The Art of Public Speaking – How To Get Past Nerves and Wow Your Audience

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in  the casket than doing the eulogy.”

― Jerry Seinfeld

One need not be Jerry Seinfeld, the world’s top-paid comedian, to benefit from the ability to get up in front of people and impart something. From wedding toasts to quarterly sales reports and keynotes, everyone who speaks in public can learn, can improve, and can certainly take wisdom from others who have been practicing the art of public speaking.

But it can be daunting. “Would you please say a few words,” can strike white-hot fear into the most confident of people.  And neither a pounding heart nor a dry mouth make good companions to eloquence and confidence. So here are some tips from people who have been there, and who have learned to command an audience with only their voices.

First, Do Your Research!

Let’s presume that you have a topic. You’re able to research and/or bring life experience to the subject matter such that you are confident in what you’ll be speaking on.  Let’s also make this a speech you know about and can plan to make. In short, once you know what you want to say, so let’s consider how you will actually say it. And, more importantly, say it in a way that your audience will hear and remember.

Slow Down

It’s not just good advice to teen drivers, slowing down can make you sound more authoritative because it allows you to properly enunciate your words without being rushed.  Speaking too quickly makes the audience work very hard to understand the content being shared, and the fast speaker risks losing his or her audience if s/he is too speedy. In addition, speaking quickly can make the speaker come across as nervous and uncomfortable. And the audience will absolutely pick up on that energy. Practicing a speech, and practicing to stop at the pauses will make it more likely that the pacing will be in a desirable manner and not sound hurried.

Practice But Don’t Memorize

Even for people who have the memory capacity of very smart elephants, memorizing a speech can provoke anxiety over how well one’s memory will work at the moment of delivery.  Dr. Gary Genard, Author of “Fearless Speaking” says memorizing speeches is a terrible idea. Reciting a speech from memory gives it a canned quality and distances a speaker from being engaged with his or her listeners. But perhaps the worst possibility is that a speaker who forgets one section could then lose track of what comes next says Genard, “and suddenly you’re at sea.”

There are as many techniques as people for how to practice the main points of a speech without falling into the trap of recitation. Going over the main points of the speech can be easily accomplished with a notecard, outline, or even a prop that jogs the memory.

Keep Your Power When Using Powerpoint

It’s so easy to rely on the visual aid that is computer-assisted presentation software. But rarely are great speeches delivered while reading from the slides. Great speeches don’t happen when the slide contains too much text such that the audience is reading rather than listening to the speaker.

It must be stressed that going over the speech with the presentation software is mandatory. While not always possible, if a tech run-through can happen such that an AudioVisual staffer or friend might let you see how the stage/room setup looks for you, that is a great opportunity to have.

Most importantly of all, recognize that the software is a tool that may not work properly. Trust that it will work as designed, but recognize that the hotel wifi or power supply might go out when you’re expecting to have the equipment.  Will you be able to deliver your talk if the technology isn’t with you?

Bring backup jump drives and print out a copy of the presentation on paper that is accessible on the off chance that you’ll speak as if it’s 1989!

Make Nerves Work For You

Every speaker has some form of an adrenaline rush before going onstage.  Sweaty palms or butterflies don’t suggest that you won’t do well in giving the speech, that stress hormone boost is actually there to heighten your alertness and can make your performance better!  However, according to the public speaking consultant, and lecturer at Harvard University, Marjorie North, “The best way to overcome anxiety is to prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. Take the time to go over your notes several times. Once you have become comfortable with the material, practice—a lot. Videotape yourself, or get a friend to critique your performance.”

Relax and Do What You Prepared For

The moment of truth has arrived and you’re hearing yourself be introduced onto the platform.  Now is the time to take a deep breath, calm your mind and knock them out!

Speaker and author of “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” Scott Berkun says that’s the moment that genuinely sets the tone to make a speech memorable.  “When I’m the speaker, I know that special moment [just before speaking] is the only time I will have the entire audience’s full attention. Unless an alien spaceship crash-lands on stage midway through the talk, the silence before I begin is the most powerful moment I have. What defines how well I’ll do starts with how I use the power of that moment.”

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