Speak up

For most people having to talk in public is one of the most nerve shredding things they could ever be asked to do.

Whether it’s a small presentation in front of a couple of colleagues or a speech in front of hundreds of people, the fear of failure can inspire real terror in us all.

I’m far from a natural speaker and in fact the more I have to do it the harder it seems to get.  Having said that, it’s something that I’ve done more and more of in the past year or so.

There’s been everything from large team meetings and presentations to chief executives to speaking at conferences to delivering the worst possible news to big groups of staff. Away from work I also had to come up with a best man speech for my best friend’s wedding.

I find it a very difficult thing to do but here are a few tips that have helped me along the way.

  • Think of your audience. This is the starting point for any presentation or public speaking. Who are your audience and what are they expecting from you? You should exactly how to pitch your work based on what will interest and engage them. Will they expect you to funny or serious? Will they want to hear your views and suggestions or more solid findings?
  • Plot out your talk on paper starting with a few key messages and the broad strokes of what you want to say. Don’t go into detail at this stage but just form some ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to completely start again of something doesn’t feel right. You can waste loads of time chasing a flawed idea or trying to force something to work.
  • You should now write the speech properly. Some people like to write it out verbatim but I tend to just write a few key points and then memorise my lines.
  • Prepare, then prepare again. For me personally, this is the most important part of any presentation. Once you feel happy with your prep you should practice it a couple of times in full on your own. This feels a bit weird the first time and you will look a bit Travis Bickle.
  • When you’re ready try it out on a couple of colleagues so that you can get used to the rhythm of your talk in front of others. This way you can always get some brief feedback and make any changes.
  • Be confident. Easier said than done but it will help. Remember nobody wants you to fail or make a fool of yourself. The audience want to hear what you’ve got to say or they wouldn’t be there.
  • Stay calm. This is easier said than done, but the time spent in preparation will help with this. One thing I find helpful is deliberately slowing down my breathing to make sure I’m calm and thinking clearly. I often write BREATHE at key points in my notes to force me to slow down. It also stops me from getting too flustered at the start.
  • You’ll find that the hardest part is standing up and getting started. Once you’re off and running it will feel easier. You may even start enjoying yourself.
  • Much like good comedy timing is everything. There’s nothing worse than a presentation that runs over the time limit. Apart perhaps from one that falls way below it, so make sure you’ve practised how long it will take and don’t speed up your speech pattern because of nerves. If you’re worried that you are doing this try to slow down your breathing and pause after making each point. Again, write the words PAUSE or BREATHE at the relevant point in your notes to help with this.

7 thoughts on “Speak up

  1. You make some excellent points! I particularly agree with the suggestion about slowing down breathing, and choosing a few specific points at which to make sure to take a breath. (I also like your advice about deciding whether you might be expected to be serious or funny – I find it hard to resist being a bit over-humorous, which has sometimes done me no favours!)

    I’d add one more very basic point, hinted at by your title: SPEAK UP! It doesn’t matter how marvellously compelling your material is, if your audience cannot hear you, or have to strain to hear. Make sure your head is UP, not buried in notes (glance at notes down the length of your nose!!). Imagine that you are speaking to a point about 1-2 metres above the audience, on the back wall (and that the imaginary listener there is slightly hard of hearing).

    Enjoy your opportunity to impress!


  2. I think a final point here should be do it again and again and again. I used to HATE public speaking but I forced myself to do it and every time it’s a little bit easier.


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