Do you hate public speaking? Are you afraid that no one will pay attention? Are you nervous about getting up and talking in front of strangers, or even family? Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is the most common psychological disorder and can be a serious impairment in daily life. Even if you don't have social phobia, however, you may be intimidated by the idea of public speaking. Luckily there are ways to overcome your anxiety and then some. Before I explain these, let me give some background.
In the academic world, people give talks all the time. Professors lecture to their students and students give presentations for their professors. Deans talk to their faculty, college presidents to parents, and recruiters to prospective students. Candidates for jobs come to campus and give the famous, infamous "job talk" where they put their entire careers on the line in the space of 1 hour. Conference speakers share their research to national, if not international, audiences, in the hopes of educating their colleagues about their scholarly insights. Given the importance of the well-delivered speech in academia, it might surprise you to learn that many of the speeches academics hear (or give) may just not be all that good. Some of these speeches are great, but some are flat-out terrible.
You know you're at a bad talk when the audience members are either more glued to their watches, phones or laptops than to the speaker. Coughing, yawning, and uncomfortable rustling add further to the image of an inattentive if not resentful audience.
Hearing boring speeches is not a phenomenon limited to the world of education. Staff presentations, sales meetings, and management seminars in the business world can be plenty mind-numbing. Sermons, speeches at weddings, funerals, and family reunions can also be notoriously sleep-inducing. Speeches are the bread and butter for politicians, but a candidate who says the wrong thing is in for a downfall.
Now let's flip the scenario to talks that are interesting if not enthralling and speakers whose charisma fills the room as much as do their words. What makes the great ones great and the bad ones dreadful? Is it intelligence, personality, experience, lack of social anxiety, or some combination? Perhaps. Even more so, however, are the guidelines that great speakers follow that rely on simple application of these principles derived from social, educational, and applied psychology:
1.Know your audience. Be sure to check before giving any type of talk to find out the level of your audience's previous knowledge, their familiarity with the topic, and their likely interests. If you do your homework ahead of time, you'll have a few insights that will help you prepare your talk. But you won't rely only on the background work because you will---
2.Check in with your audience. Start by asking audience members a few simple questions that require them to raise their hands. First, this gets their blood flowing into their limbs, but second and more important, this allows you to find out whether you need to adjust what you were going to say to accommodate their interests. If you're asked to speak to a high school class on career day, for example, ascertain how many of them might actually be interested in the career you're there to talk about.
3. Keep your eyes focused on your audience. Charismatic speakers make liberal use of eye contact. They pick people out of the audience (more than one, so as not to appear creepy) and look right in their eyes. "I'm talking to you!" is the message you communicate when you take this approach. Audience members feel immediately connected to you because they believe that you value their attention. It's especially important for you to look at people in the back of the audience as well, or at least seem to be looking at them even if you can't see them. Draw everyone in the room into your circle. They won't want to look away because they feel drawn in by the connection you're making to them.
4. Use PowerPoint wisely. Like any tool, PowerPoint can be used or abused. The best PowerPoint slides are crisp, clean, and short. As a bonus, they also have good graphics that illustrate the concepts on the slide without being overly cluttered or cute. The biggest mistake that people make when using PowerPoint is to cram too much information in one slide. The second biggest mistake they make is reading the information directly off the slide. Bullet points should be three to four words, and there shouldn't be more than three to four per slide. If you put a quote on a slide, don't read it out loud. It's on the slide for your audience, not you, to read.
5. Don't just read your speech. Some speakers feel a tremendous need to read every word they have carefully crafted on the page. The biggest problem with this approach is that audience members are bound to think to themselves that they could be a lot more comfortable and save a lot of time if you just sent them your talk and they didn't have to go to hear you give it. They are there to hear you give your own unique spin on the topic and they are there to hear you give it in person. Make it worth their time and effort. As an example, think of the Academy Award acceptance speeches that truly moved you. Chances are those speeches were spoken, not read. You can't look your audience in the eye when your eye is glued to your written speech.
6. Allow any humorous remarks to flow organically from your talk rather than forcing them. Many people are at their funniest not when they read or rattle off a well-worn joke but instead when they react to the situation as it is happening in the moment. For example, self-deprecating remarks about slips of the tongue or typos are bound to draw snickers as long as they are not pre-scripted. You can also elicit smiles from your audience if you react to a situation in the room such as a noise in the hallway or a comment by someone in the audience that is truly funny. Never, though, NEVER draw a laugh at the expense of someone in the audience who you treat sarcastically or with disrespect. You're not a stand-up comic and so heckling isn't appropriate (unless you are a stand-up comic, in which case you better be good at this part of your act).
7. Stay focused on what is happening in the moment. Humorous situations are much more humorous when they evolve. Similarly, you will be a much better speaker if you truly focus on what you are saying and how your audience is reacting. You will also be less nervous if you dig down into the content of what you're presenting rather than thinking about how nervous you are or how much you'd like to get out of there. Experts advise people with performance anxiety in music or sports to get into the "flow" and the same is true of public speaking. It's also helpful to find your maximum level of arousal so that you're not too scared, but not too laid-back either. Similarly, don't allow yourself to suffer from "imposter syndrome" in which you convince yourself that you don't know enough to be up there talking. No one would have asked you to speak if they didn't think you had something worthwhile to say.
8. Decide how much you can fit into the time allowed, and then cut your talk by half. How many times have you listened to speakers who announce that they'd have more to say but they've run out of time? How many times have you committed this error yourself? (don't tell me, I've done it too). The only cure for not going over the time you have is to cut way back into your prepared remarks (notes, not a written speech, as above). Then, you can have a few "disposable" topics to add back in should you have some bonus time at the end. However, the chances are that your audience will appreciate your ending a little early, especially if they want to ask you questions. Don't feel that you're short-changing them if you do so. I promise you that they would much rather have that extra time at the end. One way to build in a safety net for yourself is to use the so-called "Presenter" mode in PowerPoint. I won't go into details here, but there are ways for you to see all your slides, including those you're skipping, so that your audience can't. In fact, you can even have your email open while you're giving a talk using this mode, though obviously I wouldn't advise it.
9. Give yourself some time points to hit during your talk. If you know you have 30 minutes for your presentation, decide where you need to be at 15, 20, and 25 minutes into it. Work backward, if you like, from the ending, and then see when you want to be at the midpoint. Whatever your method, it's important for you to construct a detailed timeline that allows you to pace yourself. If someone shoves a card under your nose signaling 5 minutes left (which is what happens in many conference settings), you won't panic if you already planned where you wanted to be at that point. By pacing yourself out you gain the additional value of being able to slow down your rate of speech enough so that you can add emphasis instead of racing through. You want to avoid motor mouth, one of the occupational hazards in speakers who don't learn how to use their time wisely.
10. Practice, practice, practice. If you're not a natural entertainer and feel overwhelmed at the thought of public speaking, you can buy yourself a great deal of extra confidence by going over your talk in front of a sympathetic audience of people who you trust. Allow yourself to accept their feedback, which I'm sure they will do very gently if they truly care about you. If you want to go the extra distance, make a video of yourself, and then force yourself to watch the video. If you don't like the first attempt, do it over. You don't want to make yourself too self-conscious, so I wouldn't advise obsessing over every imperfection. However, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised when you realize you did a pretty darn good job.
Public speaking isn't so much an art as a science, yet there is some art to being able to win over an audience. Following these rules is a great start to becoming a great speaker in any situation, but it's your unique personal qualities that will ultimately make it all come together and have your audience coming back for more!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012