On Public Speaking
insert obligatory Seinfeld quote/joke about fear, public speaking and funerals
Speaking in public evokes an instant love-hate feeling in me. I dread the idea of it but thoroughly enjoy the preparation it entails. I agonize the anticipating moments of stepping up to the stage but love the rush of concentration while delivering the talk.
I’m not an experienced public speaker, but I have had to speak to dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, on several occasions. As YDreams’ Corporate Communications Manager I would often had to present the company at university events or corporate gatherings. At AMA, I’ve been mostly speaking about Open Data, both locally and abroad. I’ve also taught some classes about marketing, communication and technology at college. And that’s not counting my short stint at radio broadcasting or the rare TV interviews I’ve been asked to do.
Presentations in meetings, conferences, workshops, seminars, roundtables, teaching classes, I don’t really differentiate among them. The anxiety is very much the same, but – as I’ve been finding out – so is the strategy to counteract the dread and deliver a solid performance.
This is not expert advice, but I’ve gathered some guidelines that have been working for me and might be useful to fellow non-naturals at public speaking. They arise from a common ground of experience, research and trying to rationalize things that scare me or make me anxious.
Embrace the nervousness
You know those people who always say that they don’t feel nervous before speaking in public? How you secretly want to punch them in their non-nervous faces, but also hope for a day when you will be like them? The bad news is: that day may never come. The good news is: that’s not really that bad.
Anxiety, nerves, is just the way your organism is wired up to deal with tense situations. The famous fight or flight mechanism. It’s really the way your body gets ready to rumble, they way your biology says “LET’S DO THIS”. So, don’t stress if you have to go to the bathroom beforehand, if you have sweaty palms or a tied up stomach, just accept and work around those feelings.
I once read a very interesting account of a U2 concert, where the reporter described Bono, the lead singer (and already a big star at the time), as a pile of nerves right before entering the stage. When the reporter asks him something, he answers with “Not now, I feel like I’m going to throw up”.
It’s good to know that whether you are the lead vocalist from one of the biggest bands in the world Bono or a peasant like me – everyone is entitles to stage fright. It’s my own rock n’roll moment as I usually tell myself moments before going up to the stage.
How I prepare
Preparation is key. It’s a cliché, but a very truthful one. My worst presentations are the ones that I didn’t really feel like I had mastered everything I had to say, and end up relying on the powerpoint slides to help me remember move along the subject.
Thankfully I haven’t had much of those, because I usually prepare as hell.
I start by making a presentation outline on a text documento or straight on Powerpoint. Despite the bad rep, I like using Powerpoint, and always try to follow a minimalist approach – eight words per slide maximum and big full screen picture when possible. As I’m building the presentation, I’m establishing a narrative and organizing ideas.
If I’m creating a new presentation, as opposed to reusing something I have already done, I also write down most of the stuff I will be talking about. Not really a speech, but a combination of text and bullet points. I won’t use this text as a reading point, but writing things down is a good thought exercise to clear ideas, build arguments and also helps with memorization.
I always rehearse before a presentation. I go to empty meeting rooms, I wait for everyone else to leave the office, or as soon as my wife goes to sleep I’ll be pacing around the living room like some Steve Jobs wannabe.
Rehearsing is mainly great for two reasons: it helps you find ‘weak’ spots in your logic and presentation flow; and it helps with figuring out transitions and pauses (and difficult words to pronounce). It hones the performance, and builds confidence.
There’s also an important thing to remember about rehearsing – it will likely sound a lot shittier than the “real” deal, specially if you are alone in a room and there isn’t any adrenaline flowing through you. Don’t fret about that.
All the way through my Communication degree I always felt that my preferred form of communication was writing. Alas, much to my chagrin, when I applied for a work abroad grant for recent graduates I was assigned to the BBC World Service (a radio broadcasting service).
I didn’t really see myself talking for a living, but embraced the challenge nonetheless (also: I was moving to London!).
Doing radio was an insightful and enriching experience. First I found that I really wasn’t naturally gifted in oratory skills. I am a fast and quiet talker, my diction is shaky, and being nervous in front of a microphone didn’t help. Second thing, and most important, I found out was that you can work at these things, and eventually you will get better.
Nine months into my radio experience and somo people noticed that I was talking somehow differently. I ar-ti-cu-la-ted better and was also developing a bit of voice projection. I had some introductory voice coaching, which coupled with practice, was showing.
Most of it is about breathing/speaking from your diaphragm, something you can learn and practice on your own. The rest is taking the time to enunciate all the syllables. One aspect that also changed my outlook on presentation delivery was about the importance of pauses. Take your time, let ideas sink in. Funnily enough, assuming a power stance with your body can also help.
And it’s never bad to steal from people that do it better than you. The way people move, how they emphasize certain words, how they move their hands – just watch some presentation videos and learn from the best.
Memorize the first minute
I don’t really memorize presentations verbatim, but I get it to a point where I know everything I want to say along each step (or slide, if I’m using them). There is kind of an exception, though – the first minute.
The first minute is the part that I will repeat more often, either on my head or alone in the car. I’ve come to notice that starting well is a great way to calm your nerves to “regular” levels, so I try to ensure maximum efficiency on those first minutes. I learned this while doing oral examinations in college. Professors would usually ask you to pick a theme to start, and it really helped if everything went ok on those first minutes.
Enjoy it (and some practical tips)
This is not always possible, but whenever it is – make sure you enjoy doing it! Giving a presentation on something should be akin to talking about something you passionate about, and sharing that passion with others.
Also, don’t be afraid to personalize things. Using a personal anecdote, a quote from someone you admire (I’ve quoted Michael Jordan on a government transparency presentation), or a metaphor that relates to a different interest of yours (I also did a presentation on open data using movie themes), can really heighten the quality of your delivery. The more you are excited about he stuff you are speaking about, the more it will show and impact with the audience.
And for some practical tips:
- Watch out for dry mouth – always carry a glass or bottle of water with you (drink on a dramatic pause);
- Research the venue, know your audience, where you’ll be seated – minimize entropy to a maximum;
- I have often felt an irrational fear of antagonism from the audience but in reality people really want you to succeed;
- Some people manage nerves by confessing how nervous they are to the audience, I’ve never used that one but it seems to help;
- Move you arms and hands but not too much (i.e.keep your elbows close to you).
There are a lot of books on the subject and I’ve actually taken a Coursera MOOC – Introduction to Public Speaking on the subject that has been very helpful. Also, Toastmasters seems like a very interesting place to develop such skills, I’ve been meaning to check that out on a near future.