After I finished speaking at an event in Camden on Easter Sunday, I was stood outside chatting to a couple of young women when one of them asked me how I did it. What she was referring to was my ability to speak before a crowd without showing any nerves or anxieties, and to speak with such confidence and charisma. Firstly, I was humbled that they would think so nicely about my presentation, but then when they asked me for help overcoming their own fears and self-deprecating thoughts, I figured I’d put my thoughts down into words and see if I can help a larger audience.
So, to the world of public speaking.
For many, it’s a worst nightmare, garnering a fear and terror within that ultimately makes them avoid situations where they’d have to speak in front of others. On the other side of the coin, there are those who seem to positively brim with confidence, taking to the stage without even batting an eyelid, and delivering their message as if they were speaking one on one with you over a coffee. They make it look so easy. So what’s their secret? How do they manage to go out there, full of enthusiasm, grabbing everyone’s attention and saying all the right things without even the slightest hint of nervousness?
Believe me, even those of us who appear not to have any difficulty with our nerves certainly used to experience them, but we’ve taught ourselves how to face this particular type of exposure and ‘get over ourselves’. There’s definitely a knack to it, and it is one that can be learned, though it most certainly does require practice and persistence.
Throughout my life, but particularly during the past 12 years (since I’ve been more ‘awake’), I’ve been witness to many hundreds of brilliant speeches and many thousands of bad ones; and so I’ve really begun to understand what it is that works, and what it is that doesn’t.
So, with that in mind, I figured the easiest way to present this article would be to set it out as my top-12 tips for professional speaking. This, I believe, will be the most useful way to get my experience across. So if you’re worrying about stepping out in front of that room, I hope my experiences can help you shed those fears for good.
Let’s get started…
1) Tell a story.
“Let me tell you a story…” is so much more interesting than, “Let me tell you about my company / work / opinions…” The two just don’t elicit the same reactions. Stories are exciting. Most presentations are dry. Try opening with a story and tell as many stories as you can to illustrate your point. You’ll really notice the difference in the audience sitting up when you’re saying something that promises to be fun and exciting. It’s also really great if you use the story as a metaphor for the point you’re trying to get over to them. People can really remember your message if it’s wrapped up in a story, especially a funny one!
2) Use emotion.
The audience needs to connect with you emotionally. There’s no point just giving a load of data and expecting the audience to remember. The audience will primarily remember how you made them feel, not what you said. So by using extreme emotions and tales that bring about an emotional state change in the audience, they’re 100% more likely to remember both you and your content. I personally like to use humour and sincerity. By touching people’s sense of humour and making them laugh, they’re guaranteed to remember you positively as someone that makes them feel good. By engaging with them in a sincere way, they’re going to remember you for your integrity and consider you someone worth listening to again in the future. I have literally spent 20 mins (of a 20-minute share) just speaking nonsense, but making funny remarks and amusing points, without ever really saying anything about the actual topic I was tasked with discussing. However, the audience had a really fun evening, laughing and joking with me, so they left thinking they’d really had a good time learning whatever they thought they were meant to learn. The reality was that I’d hardly said anything of value, but I’d put them in the right state to enjoy themselves and so they came away feeling like they’d got real value from the evening. They had a good time and would therefore come back to a) hear me again and b) trust the same event promoter to supply other speakers who make them feel great.
3) Prepare and keep on practising.
Ensure you’re completely comfortable with your own material by running through your presentation as many times as required. Before you go onto the stage, you should know your content and your presentation so well that you could do it without PowerPoint and definitely without any notes. The ability of a speaker to ‘flow’ as they present their content is so much more powerful and engaging than someone reading off notes or following their slides. I make a point of never taking any notes on to the stage. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just that I know my topic well enough to have earned the right to be on that stage in the first place. How many times have you seen people just read off their slides? Yawn! PowerPoint is great for showing images, charts and short videos. However, bulleted lists of texts have been done to death, so be more creative with how you present your speech. PowerPoint isn’t a speaker’s crutch; view it as a great way to illustrate your spoken point. Some of the best speakers don’t use slides at all, except to solicit a laugh.
4) Know your topic.
It’s vital that you know your topic and that you’re an expert in what you’re talking about. No one likes to be told what to do, but even less so when that person doesn’t seem to be speaking from experience or knowledge. I never speak about what I’ve not had a personal experience around or any first-hand wisdom. I once had a guy tell me that he could help me write my book “It’s Not About Me!”. I asked him if he had any idea about successful recovery from addictions, and he told me he hadn’t but that he was prepared to read something he’d noticed on the internet and then help me with my book all the same (he trying to offer me his professional services!). I had to tell him there was no way he could write a book about the Freemasons without being a Freemason, so how did he expect to assist me to write my book about a topic of which he had no personal experience? So know your topic and your life becomes that much easier – especially if you do a Q&A session.
5) Arrive early.
Everybody hates that presenter who fumbles around with technology on stage, or who swans in late as if they haven’t a care in the world. That bad first impression is nearly impossible to overcome. You’re already managing your audience from a place of rescue, rather than dominance. You should plan to arrive with plenty of time to spare, and ideally go to the room 30 minutes before anyone has arrived to make sure everything is in order – seating, technology, cloakroom, refreshments etc. If there are sessions before yours, be ready to go in there as soon as possible so you can set up, test your equipment and stand on the stage to get a feel for the room. Hear your voice through the microphone and get comfortable with the venue. As well as helping you to deliver a better speech, the conference organiser will be most impressed by your commitment to your art and for arriving early! It’s also nice to arrive early and have a little moment of quiet reflection or to do some calming breathing exercises to help calm yourself down, or even pump yourself up; whichever is more relevant to your stage presence.
6) Have a message.
Always know beforehand what message you’re trying to get across, and make sure you’re on target to suit whoever has asked you to speak, and that you’re serving them and their cause. I was once asked to speak to some 15 and 16 year olds on the topic of addiction. Now, if you know me, you’ll know that one of my subjects is about successful spiritual recovery from addiction, but some of the elders that ran that group were expecting me to do an anti-drugs message for the teenagers. If I had known what their expectations were beforehand, I would either have declined to speak or at least merged my message to suit the organisers. In this case I left with half of the organisers in despair about how I’d not told the kids “drugs are bad” and half of them overwhelmed with joy because they had heard the actual message I delivered and truly loved it. The teenagers also loved it, by the way. They got far more from it than if I’d just gone and told them not to do drugs.
If you’re getting paid to speak, you need to make sure you deliver so that the conference organiser is not only pleased that they invited you, but also wants you back another time. So find out what the goals of the organiser are. Why did they invite you? How would the organiser define success? And make sure you keep them happy.
7) Take it seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
Think of it like this: if there are 200 people in a room and you speak for an hour, you take up 200 hours of people’s time! That’s a fair amount of responsibility on your shoulders. You have the opportunity to really make an impact. So take your role with the respect that it’s due. However, make sure that you don’t get wrapped up too much by your own success or lack of success. Yes, go in there and make a difference. But if you bomb, don’t beat yourself up. Learn the lesson. After all, there is no such thing as failure – only feedback. So go and give it your best shot, but don’t be downhearted if it’s not perfect. There’s always next time.
8) It’s not about you.
No one really cares about you. People only really care about themselves and whatever solutions and tips you can give them to solve their own problems. So look at your speech in a different way; that is, consider what you’re about to say from their point of view. Are you giving them value, or just telling them about your own successes. There’s no need to be grandiose. Humility and sincerity are far stronger tools than self-importance and self-applause. Remember, it isn’t even about you – it’s always about your audience. Don’t hype your services or products. Even if someone asks to speak to you about your company or your products, always turn it around so that it is about them, or even your customers (i.e. them) or the actual and real problem that you can solve for them instead.
9) Don’t go on. Open Up; Bring it Up and then Shut Up.
Quite often, your speech can go on too long. Don’t overdo it! I’ve sat through far too many people who speak long past the moment when anyone cares anymore. Learn to judge your audience by their body language and eye contact. You should easily be able to tell when you’ve spoken for long enough just by realising how much interest they’re still showing you. If they don’t seem interested, I’m sorry, but it’s too late. You’re not going to win them back now by saying something super important at this point. It’s always better to keep them wanting more, than leave with them never wanting to hear you again.
Say what you want to say, and then get off. If your time is up, then get off. Remember it’s always okay to end early because it then gives you an opportunity to take a few questions. But going on too long will ruin your rapport with them, or if you speak longer than your allocated time slot, you risk sending the whole conference out of sync. And if they pull you off the stage, it really does look awful, and the organiser is really unlikely to want to use your speaking skills again in the future.
10) Know your body language.
It’s not only what you say, but also how you say it. When you’re speaking, words only go so far and aren’t actually as important as the way you come across. If you are nervous, it will show, and if you don’t believe what you’re saying, it will show. Not having fun? That will show too. Audiences always react to your body language, not your words. So make sure you’re smiling. Chin up, not looking at the floor. Look people in the eye as you speak. Scan the room, and don’t just direct it at one or two people. If possible, stand up. This not only allows for the blood and adrenaline to flow through you better, but also makes it easier for you to speak with your arms open, thus encapsulating them into your world easier (palms open to the audience whenever possible). Speak from a position of personal power. Be in a state of certainty and show you mean business. All great speakers have mastered their body postures and stances. It really does convey so much more than words alone can manage.
This is my own personal recommendation, and is what always truly helps ground me and makes sure that I’m speaking on point and from the heart.
Before I start any speaking, I bring God (as I understand God – the Spirit of the Universe, my Higher Purpose, or Mother Earth, or whatever it is for you) into my thoughts and I say a little prayer, along the lines of, “God, Give me the strength to be a vessel of your message!” and then I go through a short breathing exercise to ensure that I feel connected to my God and empowered enough to deliver the right words to best represent what really needs to be said, rather than what I think should be said. It’s a letting-go process, where I become calm and centred and ready to say whatever God thinks I need to say, rather than my ego.
I then make sure I follow through with point number 12.
Those of you that witness me speaking will notice that I always begin by thanking and recognising those who have invited me to speak. Or I weave in a little story that expresses thanks to someone or something, or even some situation, that brought me to be there speaking before them, followed by some sort of expression of gratitude and appreciation.
This gratitude is what allows me the chance to start speaking and then get out of my own way, whilst the God that I asked to serve in point 11 turns up and kicks in.
Too woo-woo for you? Then substitute the concept of God with your own Power turning up and speaking through you, rather than you thinking your way through the speech.
The Secret of my success
The secret of my success when speaking in public is really points 11 and 12 of this list.
By bringing God (as I understand Her) into my essence, and then by beginning with an expression of gratitude, I find the time to start speaking and to move into autopilot.
What I mean by this is that I begin speaking from my head, but by the time I’ve finished expressing my gratitude formally, I’ve begun speaking from the heart.
And that, my friends, is the secret to my success!
I hope these 12 tips go some way towards helping you be a better speaker / presenter.
If you found these useful or you have any more to add, please get in touch and tell me so.