A Quiet Person's Guide to Effective Public Speaking

The work isn't that hard and can be extremely rewarding.

Posted Apr 18, 2013

Three things I can say with certainty about public speaking: 1) Most normal people start off fearing it (slightly preferable to losing a limb). 2) It’s one of the most valuable business/career skills you’ll ever have. And 3) it’s a skill that most definitely can be learned.

Of the universe of outstanding public speakers and presenters, some of them are just born that way; give them a stage and microphone and they can talk a dog off a meat wagon, as the saying goes. The other 99% of us, however, have to work at it.

Fortunately, the work isn’t that hard and can be extremely rewarding, assuming you’re motivated to improve, which I suspect you are, or you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Full disclosure: There are a lot of ways to skin this cat. There are a legion of companies out there – many excellent – who teach public speaking to people all the time. I’m not one of them. I’m just a quiet person by nature who, over time, gained a functional knowledge of speaking and presenting because I realized it would be helpful (indeed essential) to my career. So what I’m not passing along is a system that can work for everyone, but simply four insights – nothing profound or difficult – that proved valuable to me. And I believe can be of value to others.

1) Watch yourself on video. I first did this for five minutes many years ago at a presentations seminar given by my employer, and it was the best five minutes of my time I ever invested. It wasn’t pretty. On video I could see right away what I needed to improve. I was technically proficient in that I knew what I was talking about (in this case it was advertising), but I needed to be far more animated, emotive, engaging. The video was a clear, if unforgiving, roadmap, showing me quickly where I needed to go.

2) Find your own style that you’re comfortable with. Know who you are, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Being soft-spoken and understated by nature, I was never going to be a charismatic speaker who would enthrall thousands with ‘fire and brimstone’ emotion. But that was no excuse to be boring. Two things I could do reasonably effectively were use dry humor and tell stories. Those were natural aspects of my personality that could be integrated. That’s a great thing about speaking and presenting - there’s no inherently right way to do it. You can be charismatic, motivational, educational, entertaining, informative, low-key, professorial – you name it – whatever works best for your personality. Find the suit that most comfortably fits your skin.

3) Pick out one person in the audience and pretend you’re having a conversation with him or her. This is by no means an original insight, but a practical tactical maneuver I always liked. It can help turn a potentially overwhelming situation into a manageable one. Instead of facing dozens or even thousands of people, you’re (sort of) having a personal conversation with one other. Naturally in the course of a speech or presentation, you may focus on numerous different individuals – it’s just a helpful way to cut a large inchoate event down to size.

4) Practice, practice, practice – know your material cold. For me this was by far the most important element – there’s no substitute for thorough knowledge of your material. Get completely comfortable with your content. Facing a large audience is no time to discover you’re really not too sure what you want to say. If you’re especially gifted maybe you can bluff it, but for most of us mortals this is a recipe for implosion. Personally I never liked to memorize things (sounded too wooden), but wanted to clearly understand and think through all aspects of my message. Before a big presentation, when our kids were growing up, I’d spend a fair amount of time practicing quietly in our basement (ironing board as podium), and in the car driving to and from work. This was a classic “competence breeds confidence” scenario — putting in the time made all the difference. My performance could vary from bumbling (if I hadn’t prepared well) to pretty effective and even occasionally entertaining (if I had).

My conclusion: I was not a natural public speaker, but I became a whole lot better than when I started. You can too.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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