Do you hate public speaking? Do you already dread the next time you'll need to present at a meeting?
If so, you're not alone. In a survey, public speaking is ranked as one of the top 80 phobias for most Americans, according to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears.
And while there are plenty of famous public speakers who can rile up a crowd and inspire passion, skilled orators aren't always born. Public speaking is a teachable skill.
These tips can help you own the spotlight with ease and confidence.
1. Know what you're walking into
If you're giving a presentation, know what to expect. Ask to do a quick walk-through of the space where you'll speak. Stand in the spot you'll present from and survey the room. Then, take a seat in the back of the room to understand what your audience will see.
This type of preparation can help you get comfortable. It can also help you find ways to strengthen your message and better connect with your audience. For example, you might discover you can walk the perimeter of a large conference room and make eye contact with everyone in the room. In a small conference room, you might find taking a spot in the center of long table can help you stay connected with the group.
If there are presentation tools or technologies you'll use, give them a test run in the space before your presentation so you understand how they work. Double-checking these tools will ensure you can maintain the crowd's confidence and attention – and can prevent you from getting rattled by technical difficulties while you should be communicating your message. The fewer surprises you encounter, the calmer you will be.
2. Know your audience
You speak differently to your colleagues than to a stranger, so ensure your presentation reflects that shift. Will you be speaking to your peers? To superiors? To clients? Do some research into your audience, even if it's just rough demographics. Before your talk, consider what this group needs to know and how you can make the most of your audience's time. When your presentation begins, don't be afraid to poll the audience asking key questions that can help you better tailor your message.
3. Structure your speech
Tell your speech or presentation in a clear, logical way that is easy to understand. You want your audience members to walk away with a clear grasp of what you said, as opposed to trying to piece your message together on their own.
Start by giving an introduction that will ease your audience into the topic you are about to discuss and grab their attention. Segment your main ideas and put them in a logical order that flows together, with smooth transitions so that your content is easy to follow. Abrupt changes in topic can cause your audience to forget what you just talked about. For example, if you covered a long segment, briefly summarize before you jump into the next topic. If possible, find memorable stories or anecdotes that can help illustrate your points and bring them to life.
Once you write your speech, ask yourself: What are the 3 points that are the most important? Then consider if those points would be clear to someone listening to your speech for the first time.
4. Focus on just your content and not yourself
Self-consciousness can sabotage a public speaker. You might worry about all the things that can go wrong, from the crowd not connecting with you to your shirt not being properly tucked in. Cast these worries aside since they will only make you more nervous and your audience likely isn't scrutinizing you nearly as much as you think they are. Focus instead on your message. Channel your passion into your topic and think about what you are trying to convey. The audience members are there because they want to feel the impact of your message, and you are there to deliver.
5. Smile, and go on
Don't forget to smile. Smiles force you to relax your face muscles. Smiling is also a body language cue, making you appear more relaxed and in turn, making your audience feel more at ease.
Mistakes are inevitable. You'll miss a word or mispronounce something. You might even skip an entire segment of your speech. Don't sweat it. Your audience probably won't notice, and if they do, they don't care about the flub as much as you do. What's most important is that you keep going. If you let your mistake stop you, you'll draw more attention to it and distract from your overall message.
6. Execute the right tone, volume, and pace
Watch great speakers and how they communicate to large groups. Consider watching and listening to TED talks online, for example. The way you confidently deliver and execute your speech is key. How you convey information can be as important as the message you're delivering.
Speak more slowly than you would in conversation. Exaggerate slightly the natural intonation of your words. Use carefully-spaced deliberate pauses for a more dramatic effect. Allow big ideas to sink in a little and give your audience a chance to reflect.
When speaking to a large audience, make sure your listeners can hear you. Speak from within, from your chest and diaphragm, rather than your throat as you do in normal conversation. Speak loudly (without shouting) and enunciate clearly, so your audience does not need to strain to hear you.
7. Eye contact
When speaking, look at your audience. Eye contact is a great way to connect with your listeners and ensure that they are engaged and that they understand what you're saying. Avoid choosing too few people with whom you make eye contact. Similarly, don't linger too long and make any one listener feel uncomfortable.
If you're making a pitch, eye contact is also an excellent way to gauge the attention of your listeners. If they seem interested and make good eye contact back, you can take it as a cue to expand more. If they're not paying attention or avoid eye contact, you can take it as a cue to move onto the next topic.
As the old adage says, practice makes perfect. Rehearse your presentation over and over until you know it fully without notes and feel confident. Consider recording yourself on video to better understand what others will see and how you will sound. Ask your colleagues and peers to give you a critique. You may be shy or reluctant, but this valuable analysis will only help you and the message you want to deliver.
Elle Kaplan is the founder and CEO of LexION Capital, a fiduciary wealth management firm in New York City, serving high-net-worth individuals. She is also the chief investment officer and founder of LexION Alpha.
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