by Jennifer R. Farmer
Few things are as gut-wrenching and anxiety-inducing as public speaking. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare, there are almost always worries that, despite your best efforts, you’ll freeze up the moment the spotlight shines your way. Public speaking elicits a host of what ifs and worst-case scenarios – “what if no one shows up?” “What if the audience rejects or heckles me?” “What if I have a wardrobe malfunction?” – that left unchecked, could ruin your speech or presentation before it even begins. While there are few tried-and-true methods for easing the anxiety associated with speaking in public, there are a few things you can do to increase your likelihood of success.
- Speak with the End Game or Desired Outcome in Mind. For a speech to be effective, you should be clear about your desired outcome. Your remarks should be driving toward a unifying purpose or goal. When you’re clear about your desired outcome, you are careful to reiterate key points to ensure your audience understands and retains your main message. When you’re clear about your desired outcome from a speech, it will have focus and direction, which is then easier for your audience to follow. I was working with a presentation coach, Meghan Dotter of Portico PR, and she really upended what I thought I knew about public speaking. Before I met Meghan, I believed my job when I spoke publicly was to wow my audience with how much I knew. I would ramble off fact after fact or case study after case study to underscore my breadth of knowledge. I shared so much information that I was actually undercutting my goal of inspiring people to purchase my book. With the cliff notes version I gave in my speech, I essentially shared everything that was in the book, prompting some to wonder, “Do I really need to purchase this after all?” After a presentation coaching session, I learned that I only needed to share enough information to inspire listeners to buy the book. I’ve since learned to get clear with myself on not only the topic for the speech or presentation but also the desired outcome: What do I want people to do as a result of sitting through my presentation or speech.
- Make it Interactive. For many of us, it is extremely difficult to sit through a presentation that is longer than 15 minutes. It is also really easy to check out, especially with smartphones, computers and other devices that offer myriad things we can do to make time go fast. Unless your presentation is interactive, you will struggle to get and maintain your audience’s attention. Interactive presentations also lead to increased retention and learning. You can introduce interactions with your audience by including exercises, asking questions, soliciting volunteers and generally planning points of engagement.
- Adapt to Your Audience. When you prep for a speech, you may envision how everything will flow. You may have a sense of when you’ll hit each point and how the audience will react. But as with most things in life, speeches don’t always go according to plan. I recently facilitated a communications training for a group of leaders who were honing their campaign manager skills. The attendees were lively, engaged and fired up. They were far more engaged than most audiences I typically train, and I had to adapt and match their energy. When I sensed the room was fired up, I decided in the moment that I needed to engage them and give them a role in my presentation. I quickly recruited an “Amen Corner,” a table of participants who could back me up at different points throughout the presentation. I then asked the audience of 50 people to help me select the table that would be the Amen Corner. This set the tone for the presentation and subtly suggested to the audience that I was looking for group I believe my willingness to adapt helped me to deliver one of the best presentations I’ve ever given. I left the room energized and excited, and judging from evaluations, I believe attendees did too.
- Set the Atmosphere. When you present, you are contending with a host of factors. You are dealing with whatever happened to you the morning or the day before your presentation. You may be experiencing jitters, and you may be questioning whether you are adequately prepared. In the same way that you are contending with a lot, each person in your audience is contending with his or her own bag of blues or challenges. This could cause audience members to tune out. When you speak, it’s critically important to set the atmosphere. You could do this by creating ground rules such as “step up, step back,” where you encourage attendees to be mindful of how they and others engage, or “throw glitter, not shade,” where you encourage attendees to share affirmations versus harmful critique. You could even set the atmosphere by including music at breaks, having designated people to engage the crowd between breaks to keep them present and excited. The point is that excellent speeches rarely happen – you have to create the conditions that make them possible.
While many typically fear public speaking, these tips are gleaned from actual experience and may very well help you deliver an engaging and memorable presentation. Be sure to drop me a line in the comment section below to let me know any other tips you have to offer.
Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and the author of “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide.” Connect with her by following Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR.