MF 036.5 : Three Tips for Becoming a Better Public Speaker and Presenter (Bonus episode)
Updated: Jun 16
Imagine, you’re about to give a speech or presentation in front of a crowd of people. Your anxiety is starting to build, the adrenaline is pumping so hard you can actually hear it pulsate inside of you. Your mouth goes dry and you start to shake. For many individuals, this is what happens when asked to give a speech or presentation. The internal movie titled, “fear and anxiety” starts playing in their heads: the fear of forgetting the subject matter, forgetting how to talk, being self-conscious about whether their voice sounds funny, and worst of all, the fear of being heckled and ridiculed.
Where does this fear come from? Believe it or not, it’s natural and hard wired into us. That’s the good news. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you. The anxiety you feel comes from the limbic system: the early warning system in our brains that protects us from danger. The problem is that our brain doesn’t always know how to distinguish real danger (eg being chased by a lion or tiger) with the perceived danger that comes from giving a speech or presentation. That’s why many people fear public speaking as much or more than death itself. [Croston, G. (2012). The thing we fear more than death – why predators are responsible for our fear of public speaking. Psychology Today].
When I was getting my MBA from Johns Hopkins, people would often come up to me after a speech or presentation and tell me how good I was or how natural and effortless it seemed for me. But the fact was, public speaking and presentations, was simply a skill or “mental muscle” that I had developed over years through various careers and pursuits. In fact, at the heart it, you could say my public speaking ability was simply the byproduct of years of career indecision. You may recall from MF 001 that I started out as an attorney. To prepare for law school (eyeing a career as a litigator), I took an acting class since it seemed like a more fun way to become a public speaker than taking a speech class or joining a debate team. After finding the practice of law largely unsatisfying (to put it politely), I moved into a corporate job in the legal publishing industry; which involved a lot of public speaking and presentations. Somewhere along the way, I got back into acting as a hobby and eventually pursued it more seriously, both in DC and in Los Angeles. As a result, I had unintentionally accumulated a lot of experiences, skills, and training that related to public speaking, theatrical performance and acting. Since I was busy trying to figure out my career, I pretty much threw myself into every public speaking exercise and activity without thinking. A side effect of this was that any anxiety or fears that I had about standing in front of an audience and giving a speech or presentation, diminished greatly. I won’t say it disappeared because I don’t believe that fear ever completely goes away and a little is actually healthy as it can fuel your excitement and passion.
Now, back to the MBA program. I noticed that a lot of individuals; very smart, brilliant people, who would have trouble communicating the vast knowledge and expertise they had to an audience. It always pained me to see people who would get so nervous that they would stumble over their words or worse. I once witnessed a fellow student (let’s call him “Joe”) in a Business Communications class who had so much anxiety that he actually started to hyperventilate when called to give a presentation. He couldn’t get out more than two words before getting winded and trying to catch his breath. I felt so bad for him and yet was very surprised when he came up to me after class and asked if I would work with him one-on-one. Even though I entered the MBA program as an experienced and well-practiced speaker / presenter, the thought never occurred to me that I could teach someone or that someone would want to learn those skills from me. But since this same student had helped me understand the fundamentals of financial accounting (a subject I had a hard time grasping during the early days of the program), I, of course, offered to help. From there, I had several other students ask if I would work with them. Looking back, I absolutely enjoyed the experience, imparting simple exercises and techniques I had picked up from giving literally hundreds of presentations and speeches and from numerous classes and acting gigs, that I could pass on to fellow students, who wanted to give the best speech or presentation they were capable of. The best part? I immediately saw vast improvements in their presentations. After working with Joe, the next time he gave a presentation for the same class, he not only didn’t hyperventilate, he gave much more impactful and confident presentation.
In today’s bonus episode, I share three tips which can help you become a better speaker or presenter. Like with any skills, it takes patience, practice and the right mindset. But I believe everyone has within them a power speaker and presenter that is just waiting to be unleashed.
Tip 1: Breathe
Too often, I see even seasoned presenters, start speaking as soon as they step on to a stage or behind a podium. For many, the fear or anxiety makes them want to start as quickly as possible so they can finish as quickly as possible and sit down. The problem is that if you are fueled by anxiety or fear, you will often forget to breathe, which in turn will cause you stumble or worse, hyperventilate, which in turn will increase that fear and anxiety even more. So before you say one single word, take a pause and a deep breath. Taking that pre-start pause will do three things:
It will calm your nerves and quiet your mind.
It will fill your body (lungs and diaphragm) which much needed oxygen so you can get the words out.
It will shift the attention, focus, and power away from the external (the audience, your fears, your anxiety) and turn it back to you.
Tip 2: Body Language
Having good body language is as important to your speeches or presentation as is your tone, your voice, and your breathing. Ultimately, your goal with a speech or presentation is to connect with your audience. To do so, you must have body language that conveys confidence, authority, credibility, and openness. Too often I see presenters slouch, put their hands in their pockets or behind their backs, and look up, down, sideways, or anywhere other than at the audience. Your body language should feed your confidence: shoulders square, back straight, feet shoulder width so your center of gravity is evenly distributed. Hands should be at your side or making controlled gesticulation for emphasis, never behind your back or in your pockets. You should always be facing your audience, not looking away from them and try to establish eye contact with as many people in the room as possible. Through good body language, you will convey that you are open, receptive and communicative.
Tip 3: Mindset
We often forget that a presentation or speech is simply a form of conversation. Conversing is something we do everyday in our professional and personal lives. Whether you’re giving an informational presentation or pitching a product or service, you want to connect with your audience. That doesn’t mean you have to be casual but rather you want to be authentic and confident in your delivery. The best way to achieve authenticity is to be conversational. An exercise to help you be more conversational in your speeches and presentations is to talk to individuals you meet in your daily life. For example if you’re trying a new restaurant for lunch, ask the person in line next to you about the dish he or she just ordered. Engaging in small talk and new conversations will stretch you outside of your comfort zone. The more you do this, the more comfortable you will be when giving a presentation to a room full of people you’ve never met before. Work on achieving a conversational mindset.
These are just three simple tips that you can incorporate into your daily life: to calm your mind and reduce the anxiety so you can unleash your inner power speaker and presenter.
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