“You should do some public speaking.” “You need to proliferate more.” “Soft skills are important for advancing in your career.”
Blablabla, sick and tired of these comments? Heard it all before? Becoming more of a people person is supposed to be the big thing in advancing in your career.
Instead, you believe in your core technical skills. They will get you to the next level. Yet somehow, this doesn’t happen as smoothly as you’d like. Meanwhile, your colleagues rise among the ranks. Despite them being less qualified by technical standards. Why do they advance and you are just sitting there in you cubical, stuck, frustrated.
It does not seem fair at all, but there are some perfectly good explanations for this.
People are simple mammals. That is why we all react a lot (and I mean a lot!) to social cues. Though some more than others. Compared to our rational thinking, it is a huge chunk of our decision making.
Humans are overriding their logical thinking all the time. This socio-emotional herd behavior is inherent to us. It is an instinctive drive to maintain a cohesive and productive ‘tribe’.
Certainly in today’s ever more complex society. Corporations, teams or communities need to work together. That takes some people skills to do well. Though they may not be that important for your primary tasks, they are paramount to putting yourself on the map.
So yeah, social skills, but what if I am an introvert? Talk of being overtly social, proliferating and being a leader is off-putting. There is no way you want to give a speech and start high-fiving with the boss. It is not the way you roll. I get that and I am not suggesting you try to be an extrovert. I will show you the way you can get better at being social communicator if the occasion asks for it. It is more a game of using the right social buttons.
So yes, you want to progress by developing more? What hurdle is the best to be jumped? What skill, more than any other shows that you are a leader, are social and maybe a little bit funny as well?
It is one of the most dreaded endeavors to undertake. Yet also one of the most admired by many people. Big (perceived) risk, big gains!
When I started giving presentations during college, I was terrified. My head was like a red tomato. My back turned into a waterfall. And my speech was complemented by a cute little quaver.
Over time, with some help and tutoring, I practiced giving speeches and presentations. The tension transformed from something fear to excitement. It became a bit of a thrill. There still is anxiety, but there is a lot of excitement as well. You too can transition from dread of public speaking to fun anticipation.
I write this because of what I see in my current career. My colleagues shying away from public speaking all the time. Despite it being a great boost for your career. Like I told them, I am here to tell you, and to ask you to keep telling yourself; ‘you can do this, anyone can do this!’
It is not as hard as it looks, but you do need some practice, structure, and enough momentum to overcome your fear. I will give you the structure, to help you gain momentum and negate your anxiety. So you can put it into practice and reap the benefits!
To explain the general structure of a good talk I am going to discuss the following subjects. Every talk is different, so modify as needed. But the basics should be covered;
- The Speech
- After the Presentation
Let’s get started
#1 Preparation the content and purpose
1.1 Topic and purpose
Topic – First of all you have to decide what the topic and purpose of your talk are. Since usually you are the expert on the topic, think about what the right reason is you are going to stand in front of an audience. Even when some party has predetermined this. Truly get to the core you want to say.
What is the why? WHY are you giving your speech. Get to the core.
Simon Sinek talks extensively about this in his book and talk. Getting clear on this will create a focused and more appealing talk. Whether it is just your 4 AM drunken speech or your 2-hour keynote speech on quantum entanglement. The purpose gives you focus, but also your audience is centered by the core message.
1.2 Paradigm and Audience
Get in your audiences head. Think about who they are. What do you think their purpose is? Are they hear to learn? To be swayed? Convinced? And why? Think of what the expertise of your audience is and adjust your jargon and technical terms accordingly. What lack of knowledge do they want to lose? You are taking the stand for them after all.
Getting this clear can determine from what paradigm you want to approach this talk. So you can align your and the audience’s purposes as much as possible. It is a bit like kindergarten, and fitting the blocks in the right holes. If it fits, you can move on to the next elaborate puzzle. If it doesn’t you just keep pushing and squeezing till it does.
Remember what kind of talk it is and adjust. Business meeting, scientific keynote, or you asking your boss for a raise.
If the talk allows for it, add a small story. Or go big and create an integrated overarching story.
Storytelling is something people are wired to pay attention to. Besides, people remember stories – not a barrage of facts. Look at all the books, myths, religions – all their lessons are embedded in stories. Lessons and morals are not just told by aphorisms. But they are an integral part of the narrative. This way you remember the message more clearly.
So add an anecdote or create a story line throughout the talk. For instance; you can tell how your research went, or how you stumbled upon an epiphany while eating your favorite burger on the faculty roof, whilst enjoying a light autumn drizzle.
Now it is time to gather your body of knowledge. Gather your knowledge, arguments, papers and so on. If applicable do not only define the pros, but also the cons in your story. Negate them if necessary. Think about the insights you want to present. As well as the facts and figures that get your point come across.
Think about the kind of imagery, schemes and other visual aids you might use. Important that throughout the process of making your talk, you keep on editing. So that it is comprehensive, complete and not just filler content. You want to create a talk without unnecessary junk. Keeping your story simple, yet profound.
2.1 Primary Structure
Now the bigger picture and the content are all prepared. It is time to structure your talk. Meaning, creating a proper start, a full body, and a tail. During my college
During my college years, I had to do a lot of improvisation at my student association. One of the main structures used was; a good beginning, strong middle, comical twist and proper ending. Always made for a good story on the fly.
There are many more structures. But here is some basic structure. Remember making a talk is an iterative process. Keep on tweaking and changing till the fit is right. Start with a rough sketch and work from there.
One of the best ways to structure your talk is with repetition.
- Intro – Say what you are going to tell
- Main Body – Tell them
- Outro – Say what you told them
Since people pay most attention at the beginning and at the end of a talk, you keep reiterating.
Try to limit your talk to three main points/arguments. More is too much for your audience. Lay them out well when structuring your main body. Having done your research well in advance, this should be fairly straightforward. If not go back to research.
Let your purpose and corresponding arguments be crystal clear in your main body. Try to create a flow, or bridging between the separate subjects of your main story. Using clear and sound language, so you can express yourself well from the basis of your expertise.
2.2 Beginning and ending
A good start is half the battle.
Getting the attention from your audience right of the bat is a good way to transpose your ideas. Especially if the last speaker just lulled everyone in a nice slumber. Great ways to grab your audience’s attention are;
- Beginning with a story
- Having a bold / or counter-intuitive statement
- A question (for the audience)
Now you have got the attention, one can start by telling what you are going to talk about. Nice and simple. Content, purpose, explicitly or implicitly. As well as sketching the context; ‘in what case is this important?’
After you finish your main story. You finish by repeating what you just told your audience. Anchoring your points again in their minds. And to wrap it up you can conclude with;
- a call to action – to support your or their cause
- an encompassing / summarizing / encouraging statement
- a round of questions – if the talk was more informative
This will hammer down your talk even better.
2.3 Comic relief
If the setting allows for it, in my opinion it does 99% of the time, use some comic relief throughout the talk. Just a few times, you’re not doing stand-up (yet!). But you are trying to make a lasting impression of your ideas.
By cracking some jokes you relieve tension. For you and the audience. The small chuckling pause will help to anchor the material you are presenting, due to the positive association. As well regain attention for your talk.
I can try to go in detail what kind of humor works best. But figure out what works best for you and your audience. In case your jokes bomb, no problem, just move on as planned. Nothing lost, not everyone can have such a great sense of humor as you! You’ll get them next time. In any case, don’t laugh at your own joke first! When your audience appreciates it, grin or chuckle along.
2.4 Visual Aids
In case you use power point or something similar. You must take into account a few things. The visuals are there to support your story, not to be your story.
Neither are slides your cheat sheet or teleprompter. Though they can help as cues, while moving through your speech.
When you have a lot of text or distracting images, people get distracted. Keep your slides simple and calm. Let them make one point at a time. Keep text at a minimum by just using keywords. And never read out loud what is on the slides.
Images on slides are great for sketching emotions and settings. Don’t use more than 2 at the same time. Again use only as support. Unless you are showing your holiday pictures to grandma, then you are allowed to use them as the story. Great examples can be found here from Garr Reynolds book.
Schemes, tables, and graphs should as well be clear and supporting. Your audience should not be lost or mesmerized by the daunting complexity of your graphs.
Instead, they should be used to make your point come across. Though you might want to use the most complex blueprints, try to simplify or extract the necessary information. In case you are wondering what a good slide graph or scheme is for your argument, look at this slide chooser from The Extreme Presentation Method.
Your slides are great tools for your intro and conclusion. They can show and repeat the structure of your talk. Bringing home your point strongly.
#3 Preparing Psychologically
3.1 The psychology 101
So why are you afraid to give that speech? Or giving a presentation to your boss? It all comes down to our social drive of not wanting to feel like an idiot or fool in front of the ‘tribe’.
Or at least, what thousands of years ago was our tribe, when you risked standing out too much. Back in the day on the savannah, this could upset the social order. Getting you kicked out of the group.
That is why most people still tread carefully in groups, it is just instinct. We are eager to adjust and want to fit into the group. What’s why you get into ‘fight or flight’ mode when presenting. Meaning; sweating extensively, heart racing and ready to sprint for cover.
In modern society, you won’t get lynched when you screw up the bi-annual rapport. The worst that can happen is that you have to send an extra email. To re-explain your blabbering on stage. So the anticipatory stress is just an out-dated stress reaction.
While in reality, there is nothing to worry about. It is hard to reason yourself out of such strong emotions. There are two very significant ways of reducing your stress. Practicing and good posture. But more on posture later, first let’s talk about practice.
Prepare your presentation well in advance. But don’t memorize word for word. You can memorize the beginning and the end. But only learn the general flow of the middle part. This will make your talk more authentic and natural. But you are able to get the talk started and have a smooth ending. For keeping your talk flowing, train with your slides. They can serve as reminders what comes next.
Rehearsing for a mirror helps with improving your body language and posture. You can also rehearse with friends. They see things you miss and maybe give some good constructive pointers. Otherwise try recording your practice sessions, learning by reviewing your presentations. And yes, your voice sounds totally weird!
To put things in perspective; Steve Jobs prepared and practiced his speeches weeks or even months in advance. He started out as an introverted nerd, yet look at his later presentations.
3.3 Preparation hacks
A few good hacks for preparing yourself for your talk are;
- Visualizing yourself giving a good talk. Getting your head used to a successful venture, will help you a lot in getting excited and confident about your talk.
- Working out the same day is. Make it incredibly tough and intense workout! This way your body is filled with endorphins and feels relaxed. You also feel like you did the hardest and most painful thing of the day already.
- Framing for yourself you are just a medium. The message is what is important. Looking at it this way helps to negate tension. It’s about your case and what your audience can learn, not about you.
- Taking it easy. Make sure you relax the day in advance. As well as the hours leading up to your talk.
#4 Presenting the speech
4.1 Just before walking on stage
Talk to your audience before starting your talk. Them knowing you and you knowing them makes things easier. Knowing your audience helps to adjust your tone and level of formality.
Just before getting on stage make sure everything is well prepared. Checking beamer, mic, etcetera. Just like checking yourself for clothing disasters. Drink a bit of water and have your last toilet break.
4.2 Body language and engagement
As mentioned earlier – our evolutionary brain patterns creates our fear response. Luckily we can also use our body control to our advantage. This is beneficial for our experience as well as that of the audience.
When you are confident you stand up more straight, have relaxed shoulders, and keep your chin up. This mechanism also works the other way around. Your confidence neurons get triggered when you taking on a confident pose. So posing confident, makes you feel more confident. This works for many emotions. They are neurologically linked in two directions.
A sure way to feel shy and insecure is by hunching over and looking to the floor. So if you want to bypass your “normal” confidence patterns during your talk, you should consciously stand up straight, have an open body pose and keep your shoulders relaxed. This will make you feel way less anxious during your talk. Adopting confident poses makes your audience perceive you as relaxed and confident. While in reality, you may still feel somewhat anxious.
You might think that this “fake it till you make it” strategy is awkward. Or worse, making you a fraud. But if by using this strategy you actually feel more confident and secure, it’s not really faking.
While talking, keep your hands half raised on your side, and use them to articulate certain phrases. Don’t wave them around like crazy, but neither keep them limp at your side. Discover the intuitive way to talk with your hand. Look at how Italians talk, they use their hand to communicate a lot. Use this while keeping your hand between your hip and shoulders. Don’t put your hands in your pocket or on your hips. A defensive position like that closes you off from your public.
Try some flamboyant hand talking
Also, smile gently throughout your talk. Nothing is as disarming as an easy smile. And if you are feeling cocky, throw in a good smirk.
Just before you get on stage you can use previously mentioned physical mechanisms to get excited. Stand in power poses, like superman/woman. Or pump your fists in the air in excitement. This will drop your anxiety levels. You might even start to want giving a talk. This really helps to exude enthusiasm during your talk, even if you are already a pro! For more detail look at Amy Cuddy’s talk or this complementing scheme.
Start your talk nice and easy. Wait till most of the noise has quieted down, and if it doesn’t just start off strong! With powerful speech from your diaphragm. Make your opening statement and let your practice and flow take over.
The first minute or so feels like a rush of anxiety and tension. Disabling your thoughts for a while. A lot of people experience this. Even practiced speakers enjoy this initial roller coaster. But since you memorized and practiced your opening it will go well despite the stress. The rush usually fades to the back as you go. Getting less of a nuisance the more you practice.
One of the most common mistakes is racing through your talk. Deliberately talk slower than you think you should. It probably still is too fast. You’ll get the hang of it with enough practice. Using your pace of talking is one of the key tools in communicating, as Julian Treasure talks about in one of his great Talks. This talk elaborates further on the awesome tools you can use to control your voice. I highly recommend watching it.
Keep articulating your words properly. Maintain your volume. Don’t let your volume fizzle out at the end of your sentences. Keep it strong while delivering your speech. Avoid monotony during your talk, but sway along with your pitch throughout. Use your voice like you would talking passionately.
If you do happen to make a mistake, just restart your sentence and continue. Don’t apologize or start fumbling. It doesn’t matter, no one cares, but apologizing makes it worse.
It is okay to use a few ‘uhms’ and ‘erhms’. People actually sub-consciously use them as anticipatory cues.
If you study other speeches, you hear that a lot of experienced talkers still use ‘uhms’ now and then. Don’t use it to fill up your time though, know your talk well enough to move on.
Want to hammer in a point? Create some anticipation? Use a small pause. Pausing now and then gives some rest to digest the words you have been pouring in everyone’s mind. Let them think, let them anchor what you said. To obnoxiously quote a dead composer [Claude Debussy]: “Music is the silence between the notes.” Try to see your pauses like that.
When pausing, stop talking longer than you think you should. It may feel like a hell of a long interlude during your speech rush, but most of the time it is experienced as a brief intermission by the audience.
To really get your audience on the tip of their seats use very long pauses. They will get a sense of anticipation as they wait for you to start again. Great way to create a moment of tension and release.
Scan lightly through your audience, looking different people in the eye. Try to speak and look from friendly face to friendly face. Or if it is easier, stare into infinity, but in the right direction! Ignore the little voices in your head that go like; ‘why are they not smiling?’, ‘why do they look bored?’. Most people have resting bitch face syndrome while listening to a talk. This does not mean they are bored, that is just the way people listen.
Just keep calm and carry on with your talk.
If while talking you want to invoke certain emotions. Enthusiasm, motivation, empathy, whatever. Really dial up your own emotional energy and expression to induce the same in your listeners. Introverts, a bit harder for you guys, try doubling your normal expressiveness when speaking.
4.5 After the speech
There are a few ways and elements for wrapping up your speech. Try to give your audience a smooth landing. Ease them into your conclusion and wrap up. Summarize in key points what you said, or redefine it in a clear encouraging statement.
Send them home with your clear call to action. Or at the end punctuate your eloquent endeavor with a round of questions. If questions are asked, repeat the question, to see if you heard well. Then try to answer it briefly. After ask if you answered it sufficiently.
When all is said and done, gracefully leave the stage.
#5 On the long run
So we talked about; preparing your material and purpose, structuring your speech, and giving it. Try to evaluate as well after your talks. Don’t be afraid to ask your audience, friends or supervisor for feedback. See where you can improve.
I hope I have helped you take the first steps in creating some killer speeches. Now your fear is totally obliterated, or at least you have gotten enough courage needed, it is time for you to get out there and give some presentation!
Now your fear is totally obliterated! Or hopefully have gotten enough courage to start trying. It is time for you to get out there and give some awesome speeches!
And I get it, this is a lot to incorporate in one go, let alone master all of this. And even still, there is a lot to add, tweak or improvise beyond the basics you have just read. That is because giving a speech is not only context dependent but, personal as well.
Find your own voice and let it echo throughout your talks. The surest way to do so is by practice. Join a debate team, join toastmaster, or jump up at every opportunity at your job to give a talk.
Don’t try to be perfect all at once. But improve a bit every time. You will see the fear slowly fade to the back. As you try it more and more, you will become your relaxed self during your talks. Like you are talking to a good friend. I know you can do it.
Let me know how this piece will help you in your next (and maybe your first) public speaking gig.
Simon Sinek – Start with Why
Aristotle – Rhetoric
Stephen Lucas – The Art of Public Speaking
Barbara Pease and Allan Pease – The Definitive Book of Body Language
Garr Reynolds – Presentation Zen
Mel Helitzer – Comedy Writing Secrets
Susan Jeffers – Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway
Julian Treasure – How to speak so that people want to listen
Simon Sinek – How great leaders inspire action
Amy Cuddy – Your body language shapes who you are
Fake it ’til you become it: Amy Cuddy’s power poses, visualized
Mikael Cho – The science of stage fright and how to overcome it
Andre Flowers – The Best Jobs Now Require You To Be A People Person
Demystifying the Steve Jobs Magic