By Craig Pirner, Managing Director, Talent Development
Public speaking is stressful for many people. In fact, glossophobia—the fear of public speaking—is frequently cited as one of the most common, and intense, fears people experience.
But you shouldn't gloss over glossophobia. While an understandable fear, leaving it unaddressed can be professionally debilitating and organizationally harmful—stopping you from sharing your ideas with others (and thus spreading your influence) and preventing your organization from benefiting from the ideas you might communicate.
The faculty of Advisory Board’s Talent Development group has been speaking publicly and helping others do the same for many years. Here's some of the things we've learned about how to overcome your fears and maximize your effectiveness.
Most importantly, focus on communication, not performance. If you can focus on your message—rather than making a presentation—you’ll feel less nervous, you'll present more naturally, and the audience will perceive your authenticity.
This of course, hinges on you having a message of value to the audience—and brings us to an important self-test: you won't believe yourself to be a worthy messenger unless you believe you're presenting a worthy message.
I recently worked with a person who remarked that a presentation she was about to deliver was "so boring." I replied, "If you're bored, imagine how your audience must feel. At least you have something to do." She wasn't (yet) over the hump of believing in the message and, thus, believing in herself to deliver it.
To pass this self-test, you have to spend as much—if not more—time preparing your message as you do preparing your presentation. First, decide what you want to say or teach, then make your presentation. Message first, PowerPoint second.
As you prepare your message, and yourself, consider the following:
Once you're owning the ideas, you can turn to how to present them. While there are certainly some talented extemporaneous speakers, eloquence is rarely extemporaneous. Rather, the world's best presentations are written.
Nervous speakers are almost always more nervous—or, at least, they manifest more nervousness—when they are trying to speak from an outline or (even worse) a PowerPoint slide.
Why? Mindshare. When you're having to devote mindshare in-the-moment to what words to use, how to transition between ideas, and how to illustrate your points, you're devoting less mindshare to actually communicating. You're focused on your needs ("What are the words I should say here?") more than your audience's needs.
When you have written your presentation, you've thought through all of the presentation issues in advance—and chosen the words, rhetorical devices, and evidence that are likely to resonate most powerfully with your audience. And if, in a fit of nervousness, you forget what to say, you can look down and be reassured that your planned words are right there.
As you write your presentation, consider:
If you have a written presentation, how do you avoid sounding like a robot?
Use your own voice. You don't need to use a different voice when making a speech. Rather, the most effective voice will be your own, natural voice. While it's helpful to study the style of really effective speakers, it's ineffective to try to copy them, because what's charismatic from them may sound forced from you. Instead, ask yourself what you like about other speakers and relate that to your own style.
Likewise, if people tell you you're using your "presentation voice,"—or if you would not speak to someone across the dinner table using the same style—you have to work to do on being more conversational.
Of course, you do want to be a polished version of yourself. To become polished, practice makes perfect. To focus your practice—especially when you have limited time to conduct such practice—consider the following:
How do you avoid sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher (a.k.a., monotone?) Through vocal variety. As you consider where to use variance to enhance your message, think through the following issues:
While it is important to seek variation, it must be grounded in your message. Vary your pitch, volume, tempo, and tone because you believe it enhances what you are there to communicate. Variation for the sake of variation alone is maddening to the audience—it feels like a performance.
Gestures can be a powerful means of communicating non-verbally, but avoid the extremes. Talking with your hands proves distracting to the audience, while never using your hands can seem wooden. Instead, consider where you can gesture with a purpose. There are four categories of purposeful gestures:
The space in which you present—specifically, its size and layout—has implications for your presentation. Once you know the space, think through how it affects:
Hopefully, with these tips—and your own dedication to practice and improvement—you can enhance your speaking effectiveness and therefore feel more comfortable in front of a crowd.
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