I’ve read about, watched, and practiced public speaking. I’ve been through seemingly endless hours of personal coaching in it. And while I don’t guarantee you will never see these tips anywhere else, I want to offer here a breath of fresh air from the absolute inanity of tips like “rehearse in front of a mirror” and “practice, practice, practice” that adorn the first page of Google results for “public speaking tips”.
1. Get on stage early
I’ve never once heard this tip, but it’s the single best way I know of to deal with pre-speech nervousness. Spend as much time as possible in front of my audience before the speech starts. That’s all.
Are you speaking in a class? Get up there as soon as the teacher starts jotting down her final notes on the last speaker. Maybe you’re in a row of presentations at work? Stand up and get your PowerPoint plugged in and ready to go as soon as you can. If you can walk around the stage a bit, do that. You’re getting to know the territory. When you’re giving your speech in another minute and a half, it’ll feel just a bit more like your home turf.
Joke with the audience, even if you can only slip it in by checking your mic. I don’t mean “two men walk into a bar”, I mean be yourself, and casual. For me, that’s synonymous with “say dumb things” (“You guys ready for my speech?” “Yeah, are you?” “My brain says yes but my heart says no!” “Haha, we’ll go easy on you”. Aw, they like you. You feel better already, right?).
Make sure your first words to your audience aren’t the first ones you’re being graded on. When you start your speech, you want the adrenaline still fresh in your blood, but without the associated nervousness hindering you.
Note: “Get on stage early” doesn’t apply in all situations. When you’re giving the state of the union, drop the opening jokes. But in most less formal speeches, my advice stands: get on stage early.
2. Watch that one clip from Braveheart
You know, that one. Watch it before you give your speech.
Before you speak well, listen to people speak well.
This is such a good article, right? I’m encouraging you to watch YouTube before speaking publicly. Here, check this out:
There are plenty of good speakers out there. In this case I chose William Wallace, who is encouraging us to fight in a battle that we’d hold our manhoods cheap to miss. Maybe battle isn’t the most apt metaphor (it does pump you up though). OK, try something else.
Here’s President Bartlet, i.e. Martin Sheen in The West Wing, delivering a speech so good it has to be fictional.
Whenever you see a video of someone giving an awesome speech, bookmark it. There’s a lot you can learn from reading about and discussing and practicing diction and phrasing and pauses and tone, but guess what? You can do it a lot quicker by playing the last minute of one of these suckers 10 times in a row. And that brings me to my next point…
3. Don’t be Yourself
Don’t be yourself. Be an actor. You’re not playing you. You’re you playing someone who is doing what you need to do. Making an argument. Telling a story. Inspiring the dull at heart.
See, those are tasks we do only in a limited sense in our day-to-day lives. When you tell a story to a friend, half the time you mess up. “Wait, let me think of how it ended again”, and your friend gives up on pretending to care. But when you’re speaking publicly, you need to get that story right. The audience? They’d better be alternating between the edge of their seats and reaching for the kleenex. If they aren’t fist-pumping and roof-raising by the end, you’re done.
And that’s a lot of pressure for a normal person. So give the pressure to a fictional character that you will just play for a few minutes. That character channels greatness and passion. The ghosts of great speakers long gone course through his imaginary veins. He doesn’t speak like you. He doesn’t emote like you. That’s OK, he’s not you. For what you need to do, he’s better. He performs.
You’re an actor. You’re playing a role.
And here’s my theory. If you play him long enough, you’ll become him. You will speak just as you’ve always wanted and needed.
4. Use Hooks
This tip will literally make people come up to you after your speech and talk about how good it was.
You know when you’re listening to the news, they always play (and replay and replay) these same four or five-second clips of someone saying something just about every chance they get? Soundbites. That’s what you want to make when you’re speaking.
I’m not saying you can’t present intelligent arguments and have plenty of good rhetoric, but by all means, set yourself up for soundbites. Figure out what the core of your speech is, and then say it in some way that is memorable, and repeat those words as many times as you can. Ready?
- Say a memorable thing
- Repeat it
That’s all there is to it.
If you don’t trust that this is a good idea, ask yourself if you’ve read anything on this blog that’s stuck with you– something that, when you were thinking about your own life and goals, inspired you to take the next step. Chances are it wasn’t in the form of a paragraph. And even if I had multi-step arguments on this site, it wouldn’t have been one of those. Nope, it was probably a catchphrase or some inane trinket of wordplay, like “The Finishing School” or Resistance-with-a-capital-”R”. Both complex ideas, both succinctly and curiously stated.
Clutter your speech with sticky ideas and phrases and stories and images. Even as far as this article goes, I’m willing to bet that before your next speech, you’ll remember Mel Gibson more than you will the next piece of advice. Why? He’s visual. Memorable. Unusual, at least as far as public speaking advice goes. Who gives speech tips like “watch that scene from Braveheart”?
So take something like that and just drop it on your audience a few times.
- Say a memorable thing
- Repeat it
5. Videotape Yourself at All Costs
Yes, you will hate the sound of your own voice. Yes, you will cringe at your ums and ahs and uhs. But, in the end, your friends have accepted you despite your awful voice, so get over it. Once you do, you can realize what works for you and your voice, and then do those things.
Example? OK, here’s one.
Something I learned through videotaping is about my higher voice registers. I find it pretty natural to drift somewhat higher in pitch when excited. While this doesn’t really sound like something a guy would want to play up, it’s clear from listening to myself and trying to work with my voice that it’s actually not a bad thing at all. In fact, if I just dial up the “Sincere” tone in my voice while in my Roosevelt register, my voice can come off as genuine, persuasive, and inspiring, all while being very natural.
This whole videotaping strategy is the best if you can do it a couple of times in a short amount of time. You don’t want weeks between each speech you see yourself giving– you want to remember what each time was like and how you were trying to speak during each of them. Then you can improve. But enough about this. Chances are you’ll know, like, exactly what you, um, need to do when you see yourself speaking.
6. Bonus Rule: Make Sure Your PowerPoint Doesn’t Suck
I’m going to cover this one in a future post, and it’s going to be awesome because it’s going to cover the easiest possible way to assemble a PowerPoint presentation that looks amazing. It’ll assume you’re already a decent speaker, so do some of the stuff here first and I’ll get around to it.
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So that’s what I’ve got.
Please add any insights in the comments, and as this is the first of the BLS How-To’s, let me know your thoughts on where you want to see these posts go.
All the best in your public speaking!