The simple notion of standing up and speaking in front of people sounds so easy. For many, however, this is a fate worse than dental surgery. It’s a panic-inducing, heart-racing, sweat ball of a situation that causes your face to redden and your words to come out sounding weird.
Everything about the way we usually behave tends to go out the window: we fumble and sweat more, and breathe less and stop blinking altogether. It’s wholly ungraceful and even more unprofessional but it is completely human.
There are a few people who are naturally gifted at the art of public speaking; for the rest of us mortals, we can practice a few of the tips below to improve our public speaking skills.
You will (hopefully) be given some notice for any presentations requested at work. Don’t waste time on anxiety right up front. Let that take a backseat while you do all the necessary preparation. If anything, knowing your facts inside and out will give you just a little bit of confidence. Presenting to other professionals elevates the intensity of anxiety as your audience is likely quite knowledgeable. You really don’t want to be caught out on simple facts so know your stuff first and foremost.
There is usually some flexibility on the arrangement of the room you’re speaking in. Check out the space in advance and decide if you’d be more comfortable sitting instead of standing. Sometimes a barstool can help to inhibit the relentless pacing and twitching that comes almost involuntarily with public speaking. Being in a seated position may help to lower your heart rate and allow you to concentrate more on eye contact, voice projection and hand gesturing. Remember that you own the room for this short period of time, so create a space that will be most comfortable to you.
Do you need a PowerPoint presentation to help support your discussion? This acts as a nifty means to draw the audience’s eyes off of you for part of the presentation. It also requires dim lighting, which may assist in masking the audience while you speak.
Having the clicker in your hand or laptop in your immediate eyeline can create a sense of control and easy means of distraction when you feel like you need to look away from the audience. Make sure your presentation only contains the key messages and use lots of visuals. The last thing an audience wants is pages of size 7 font staring back at them and the presenter just regurgitating the content. There’s nothing worse than someone just reading off of slides.
Old school hand notes are probably less advisable. They look less professional and leave plenty of room for fumbling. Scrolling down a sheet of typed notes on a screen gives you that much more control. And hiding behind the ever professional façade of a laptop is like a shield. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Generally, in a professional environment it would be wise to steer clear of any props or theatrics for a presentation. However, depending on the topic or audience, it can prove handy to lighten the mood. Have a colleague hold up a flash card every time you hit an important note to reiterate or highlight your point. The same thing can be achieved by introducing some sort of gimmick like a bell or a buzzer. It encourages the attention of the audience and acts as a sort of exclamation mark.
The content or nature of your presentation will dictate your style quite significantly. Can you create an interactive element where you engage the audience with questions or a show of hands response? Is your piece more matter of fact relying on the audience to follow a great deal of statistical or factual information? Perhaps graphs would be a good addition to your presentation or possibly a hand out could help people have the details close at hand?
Watch a couple of TED videos to see how the pros do it. It will introduce you to a few alternative styles of speaking and also hopefully take the pressure off somewhat. Those TED guys make it look SO easy!
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Out loud. Inside the presentation room. Preferably in front of someone. Fresh eyes and ears will point out any holes in your presentation and they could offer some helpful feedback in terms of holding their interest and what bits worked better than others. Make sure you time yourself. You will be surprised at how quickly the time goes. Its not just your heart rate that’s fast!
It’s natural to be nervous when you start your talk. A top tip to remain calm is to start with a question. By beginning with some dialogue, you’ll take the limelight and pressure off yourself and be much more relaxed. And remember to breathe. By taking pause and breathing, you'll slow your heart rate and feel much calmer. If you’re using notes, remember to put in large gaps, which act as a reminder to take that breath and not talk too quickly.
Always open the floor up to questions after your presentation. Hopefully you’ll be more relaxed having the main bit done and dusted and you can just show off a bit of your knowledge on the subject with Q&A.
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