes. The audience has consented to give you a certain amount of its time in exchange for listening to you; honor their commitment to you by not straying past the deadline.  If you go long, you have lied to your audience and that’s not how you want to be remembered.
And in the immortal words of a friend of mine:  be good, be brief, and be gone.