How to Speak in Public – a troubleshooting guide

Even experienced public speakers make the mistakes listed here.  The biggest two that seasoned pros make are eye contact deficits and projector spotlighting. The one that beginning speakers make is reading from their notes. They go into it, head down, and stay head down the entire time, maybe looking up a couple times to make eye contact, or perhaps to check the audience is still there.

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 confidence.  When that happens, your presentation caves in along with it.

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

  1.  When I start my presentation, nobody is paying attention. I have the same problem with my blog posts. But seriously: You Didn’t Start Out With a Reason Why. You started with “today we are going to be talking about metabolic subatomic mass spectrometry…(see, you are already bored)”. What is it that you have that is so important that you have either decided or been chosen to speak? Put that into a short sentence, pause, let it sink in, then dive into the details. “Today, I’m going to be showing you all our findings–findings that will change how you practice infrastructure management. So buckle up and prepare to be startled by some of these findings! I sure was!” Being a little cheesy is better than being boring.
  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 might be an unknown. 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…or throw up. There is only one thing that works to solve this. Breathe. If your voice is shaky and you can’t control it, take a deep, deep breath, and speak your words off the top.  Keep as much air as you can, pausing to exhale and breathe normally a couple times. Don’t hyperventilate. Speak in short sentences. Take long pauses. Stay calm and keep breathing.
  5. I’m reading my speech word for word, and it’s an awesome speech!  Never, ever, ever read from your slides or read excessively from your notes. This is not kindergarten. You can’t connect to your audience if you aren’t talking directly to them. Ask questions and interact with the audience.
  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  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.
  8. Hogging the Spotlight It’s not a spotlight! It’s a projector!  DO NOT STAND in the projector light.  It is super annoying. I mean it. You all do it.
  9. Hogging the Spotlight II Audience participation is key. Explore this – it is one of the most important concepts on this page. Make a list of Things You Can Do to engage your audience. Maybe you have a gift for saying interesting things. Pause often, give the audience the chance to engage, especially if you say something interesting.
  10. 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 they 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 a sentence – FINISH IT. Then pick someone else. Keep sentences brief.
  11. Carpenter’s dream You think you are doing everything you think you need to do. You’ve measured twice, cut once. You practiced, but your presentation still falls flat. Like a board. What additional “edge” can you bring to your speaking? Speak with rhythm. Lose the monotone. If your spoken words have no rhythm, you won’t captivate your audience. Make use of doublets and triplets. Don’t be afraid to have a personality.
  12. I’m at the end of my speech, and I’ve asked if anyone has any questions, and nobody does. What should I do? Don’t be so cliché. Ask them questions instead.
  13. Over Preparation  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, sounding too rehearsed, like a TED talk. Yuck.
  14. 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: I’d rather die than…

Not only would some people rather die than speak in public, but some people would rather die than interrupt a public speaker. Be cognizant of the health of people in the room. I was teaching a class once, and a woman in the front row looked really uncomfortable. I stopped talking and asked her how she was. She said she was feeling a great deal of pain in her lower back, and said she’d been having some kidney troubles. It turned out we had to call 911 and get medical assistance.

About me : Just some guy who thinks he knows everything. Nothing to see here.