Terrified of speaking publicly? You’re not alone. But presenting and pitching your ideas well, whether to a large crowd or small group, is increasingly important for career success, confirms renowned public speaker and coach Nigel Barlow.
Here are his Terrific Top 10 Tools for delivering a brilliant performance.
The good news is that the reality is rarely as bad as the anticipation. When I first started out as a speaker I was all too anxious to make a good impression, to be liked. Which simply meant I tried too hard – almost as bad as not trying at all. A more experienced speaker took me aside to say, ‘Look – remember it’s only a seminar. No-one’s going to die, and at heart they want you to succeed.’
Was this true? Not always, and yet this insight helped me to relax, to be more myself, and to begin to enjoy being in front of a group. My colleague was an ambitious man who really cared about his work, but he helped me to realise that focusing on the process of speaking – without worrying so much about the response – miraculously led to better feedback. Just hold this thought in the back of your mind while you consider this Top Ten of practical ways to feel more at ease while presenting to others.
1. Rehearse for real
Try out your talk on those closest to you – often a more terrifying and critical audience than a room of polite strangers. Do it in as realistic setting as you can manage, acting as if this was the real thing. Convince your partner, friends or family and your actual talk will seem much easier.
2. Rehearse the first three minutes
Starting well will settle your mood for the rest of the talk, as well as making your audience immediately receptive. I sometimes do this in the car – no-one can hear you scream – in the bathroom or walking round a car park before I’m due on.
3. Don’t apologise!
It’s one thing to be self-effacing, quite another to be ‘self-erasing’ – in effect apologising for being there, for taking up their precious time, for not being as good as the previous speaker and so on.
Convince yourself you have something of value to say, and don’t apologise for saying it in the best way you know how.
4. Be present
It may sound obvious, but to present well you have to be truly present in the room. This means making eye contact with the whole of the room, in particular looking for a few seconds at someone who looks encouraging – for the moment, ignoring the grumpy looking guy sitting in row three with his arms folded. Do this in silence even for three seconds (it will seem longer) before you start speaking and you will settle the room – and yourself!
5. Get their Voices in the Room
Hearing from the crowd early on subtly changes the audience’s viewpoint: from that of theatre critics to a group that’s part of the play. So even a simple question like ‘who has travelled the furthest?’, or ‘where are you when you get your creative ideas?’ – the answer is often anywhere but at work! – relaxes and involves people. Do it soon.
6. Go ‘Unplugged’
Using the music metaphor, go acoustic, not electric. This means switching off your powerpoint, maybe sitting down on a stool and engaging in a more intimate conversation, as if you were addressing just one person. Though do make it an animated conversation.
7. Break the Fourth Wall
The fourth wall is how actors describe that invisible force field between stage and audience. Go out into the crowd, even sit down with them and continue the discussion. Magically this will transform your session from one where you are speaking at them to one where you are having a dialogue with them.
8. Pause Often
Nervous speakers gabble and go too fast. Whenever you feel you need to collect yourself, pause, take your time, then continue with the renewed energy you have absorbed from the silence. Remember the speed people leave their own phone number on your answerphone? If you’re speaking this fast, it’s time to pause.
9. Do ‘Life by Powerpoint!’
A few, well selected slides can be your aide memoire, a map through your material and a way of focussing the listeners’ attention. Just remember that your visuals should be…visual! Bullet points are out, and you should cut 50-80% out of the number of images you originally planned to show. Above all, you are not your slides-they are your backing band, while you are the main act!
10. Learn to Meditate – Properly!
Amateur speaking guides recommend you take deep breaths just before speaking or even on stage. It usually won’t work – it’s already too late! Much more effective is to learn meditation – I advocate the best researched and easiest technique, Transcendental Meditation (TM). I’ve done it for 20 minutes twice a day for decades, and the effect is to allow your breathing to be more easy, your blood pressure reduced and your brain waves more coherent (clearer), even in a high stress situation like speaking. Only learn from a qualified teacher: This is one of the few areas of life where I’d urge you to only go with the official organisation, or you’ll learn a less effective version.
the most important tip is to find a way to be yourself, a cliché I repeat simply because it’s true. If this means moving into the middle of a group so that you make it like a campfire chat, or going ‘unplugged’ with no technology and telling stories from the heart – whatever device you use, set the conditions for how you feel most comfortable communicating, and it will be a lot less daunting than you thought. Put more of you into it, and you are rocking!
VIDEOS: Nigel Barlow on innovation and great leadership
Article first published as “Terrified Speaker’s Terrific Top 10 by Nigel Barlow,” Female First