How to Speak in Public – a troubleshooting guide

 About me : I have been public speaking and training people for over 20 years on everything from aircraft repair to managing a big data infrastructure .  I have trained side-by-side with Larry Tracy, a well known speaker who delivered the daily report to Ronald Reagan.  I am a writer with publications by Elsevier, CRC press, and Morgan Kaufman, and I have testified on computer forensic matters in state and Federal courts.  I blog on whatever I feel needs clarification and explanation that has direct relevance in my life.  If you enjoy this post, follow me on twitter : scoraellis.  

I’ve seen experienced public speakers make the mistakes listed here.  The biggest two that even the most seasoned pros make are eye contact deficits and projector spotlighting. 

If you have ever had to speak  in public, you’ve probably experienced fear.  That is the trouble, and these are the most common causes and solutions for dealing with that fear. If, at any step of the way, one of these things occurs, it can trip off a collapse of your ego.  When that happens, your presentation caves in along with it.

Here is a bullet list of the problems (in bold) followed by the solution.

  1.  When I start my presentation, I don’t have anyone’s attention and nobody is paying attention. You Didn’t Start Out With a Reason Why. Don’t start with “today we are going to be talking about metabolic subatomic mass spectrometry…(see, you are already bored)”   Instead, start with The Reason Why.. Give the audience information that will motivate them to listen. Some startling statistic, a relevant quote or headline – something powerful that will get them to buy in to the subject matter and realize they should listen
  2. I am trying to act just like William Shatner when I speak. Everyone listens to him, why aren’t they listening to me? This is Because You Are Imitating Someone Else.  A lot can be said be said for  “Fake it ‘til you make it,” but William Shatner  isn’t even doing William Shatner very well anymore.  Be careful who you model. It can back fire horribly, especially if nobody likes who you are imitating.
  3. The people in the audience are skeptical of me, they don’t seem to understand why I am talking to them or what the point is of this talk.  You Failed to “work” the room. The audience actually wants to meet  you. Mingle beforehand and get to know some of the people. If you can do it without them knowing you are the speaker, all the better, and the nicer the surprise. If they like you, they have a vested interest because these people hate being wrong.  If you are standing at the podium when people come in, messing with your computer, they will probably think that you’re the computer guy, and that that handsome man over there, chatting it up with everyone, must be the speaker.
  4. I’m so nervous I feel like my heart is going to pound out of my chest and I might faint…Failing to use relaxation techniques will cause this every time.  Breathe deeply, do 2 or 3 deep, slow knee bends. Raise your hands over your head, and shout to yourself “I am awesome!” 6 times.  These things have been proven to reduce heart rate. I still get a bit of a pounding sensation in my chest when speaking, but after testifying in some of the most high pressure courtrooms in the country, well, things are relative.  If you ever have the opportunity to speak in front of a very challenging or large audience, take it. Everything else will be easy after that.
  5. I’m reading my speech word for word, and it’s an awesome speech!  Then, why is everyone fidgeting and looking like they’d rather be anywhere else? This is as bad as having a huge PowerPoint presentation and reading from it. Why?  Because, whereas  a 4 year old child wants to be read to, adults want to be talked to.  They want to feel like they are having a personal and connected conversation with you.  You can’t do that with your head down on a podium. Ask questions and interact with the audience.  Watch them for cues, like a quickly raised hand that might not make it all the way up, or looking around a lot at others to see their reaction, and looking at their phone – they may be fact checking you.  In case this is not CLEAR.  DO NOT READ FROM YOUR SLIDES — EVER!
  6. Using someone else’s stories: Nobody wants to hear someone repeating what other people have said. That’s what Google is for. It’s okay to use brief quotes from other sources, but to connect with the audience, you must illustrate your most profound thoughts from your own life experiences. If you think you don’t have any interesting stories to tell, you are not looking hard enough.
  7. Unnecessary Movement, unusual faces.  Don’t dance around and sway back and forth! Move, plant.  Move, plant.  Keep their eyes as steady as you can with just enough movement to keep things interesting. And try to keep a straight face as much as necessary. When you make lot of weird faces and exaggerated gestures, you come across as condescending and arrogant.  And that’s ok, if that is what you are going for and it actually works for you.  For most, it won’t.
  8. Hogging the Spotlight Dilemma. It’s not a spotlight! It’s a f’ing projector!  DO NOT STAND in the projector light.  It is super annoying. I mean it. You all do it.
  9. The Escape Artist This guy continuously scans the room, and never lands on one person for more than a second or so, which is about 4 words.  Are you talking to the audience or looking for an escape route in the event that things don’t go well?  TALK to people.  Pick someone.  Say something to that person – don’t look away in the middle of your sentence – FINISH IT.  Keep your sentences brief.
  10. Instant dull – just add wet noodles. You think you are doing everything you think you need to do, so what additional “edge” can you bring to your speaking? Speak in short sentences. Speak with rhythm.  Speak with certainty.  If your spoken words have no rhythm, then you can’t set expectations, you can’t create suspense, and you won’t win your audience. Remember the “Rule of Three” and make use of doublets and triplets. Let your excitement about your topic show, engage the  audience!  For example, Winston Churchill once said “Never in the course of humanity has so much been owed by so many to so few.”  What if he’d said,  “A lot of people have done great things and we owe them a great debt” – this is not nearly so nice. Watch TED talks.  Those guys are usually great speakers.  Watch my YouTube channel (google scorellis, you will find it).  Some of the videos are old, and could be better, but taking the time to make all these videos has been great practice for public speaking. After all, what is public speaking?  It is a “How to.”
  11. I’m at the end of my speech, and I’ve asked if anyone has any questions, and nobody does. What should I do? Your mistake was that you ended a speech/ talk  with the cliché “questions and answers.”  Instead, tell the audience that you will take questions and then say, “But first, let me move to the closing point.”  Make your closing point one that will spark conversation.  This should be the final arrow in your quiver!  For example, summarize a couple of key points, and then say something like “So, now ?”  Don’t forget, You can ask questions too, but don’t ask questions you don’t know the answer to.  Make a list of questions you think the audience might have, and then ask them.   Conclude with a call to action, for example, “If you have any trouble after downloading my widget, shoot an email to
  12. Failing to prepare properly  What is proper preparation is subjective. Recognize what you’ve done in the past when you were at your best. Sometimes, too much preparation will leave you coming across as a dry accountant type. The biggest mistake is not knowing the material, and having an audience that has not been prepared for the topic.
  13. Failing to recognize that speaking is an acquired skill. Effective executives learn how to present in the same way they learn to use other tools to operate their businesses. They practice and they take classes. They listen to advice.  They try, and try, and they try again.

Bonus Tip:

Be cognizant of the health of people in the room.  If someone appears to be experiencing some sort of attack, you should stop speaking and render your complete assistance to them.  If you see someone looks distressed, you can ask them how they are doing.  Don’t tell them why you are asking.  As you work the room, and are interacting with the group, a simple “How you doing?” will suffice.   YOU are in charge and everyone will look to you to ensure that the person is cared for.  The first thing is to always call 9-1-1, ensure that someone is doing this while you render whatever aid you can or ask the room if someone has any medical training.  Know how to recognize and treat shock, it’s simple and easy and can make a person more comfortable while help is on the way.