Year after year, when Americans are asked about the things they fear the most, public speaking comes out at the top of the list! Yet for the services professional – especially those of us in communication – speaking to an audience live is still the most effective way to establish expertise, make an impact with personality and generally demonstrate our ability to “walk the walk.”
So why do we hate it and what can we do about it?
We hate it because it puts all eyes upon us, singles us out, leaves no margin for error. When you are the speaker, you are the show and if it’s not informative and engaging, out goes the positive energy and in rushes the negative. Generally speaking, this is something you can feel as heavy as a wet blanket. So what do we do about it? Following are four simple tips for taking the fear out of speaking and putting the fun back in. Try one or try all – they definitely work!
Pepper your talk with examples or case studies – you might have the most interesting topic in the world, and your audience may be incredibly eager to hear what you have to say, but an entire talk that lives in the theoretical can leave even the most enthusiastic audience member feeling as if something is missing.
For example, several years back I was giving a talk about crisis management to a couple of hundred people. The speech was 30 minutes with a 15 minute Q&A session at the end. I didn’t include any case studies in my speech and when we meandered to the end – the entire Q&A session was taken up by participants asking me to clarify concepts using examples they gave me. It clicked for me that night that I lost impact by not exemplifying – and I’ve never made that mistake again.
Use humor. Jokes loosen up the most captive audiences – even bad ones. My favorite was delivered at a conference with a room full of biotech CEOs and CFOs: “Why did the scientist cross the road? I don’t know. It wasn’t statistically significant, so nobody cares anyway.”
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! This might seem like a no-brainer but think about how many times you’ve been to lectures and events and the speaker spends the entire speech looking at note cards and not at the audience. My feeling in these instances is “I’d rather read a book about it.” The most dynamic speakers know their subject matter, and their speech, cold. This means they can look up, make eye-contact, walk around, use hand gestures. A speech becomes a lot more personal when the speaker fully engages. That’s much more likely to happen when the speaker is prepared!
Don’t take yourself too seriously. During Q&A, be prepared to hear questions that support differing opinions, feed back the questioner’s thoughts and validate the point of view, if possible[k1] . Of course, facts are facts. I am not suggesting that you refrain from correcting inaccurate statements, rather be open to, and accept the idea that not everyone will take everything you said as gospel.
I once gave a speech to an international group of marketing professionals. The topic related to pharma economics and how the profits generated in non-socialized medicine companies allow pharma to offer third-world countries access to medicines at a fraction of the cost. My take-away was (and this is true) that the U.S. indirectly subsidizes approximately 80% of the third-world’s medicine. A Dutch audience member jumped up as soon as I asked for questions and accused me of being arrogant. I promptly asked his pardon if my tone offended him and then pulled up the three back-up slides in rapid succession that supported my point – including data from the pharma organization itself.
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