Good Public Speaking Without Fear

Fear of public speaking often can be overcome.

Posted Oct 14, 2016

PublicDomainPictures.Net, Public Domain
Source: PublicDomainPictures.Net, Public Domain

A core reason that people fear public speaking is that they're scared of screwing up and thus looking foolish.

That fear is valid if you're trying to be "perfect"—scripting and then near-memorizing. You're bound to get thrown off.

Fortunately, unless you're a master at reading from a teleprompter, the best talks are not scripted nor memorized. They're given largely ad-lib, with just an outline to keep you on track, for example:

1. Thank the introducer or audience member(s.)

2 .(Optional) Tell a 10-30-second anecdote you gleaned from talking with audience members before your talk. 

3. Why your topic is important and the few main points you'll be making.

4. Make point 1, perhaps using a statistic and/or a brief anecdote.

5. Make point 2, again perhaps using a statistic and/or a brief anecdote.

6. Make point 3, perhaps using a statistic and/or a brief anecdote.

7. Summarize your points.

8. Issue a call to action.

9. An inspiring anecdote.

Of course, every talk is different but that sample outline gives you the idea. For each outline item, write just a few words that will remind you of what you want to say. For example, "Point 1: Mobile mental health apps, e.g., Pacifica . Anecdote about Mary."

Put that outline, that cheat sheet, on an index card and then practice ad-libbing your talk once or twice. The first time, do it by yourself, recording it (for example, on your smartphone) and listening to it for self-feedback. Then perhaps do it once for a trusted friend or colleague. More rehearsal risks your sounding over-prepped, less human.

PowerPoint slides leach chemistry. The audience tends to stare at the screen, not connect with you. If you have an important slide or two, print it out and hand it to the audience.

At the event, come early so you can chat with audience members. That gets you comfortable with them and them with you. Ask anyone you connect with to sit in the front and smile.

Right before your talk, take a few deep breaths and remember that you do not need  to be perfect. Indeed, in the attempt, you'll likely leach chemistry from your talk. And chemistry, connection, is crucial. If all the audience needs is information, it could be provided in an article or email. At a talk, whether live, podcast, or video, your audience wants connection. That means being conversational, making off-the-cuff few-word asides, hesitating when stuck, in short, being human, someone they can relate to. 

On my radio program, the minute before going on the air, I usually tell the guest, "Key to the interview working well is to pretend we're at a bar and on our third beer. Not our sixth but our third, and we're having a conversation. That's the right tone."

Yes, you might want to slow down a bit from your normal conversational speed and yes, you want to vary your volume and pace because unlike in conversation, you're talking for longer and need to keep people awake, but basically, you're being conversational.

To enhance chemistry, when I remember to do it, I talk for a couple seconds to a friendly-looking audience member on the far left, then a few seconds to a friendly looking person a bit to the right, and so on until I reach the far right side, whereupon I reverse direction..

Please remember that even if you go blank and take 15 seconds of silence to recover, people will gain more from your talk and like you more if you proceed ad-lib, just using your outline, without having practiced your way into boring perfection, let alone attempting to memorize your talk.

In case you might find it helpful to see a talk that was prepared and delivered similarly to what I describe here, here is one I gave.

Now, even if you don't have a talk coming up, if you'd like to work toward good public speaking without fear, you might want to plan a brief talk and and practice it per the above. If you'd like support in becoming a good public speaker as well as an opportunity to make professional and personal connections, consider joining Toastmasters.

Marty Nemko was Toastmasters' Northern California Non-Member Speaker of the Year. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko. He is a career and personal coach. He can be reached at mnemko@comcast.net.

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