Watch any sporting champion perform at the highest level and it’s easy to think they are free from nerves and unburdened by fear. Whereas us mere mortals might fluff our Open winning putt on the 18th hole, blaze a European Championship winning penalty over the crossbar or double fault when serving to save match point at Wimbledon, the sporting elite perform with a sense of control and calm.
This state of calm control is usually what many people lack when it comes to public speaking. Instead they feel a sense of dread and apprehension about having to stand in a room full of people and deliver a keynote talk, business presentation or, worse still, a best man’s speech at a wedding. But, as with sport’s elite, we too can enter into a state whereby we are in control, channelling our emotions in a positive manner to deliver the perfect performance.
Here are seven simple steps to master public speaking:
Not only do you need to know your subject and what you want to say, but you also need to know your audience. I travel all over the world and encounter all manner of audiences, each with their own cultural nuances. It’s important to understand who you’re talking to to ensure that you don’t say anything that may cause offence, as well as having some local knowledge to show them that you have made an effort.
As the old saying goes ‘practice makes perfect’, and public speaking is no different. There’s nothing worse than someone who hasn’t practised their talk and simply stands reading it word-for-word from cue cards. Take the time to go through it at home, practise on a family member and get comfortable with your talk; the more you do this, the more natural and at ease you will be when the big moment comes.
Not only have I given my fair share of talks, but as a student of my trade I’ve also seen a lot and one of my biggest criticisms is when people use slides that are word heavy. Slides are not always necessary but if you do need them make sure they illustrate what you’re saying, rather than simply saying what you’re already saying. People have come to hear you talk, not to read your talk on a series of uninspiring slides.
In the days and hours leading up to your talk take time to sit quietly and visualise it in your head. Close your eyes, relax and picture the entire talk in your mind, from walking on stage, starting your talk, people laughing at your jokes (if you have any, and don’t feel they are essential) all the way through to a standing ovation at the end. The focus of this is priming your mind for success by showing it how you want events to unfold.
When we are nervous it’s easy to avoid making eye contact with the audience, yet this is exactly what you need to do, you need to connect with as many people as possible. By doing this you are engaging with people directly, instead of standing on a stage and preaching to them, which is a surefire way to lose your audience. It’s about making the audience feel like they’re having a conversation with you, so talk to them, not at them, make eye contact and smile.
Even now I still get a sense of nervousness before I step onto the stage, but I’ve learnt to use it to create positive energy that comes through in my words and presence. Our brains release chemicals into our bodies when they sense danger, either physical or psychological, which serve to sharpen our senses. This is exactly what happens just before we give a public talk, as most of us fear making mistakes or being judged by others. Instead of seeing it as nerves, see it as energy and excitement and channel it to benefit you.
Perhaps the most important aspect of public speaking for me is the ability to add value to people’s lives, be it through inspiring them with your own story, motivating them or giving them what I call ‘take homes’ – little tips and tools that they can implement in their own lives to affect a change. So take a moment to ask yourself ‘what am I giving to people?’.
The more I have spoken in public the more I have learnt to focus my energy and emotion on the ‘best case’ scenarios, rather than worrying about what will happen if things go wrong.