Bad at public speaking? Use this mental trick that takes just 15 minutes, says speech expert

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Speech anxiety is one of the most common social fears, affecting 15% to 30% of the general population.

After a difficult speech or two, most of us assume that we're just shy, then hope that we'll never be forced to speak in public again. And when, inevitably, it's time to hold a meeting, do a job interview or deliver a pitch, we freeze in front of the people we most want to impress.

But improving your public speaking skills has nothing to do with changing your personality or your emotions — and everything to do with understanding how people listen.

A simple mental trick

Many people approach public speaking with their egos: "What will they think of me? I'm going to sound dumb!" But our audience isn't thinking about us. Their biggest concern is figuring out what we're talking about and how it pertains to them.

I've coached thousands of people on how to present ideas effectively, and everything I teach boils down to a single mental trick that takes just 15 minutes or less: Pretend you're in the audience, listening to yourself.

Here are some tips and what to remember when imagining yourself as the audience:

1. Greet them

How do you like it when a speaker takes the stage and lurches directly into their talk, rattling on in a monotone with no introduction?

When you begin to speak without acknowledging your audience's existence, they find the omission unnerving. Why? Because you're not the only one with an ego.

Rightly or not, your audience thinks they're more important than your information. Before any kind of speech, do them the courtesy of giving them a nod, a hello, a thanks or a recognition of the occasion.

2. Get to the point, then lead the way

Do you like to listen to a presenter apologize about how nervous they are, or about the traffic jam they encountered on the way to the speech? Or their quaint family story that has nothing to do with what they're going to talk about?

Most audience members find it hard to focus and to suppress their inner chatter to listen to a speaker for very long, so skip the small talk.

Help them concentrate by explaining early in your speech what your topic is, why it's important to them and how you plan to fill your allotted time. It sounds so simple, but setting expectations helps people relax and enjoy the ride.

3. Be legible — in every sense

When you're sitting in an audience, do you like it when you can barely see or hear the speaker, or read the slides (e.g., because the text is too small)?

Whether on stage or in virtual meetings, help people understand your ideas by reducing the cognitive work it takes to see and hear you. Use good lighting and a decent microphone. Speak slowly, enunciate, and use short words, sentences and paragraphs.

Lastly, get rid of filler words like "um," "ah," "like" and other expressions that can distract from or bloat your message when used in excess.

4. Share what you think or how you feel

Have you ever sat in a meeting where a speaker projects one slide after another filled with data, while turning their back to you to recite what's on their slides?  

Whether you're a scientist delivering research findings or an executive pitching a strategy, the point of a live meeting or presentation is not to recite information that could just as easily be emailed, but to create a human context. Audiences want to know at least something about how you think and feel about what you're sharing.

More importantly, they're curious about how you think they should think and feel about it. Information doesn't speak for itself. Make it meaningful by explaining what it means — to you, your company and the people who asked you to talk about it.  

5. End your speech ... with an ending

Ever hear a presentation that just peters out? ("Yeah, no, so I guess, you know, that's it. If, um, anyone has any, uh, questions...") It probably didn't make you think: Wow. How authoritative!

Whether you're facing a parole board or delivering Q4 sales results, your speech is only as good as your conclusion. There's no single best way to wrap up, but my general rule is to always write out your conclusion in advance and memorize it.

A conclusion should remind the audience what the speech was about, and often reiterates a call to action. Look them in the eye and give them something to remember after the presentation is over.

John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection." He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney's, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here.

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