If you had asked me even just a few years ago about public speaking, I would have cringed at the very idea. As a child I was always a loner and routinely shunned attention or the limelight. As I’ve grown older, however, so has my confidence and I have steadily improved as a public speaker. Nowadays, I find myself delivering talks or one description or another to various audiences and for various reasons. These include at work, at a seminar, to a hall full of school children, on stage at a public event, to a volunteer group, etc. Whatever the situation might be, speaking publicly or to an audience no longer phases me. Well, that’s not entirely true. It does phase me, and I do still get nervous, but I’ve managed to find ways to deal with those nerves over time and I’m now routinely confident when speaking publicly.
Here are my top-ten tips for public speaking.
1. Be prepared
It probably should go without saying but you should go into any public speaking situation completely prepared for any eventuality. Most of the time, of course, things will go well and there won’t be any surprises, but things can and do go wrong on occasion. A sudden change to the venue, equipment, timing, or whatever else it might be, always has the potential to throw a spanner into the works so be prepared by having a contingency. If you’re presenting from slides on a projector, have a copy of the slide deck printed just in case. Always get to the venue early enough so that you can deal with any mishaps without having to scramble at the very last minute, which would otherwise just stress you to the point that it affects your performance. If you are going to be speaking for any length of time, have some water nearby. If you are going to be using any props, like a computer, laser pointer, etc., test these things ahead of time. Do a dry run and make sure you consider your backup plan in the event something does go awry.
2. Be confident
Chances are, people are listening to you because you are the authority on a given subject. Regardless, the audience is there to listen to what you have to say so make sure you speak confidently about the subject matter. If you use tentative language or speak in a way that suggests you don’t know what you’re talking about, the audience will quickly lose interest and there be dragons. Use the area around you and your body to your advantage. Walk around the stage and use hand gestures where necessary to help explain your points. Stand up straight and speak with an authoritative tone. You know your stuff, so act like it.
3. Get to know the audience
This can be difficult with larger audiences but anything you can do to get to know the members of the audience will work in your favour. An audience that can connect with the speaker in some way is more likely to pay attention. It adds that personal touch that will bring you closer to them. Chat to the audience members as they’re arriving. Be personable. Ask them questions. It could be anything, like ‘Hi, what’s you name?’ or ‘Have you come far to be here?’, etc. Alternatively, you could ask them about the topic you’re about to speak about. If new audience members coming in see you chatting amiably with others when they arrive, it helps to show them that you are a person and not just a speaker.
4. Have some things to give away
I find that having something to give away helps the audience members to remain connected to you even after you’ve delivered your speech. It’s also a great ice-breaker. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a freebie? It doesn’t have to be expensive. I routinely give away bookmarks, for example, but even a jelly-bean would work.
5. Make them laugh
Of course, the nature of the talk you’re giving might affect this one. Generally speaking, however, a well-timed joke or subtle anecdote to get the audience sniggering will go a long way to help to get the audience on your side. If they laugh with you, they are more likely to like you and then they’ll be more likely to give you what you came for – their attention.
6. Answer any and all questions
Try not to dismiss any questions from the audience – even if they seem off-topic. An audience that’s asking questions is an audience that’s listening and engaged. It’s a good sign. Treat everyone with respect and they’ll do likewise. It’s perfectly OK to acknowledge a hand having gone up with a gesture that says, ‘I’ll get to you in a second,’ but be sure to get back to taking their question when you’ve finished your sentence.
7. Ask questions to the audience
A good way to help keep the audience engaged is to get them thinking. You can do this by asking leading questions. It doesn’t matter whether anyone answers. You can answer you own question after giving them a few moments to think about it or, if anyone wants to volunteer an answer, you can let them answer it for you. Once a question has been answered, another way to maximise engagement and to get them all thinking is to then ask who agrees or disagrees with the suggested answer.
8. Be honest with the audience
Always be honest and genuine with your audience. Don’t worry about being humble or showing vulnerability. Show them you’re not perfect yourself. Did something go wrong for you in the past? Tell them this. Explain why it went wrong and what you learned from the experience. We all make mistakes. Showing this sort of vulnerability is not a weakness. It’s a great way to allow the audience to empathise and connect with you.
9. Don't read word-by-word from the screen
If you are presenting information on a slide, it should be little more than a reminder to you about what you’re going to be talking about – not the content of the talk itself. There’s nothing more boring for an audience to sit and listen to someone saying what’s already up on the screen. Remember, you’re there to talk to the audience, so you should be looking at them for the most part, right? You also want to keep the information on the screen brief. You want them concentrating on what you’re saying not trying to listen to you and attempting to read at the same time, which is a recipe for disaster. If your slide has more than a dozen words on it, that’s already too much information, so consider culling – less is more!
10. Hang around at the end for questions
There will always be people that want to know more but are afraid to raise their hands in a group. I know, I was once one of these people. By hanging around at the end, you’re giving these people a chance to get their questions out in a way that’s still inside their comfort zone. Don’t dismiss this too easily by being in a hurry to get out of there. If there’s any networking to be done, it’ll be at the beginning or end of your presentation, and you never know just how important a quick chat with the right person is going to be for you in the future.
These are my top 10 tips that I have found have worked for me. Every situation is different and what works for some might not work for others so don't be afraid to experiment. Have you done any public speaking? Do you have any tips and suggestions not mentioned here? Let me know in the comments below.