A friend of mine who is scheduled to give the opening talk at a major conference later this week posted on Facebook that she’s both excited and nervous about her talk. Nothing unusual, of course, and her anxiety is certainly understandable: fear of public speaking is the #1 anxiety in the general population.
In that regard, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been speaking from podiums and stages for decades now and when I first realized how much I enjoyed the limelight, I studied top professional public speakers to learn what made them tick, what made them engaging, fun and interesting. The two main people I watched, over and over again, in case you’re curious, were Tom Peters and Tony Robbins. Both are just dynamite on stage. But why? That’s what I figured out…
The first thing I realized is that as someone on stage, I need to be interesting. No, more than interesting, I need to be an entertainer, a performer. I mean, I’m on stage, I’m performing. Not in the monkey and organ grinder sense (hopefully!) but still, the best speakers are people who keep your attention and find that marvelous mix of fun, entertaining and informative.
There are some speakers who have the opposite problem too, of course. They’re all entertainment, often the “bad boy” persona on stage, but afterwards you realize that they didn’t actually have anything of value to share. Not uncommon for keynote and paid speakers, unfortunately, so it’s really a mix that you need to try and attain. But to assume that you’re speaking at a professional conference or event and therefore you don’t need to do anything other than share your research data or case studies in a dry monotone. Well. It already sounds boring, doesn’t it?
I once spoke at the Modern Language Association Convention and was the odd man out. I didn’t stand in front of the room and read a prepared paper, word for word, without looking up or even taking a breath. I actually engaged my audience and made eye contact, shared humorous asides, and had a bit of fun with my session. They didn’t know what to to make of it. Me? I never went back. Yikes.
Two of the best things you can do to get ready for a speech or other presentation are to spend the time preparing your material. It’s a very, very rare person who can give an extemporaneous talk and not fall flat. Those people you see doing it on TV and at major events? Yeah, they have speeches they’ve studied, often for weeks, prior to stepping onto the stage.
In that same vein, don’t over-prepare. Practice your talk for a few colleagues or in front of a mirror? Could be a good idea, especially if you’re not good at pacing yourself. But doing that a dozen times or more? You’ll just get paranoid and more anxious, not less. Ditto slides. Revise them once or twice, but if you’re spending hours and hours on your deck, you’re putting your attention into the wrong thing.
Once you’ve gotten to a good spot, take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Exercise. Have sex. Whatever. Just breath out and relax. You’re going to do fine.
I don’t speak at political rallies, so this next part might be skewed, but in my experience, it’s always true that every single person in the audience wants you to be awesome. They don’t want to nit-pick, they don’t want to be critical, they want to find your talk fascinating, thought-provoking and entertaining.
That’s reassuring, isn’t it?
I think the fear of public speaking is closely tied to a fear of looking stupid or being embarrassed, but if you envision that everyone wants you to succeed, not fail, then you realize that you’re going to be speaking to a supportive audience that will forgive just about anything — including speech impediments, coughing fits, stumbling when you’re walking on stage, accidentally smacking the microphone, or even — in one notable experience I witnessed — walking on stage with a glass of wine and then promptly spilling it all over yourself. Really, as long as you keep calm and have a sense of humor, it’s just about impossible to alienate an audience if you actually have something worth saying.
You wouldn’t be invited to speak at a conference or trade show if you weren’t already considered someone smart, savvy and blessed with good communication skills. Really. Walking on stage doesn’t take that away from you, and I know, I’ve run all-day workshops for 500+ people.
Here’s an exercise that’ll convince you that you’re ready: think about the last time you were hanging out with your buddies, your mates, your colleagues and everyone was paying attention to you, smiling and nodding as you talked. Got that? Now capture that relaxed sensation and stick it in your pocket. Then pull it out just before you walk on stage.
One more thought about how to do well speaking on stage: be bigger than life. Whether it’s a small room with thirty people or a large stage and seating for a thousand, you need to be bigger, bolder and more enthused than you’d be if we were sitting across from each other at the local Starbucks and chatting.
Imagine you’re in the back of the room. Hold up your fingers and measure. The speaker’s no bigger than your thumb or smartphone screen. Yeah, it’s called perspective, I know. But it’s important, because if you want to really hold your audience and have them listen to every word you utter, you need to capture and keep their attention.
It’s like when movies first started, because there was no sound and the projection systems were crummy, actors had very exaggerated movements and gestures. Turns out that works really well on stage. Even with sound.
Most of all, my key advice to any public speaker is always the same: relax, relax, relax and have fun on stage. Really. It’s fun to be on stage.
You’ll do GREAT!