I remember seeing Bob Dole on David Letterman, shortly after losing the presidential election. (Yes, I am that old, just shut up about it already.) He was relaxed, funny and articulate. In short, exactly the opposite of the over-starched, humorless pedant he showed during that election. I would have considered voting for that guy – the one I saw that night on Letterman.
What changed? Certainly he was no longer nervous, no longer someone with something to prove. He had probably also escaped his stiff-armed coaches who were trying, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to make him look “Presidential,” whatever that is. But more than that, I think he was no longer so self-conscious and concerned about how he appeared. That’s the secret to truly fearless public speaking.
There’s a sense of “here I am” when you get up in front of people. Everyone is looking at you, and for the next 5 minutes, hour or several hours you are the center of attention. It’s up to you to impart content in an engaging and understandable way. This is hard. It’s no wonder most people would prefer to jump off a high board into a deep pool without knowing how to swim than get in front of a group and make a speech. Come to think of it, sometimes it feels like the same thing.
One of the things I’ve done in my varied and checkered career is help people learn to speak effectively in public. I am now going to share with you some of my secret, and not so secret, tips to make you a success in front of a group of any size.
It’s not “here I am,” it’s “there you are.” It’s all too easy to focus on ourselves when in front of a group. How do I look? What do they think? Do I sound stupid? And worst of all: I wish I had Michelle Obama’s arms instead of mine! This is a mistake. Your job when up on stage is to focus on the audience. Are they engaged? Is my content reaching them? Do I need to step back and go into more detail to make sure they understand? Are they participating? Once your focus moves from you to them, your energy does too, and they can feel it. And the best part of that is an engaged audience makes your job so much easier, because they send energy back.
Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared. I don’t mean memorize here. What I mean is know your material. Be so solid on your content that you can adjust as needed to the audience. For example, if someone asks a question on slide two that will be answered on slide seven, be comfortable enough with your information that you can give a basic answer immediately with a promise of more detail later. It also enables you to slow down or speed up as needed to stay on time. On the other hand…
ABSOLUTELY DO NOT MEMORIZE. I know I already said this, but it warrants its own category. You will sound stiff, and if you get off course – which can happen and we’ve all seen it – you can end up too lost to get back. This is a bad thing.
Don’t read!!!!!!! There is nothing more dreadful than sitting in an audience listening to someone read a speech. Read a story – OK – particularly if there are pictures that the teacher or parent shares with you. Otherwise, no. If you absolutely have to read something because of the need for accuracy, make a bunch of copies, hand them out, and ask for questions after people read it for themselves.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? If you can’t read a speech and aren’t supposed to memorize it, how to you prepare? Practice. First without an audience. Then with whomever you can hornswaggle into listening. (Pets are always good as a last resort.) Run through it just before you go to sleep, think about it while you’re brushing your teeth. Mumble parts of it when driving somewhere. This level of practice is really important if you hardly ever speak in front of people. Once you do it regularly, you will learn exactly how much practice you need.
Get there early. I don’t mean ten minutes early. I mean at least an hour before you’re scheduled to start. This allows you to get a feel for the room, check on the technical requirements and fix any problems, and make sure the audience seating suits your style. (Try to avoid classroom style if you can.) It also allows you to do the next thing I recommend…
Greet people as they enter. Say hello, shake hands, introduce yourself and, if appropriate, ask what they hope to learn. As more people come in you may not get to everyone, but by the time you start speaking, there will be some semi-familiar faces in the audience – people who feel they are already starting to know you. This helps. It helps a lot.
Have a hot drink. No, no, no, not a hot toddy. That’s not what I said. I mean tea, or even just hot water with lemon. Ever notice your voice wobbling a bit when you’re nervous? A hot drink will relax your vocal cords enough to keep them from doing that. Even if you are a bit nervous, it’s better not to sound that way.
Take three to five deep breaths before starting. Here’s how it works. Breathe in as deeply as you can. (If you don’t feel your stomach expanding, you’re not breathing deeply enough.) Hold it for a slow count of four, and then let it out slowly. Do this several times. You will feel yourself relaxing. You can’t help it. Your body’s autonomic system is on your side in this. Mind you, this is not a case of more is better. If you do this too long you can get light-headed and fall over. This does not create confidence in your audience.
Let go and have fun. There’s a thrill to getting up in front of a group and facing the unknown. It’s like jumping out of a plane without the risk of breaking a bone or twelve. After all, you’ve practiced so much the speech itself is almost second nature. You may find that you actually enjoy the adrenaline rush. And if someday someone asks you do give a speech again, you just might say yes.
Maria Muto-Porter is one of those odd people who actually enjoys speaking in front of groups. To see her in action and learn more about speaking in public, you can come and sit in on her upcoming free presentation this coming Saturday at the Goodyear Branch Library at 3 p.m., “Public Speaking for Teens, It’s Easier than you Think!” You’re welcome to come even if your teen years are long behind you.
Maria Muto-Porter is a freelance writer and blogger. Her career began in broadcasting as a reporter and producer where she covered local news and features in Toledo, Ohio. Muto-Porter served as editor for two publications including a national design magazine. She has also written and edited books, magazine articles and other business materials. You can contact Maria at