Have you been asked a question and felt unable to provide an answer you felt was satisfactory?
I’ve had that feeling several times recently. Good, well-deserving people have asked me how to become a more confident, engaging public speaker. That’s not a question you can answer in once sentence, hence this article – which I hope will provide some useful guidance.
Though every individual finds themselves in a unique position on this journey, I believe there are two main stages of development. One is the transition from fear and anxiety to confidence when standing and speaking to a group of people. The other is the cultivation of craft and technique for maximum impact. I hope here to provide a general foundation that will prove useful to anyone, regardless of where they are currently placed with their level of public speaking experience.
We’ve heard more times than we care to remember: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. It probably enters your consciousness in a whiny, condescending tone as spoken by a well-meaning parent or mentor. Unfortunately, this priceless gem often came at precisely the time you least wanted to hear it, since it was nearly always after you’d suffered some embarrassment due to a lack of preparation and were too busy nursing a severely bruised ego.
Preparation is key. Any audience listening to anything you prepare has placed their trust in you. You are accountable for what they learn – or don’t learn – in the time you have with them. A striking quote in the teaching profession reads: “A careless surgeon harms one person. A careless teacher harms hundreds.” You do your audience a tremendous disservice if you don‟t prepare sufficiently. Does that mean your presentation can‟t be humorous or engaging? Of course not, but these effective presentations are always delivered by people who took the preparation stage seriously. Much of the fear and anxiety surrounding public speaking is eradicated by sufficient preparation and thorough knowledge of the subject material. Better preparation, better reception; it’s that simple.
We hate it when meetings start late or run over. We feel robbed of our time when it is not treated respectfully by people who claim some of it. A lot of good will is lost immediately by either starting late or running over time. If an audience knows what time you are due to start and finish, their attention span will only last that long. If you start late, you will have to work harder to get them on side. If you run over, they will not retain anything you say after the time you were due to finish. They will be watching the clock, planning the rest of their day or making meal plans for that evening. I have never taken anything meaningful from the window of time between a presentation’s intended finish time and its actual finish time.
If you can’t say it in the time allotted, consider revising the information you are delivering. Are there too many key points for one presentation? Could some of these points be made more succinctly?
Sometimes we need to adjust a presentation while we are giving it. This versatility comes with experience, but never hesitate to trim a presentation if it allows you to finish at the agreed time. The audience will appreciate this statement of professionalism more than anything you say that takes time they didn’t want to give you in the first place.
Verbal communication constitutes a minority percentage; you say more with your face, your hands and your body than you do with your voice. The greatest speakers use movement, gesture, body language, facial expression and vocal variety as vehicles to more deeply impress the messages they speak.
When speaking, it is easy to be overcome with feelings of anxiety and isolation. This stems back to our ancestral biochemistry, when separation from a group meant almost certain death at the hands of the elements or predators. Rest assured, standing up to speak in front of an audience is extremely unlikely to result in your death; I’ve never seen it, and I’d be very worried if you had. When we feel anxious, our body language automatically becomes defensive. Amy Cuddy has done some intriguing research on the impact our mindset can have on our physiology, and vice versa . We make ourselves small, we fold our arms, put hands in pockets, fidget, look down or stand with our legs crossed (I used to do this, but my balance isn’t as good these days).
Thanks to technological advancements, most of our conversations are not face-to-face ones, so eye contact becomes uncomfortable. However, amazing things happen when eye contact is sustained; people start to trust each other! Think about job interviews and romantic dinners; both of these scenarios create unease, but in both cases we are trying to forge a bond of trust and eye contact plays a pivotal part. An audience will take far more from what you say if it feels like it is intended for them and not the carpet. Work on eye contact first, then work on standing tall, opening out your body and using your hands to reinforce your message rather than fidgeting, folding or pocketing them. Good posture will help improve your voice projection and instill confidence in your audience. Your voice will only ever be as strong as the platform you build for it.
We all know one ‘whisperer’; often our necks ache when we’ve finished listening to them because we had to crane in to hear what they were trying to say. We also probably know that one school teacher who could blow out the windows with the perfect screech. Neither is particularly helpful when used to excess, but skilfully developing – and using – the full spectrum of vocal variety can spellbind an audience and have them hanging on your every syllable. I have often been described as ‘quietly confident’ or possessing ‘quiet dignity’. I don‟t mind those appellations too much, but one of my top priorities currently is learning when to leave the introvert to one side and really put the hammer down when getting to the core message.
It starts with the diaphragm. It’s a muscle so, like all other muscles, it can be trained and strengthened. Improving diaphragm control improves the resonance and power you can apply to your speaking voice. Little wonder that the greatest singers and actors spend a lot of their time performing deep breathing exercises. A word of caution here, though: volume and power are NOT the same as projection. Achieving maximum volume by shrieking will do significant damage to your vocal cords; good projection through the diaphragm will improve the resonance of your voice and allow you to be heard in all corners whilst causing no damage whatsoever.
A plethora of health benefits are scientifically proven to accompany those who sing regularly in a choir or group. Why is this? Likely, it is because you are learning to regulate your breathing, heart rate and drawing in a larger amount of oxygen. I sing in a choir, and I love it. My voice isn’t the best, but why should that matter? Even if you only ever sing in the shower, keep at it. You‟re doing yourself quite a bit of physiological and psychological good, even if you can‟t quite reach the same notes as Adele, Whitney Houston or Sarah Brightman.
There are many simple exercises you can do without taking any time out of your day. Before getting out of bed, whilst stopped at the lights or sitting at a desk, you can train your diaphragm. I suggest practising this to improve the quality of your speaking voice, as well as possibly lengthening your life. Have a look online at the best deep breathing exercises; you’ll be surprised how simple some of them can be .
Whilst centre stage is the best place to begin your speech, it can become very one-dimensional if the whole speech is delivered from one spot. Using the full stage area by moving from one side to the other between key points can help bring your audience on the journey with you.
Of course, some settings are more restrictive than others, such as delivering a PowerPoint in a small boardroom. Even here, perhaps moving from one side of the screen to the other might help to add variety. It’s about knowing your space and using it to your advantage. Always move obstacles – such as chairs or lecterns – out of the way if you do not need them, as they often confine you to a smaller operating space. For a fantastic example of how to use stage movement to powerful effect, watch Dananjaya Hettiarachchi’s “I See Something”, the speech that crowned him the 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking . It‟s one of the best speeches I’ve seen; he incorporates all the practices we are discussing naturally and seamlessly; his movement around the stage helps to build a compelling narrative.
Have you ever listened to a presentation where the speaker spoke far too quickly for you to absorb the complex information they were sharing? I’ve left many meetings feeling frustrated that critically important content was marred by poor delivery.
Research suggests that the ideal speaking pace is 120-150 words a minute. Think about it: that’s a little over two words a second. You can afford to speak slower. Not only will the audience take away more of what you say, you won’t be under as much pressure to deliver lots of content! Better to cover fewer key points in adequate depth than rush and spread yourself too thin.
Another problem with speaking too quickly comes in the form of ‘crutch words’ or ‘filler words’; these are unnecessary sounds we rely on to fill gaps. Words such as ‘like’, ‘so’, ‘you know’, ‘well’, ‘erm’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ all erode our credibility and the efficiency with which we deliver our intended message. I used to start most sentences with ‘basically’, until someone pointed it out. Someone I know used to say ‘if you get me,’ at the end of most phrases. Next time you are watching the news or listening to the radio, keep an ear out. The poor quality of communication and number of pointless utterances will shock you.
We use these needless sounds to fill pauses because we are pathologically afraid of silence. I promise you, the world will not implode if you have a two or three second pause between key points. In fact, the audience are more likely to appreciate pauses as they can absorb what you’ve just told them. They can even be used dramatically to great effect.
Next time you are tempted to stumble or fumble, just pause! Take a deep breath and move seamlessly on to the next sentence. This is the first skill I developed that made a significant difference to the quality of my communication. If you are unsure where to start, focus on developing this skill first.
Ours is a beautiful language, yet research suggests that in day-to-day dialogue we use less than 2% of more than 170,000 words available to us in the English language. That means we only make use of around 3,000 words regularly. How on earth are we going to change attitudes and mindsets with such a pitiful vocabulary?
I’m tired of listening to speeches where something is either ‘important’, ‘very important’, ‘really important’, ‘extremely important’, or even ‘really really’ or ‘very very’ important. I once listened to someone on a six-figure salary who used thirteen double intensifiers in a five minute briefing. It was so distracting that I abandoned trying to get the message and started a tally chart. Not only is it a blatant crutch, it’s not effective at convincing people that what you’re trying to tell them is ‘really really’ important. If everything is ‘really really’ important, then nothing is.
What about fundamental, vital, critical, pivotal, essential, paramount, significant, imperative, crucial, focal, principal, unequivocal, or being of great magnitude or consequence?
Words are our greatest tool, and their effective use makes all the difference when it comes to leaving a lasting impression. I’m not suggesting we scour the dictionary for deliberately obscure or unfamiliar words; this will alienate and frustrate your audience. However, we can do far better when it comes to how we use language for effect.
There are scores of devices you can employ to enhance your communication. I studied English at BA level and work in secondary English, so I dream about metaphors, similes, personification, onomatopoeia, the rule of three, oxymoron, rhetorical questions, repetition, alliteration, sibilance, chiasmus, imagery, cyclical structure, stand-alone paragraphs and so forth. These will add flavour to both written and spoken language and, when used effectively, can create a sensory experience for the audience that will draw them into the world you are creating for them. Give it a try.
Determination, grit, resolve, stoicism. Call it anything you want, but becoming a competent speaker takes practice and consistency. Nobody that is an expert at something today achieved it without paying the price of progress. I watched a riveting TED talk the other day by Tim Ferriss in which he said: “The hard choices — what we most fear doing, asking, saying — these are very often exactly what we most need to do” . If it makes you uncomfortable, it is likely going to help you transcend your current limitations and yield progress.
When I first started speaking, a good friend gave me some profound advice that I have never forgotten. He said: “If you want to become comfortable in uncomfortable situations, you will never do it in comfortable situations. Go find yourself some more uncomfortable situations”. Since then, my life – professionally and personally – has been a perpetual stream of uncomfortable situations. I remain ever grateful for that advice with each new learning opportunity.
One of my all-time favourite quotes was by the great pianist and composer, Ludwig van Beethoven: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” I’m quite sure this man knew a thing or two about piano practice; this is great advice from someone who clearly demonstrated that practice pays off.
I’m not talking about New Year’s Resolutions or just thinking ‘that went well’ or ‘that could have gone better’. Personal reflection should be frequent and emotionally challenging. It can sometimes be an agonising process and ALWAYS includes a pen and paper. Writing goals and plans automatically makes you twice as likely to achieve them.
A great way I heard this process of meta-cognition described recently was the posing of three simple questions: What? So What? Now What?
In other words, what took place? What was successful or unsuccessful about the venture? What does that reveal about the current level of understanding, performance or practice? Having exposed these gaps or shortfalls, what can be done next time to improve performance?
Be accountable to someone other than yourself. You might be fortunate enough to have a mentor that will provide honest and constructive feedback. As soon as you become accountable to someone else, the rate of your improvement will accelerate. That is why I love working with people on developing public speaking skills; I simply get to make polite suggestions, stand back and watch as the individual makes their own incredible journey. There is nothing more thrilling than making the transition from student to mentor; you can help others learn what you have learned, which in turn teaches you more than you could have learned by working alone.
These ten principles have helped me immensely throughout my public speaking adventure so far, and I am constantly seeking to develop my ability to apply them each time I speak. I sincerely hope they will do the same for you. I am far from perfect at applying all of them, but I can now honestly say I look forward to preparing, speaking and reflecting with delight rather than dread. I look forward to hearing how these principles help you succeed in your own journey. Here’s to losing your fear, finding your voice and using it to engage and inspire.