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  • Writer's picturePriya Sharma Shaikh

Public Speaking: Tame and ride the beast

I have two simple questions for you to start with:

  1. What is the one common trait that all leaders have?

  2. What is the number one fear that most people have?

The answer to both these questions is, not incidentally, the same. All great leaders, without any exception, are brilliant public speakers and survey after survey shows that the thing most people are afraid of are not snakes or heights, but public speaking. We don’t need to establish the importance of public speaking, do we?

People who speak well in front of a crowd have a halo around their heads!

Meanwhile we, the lesser mortals cower in fear in a dark corner, trying to escape attention. These are the people who get seen, get heard and get ahead. Everybody knows them and they leapfrog over others in the race to the top.

You, on the other hand, are born with a congenital problem. The fear of the stage haunts you and you do everything you can to avoid putting yourself into that spot. But there’s no escaping it. You need to be able to speak well in public, if you want to lead teams or get your opinion across and convince people or even if you just want to sell your product. Sooner or later you are going to have to master the art. Better now than later, I say. I'm here to help you get started on the journey. So, buckle up as we forge ahead to tame this beast.

Know your audience

The end purpose of any talk or speech you give is to inform and or convince people. ‘They’ have to get what you are trying to say and for that to happen, you HAVE to get ‘them’. Without knowing your audience intimately, you can’t hope to convince them of anything.

Start with researching their backgrounds, their history as a group. What are they interested in and why are they there to listen to you in the first place? If it’s your team that you are talking to or your management or potential clients, you (hopefully) know them well enough. You know what excites them and what worries them. If it’s a group you are new to, try and learn more about them. Ask around or maybe talk to some of them beforehand.

Plan and practice

Now that you know the audience, get cracking. Make sure you know the topic you are supposed to speak on. It’s all about confidence.

Knowledge is the greatest aphrodisiac for confidence. Read, research and know your material like an expert.

Anticipate questions that the audience might have. What are they likely to not know about the subject at hand? What, if they knew what you are going to share, would add great value to them? What bothers them about the issue? These are great questions to know answers to, while preparing for your talk. Let these guide the list of talking points.

I am sure you’ve heard this before but I’m going to repeat it. Practice makes perfect and there’s no way around it. Request a friend or two of yours to sit and listen to the speech. Let them ask questions. Get their feedback. If that’s not possible then practice with the mirror. Hitler was supposed to have done this. Not that he’s a role model but his oration is supposed to be the single greatest reason behind his unfortunate rise. Be your own audience and get better.

Relax and breath

Once up on stage, relax. I know that’s easier said than done but there’s nothing you can do now. So take a few deep breaths and pause. Don’t have to start immediately. Look at the room, smile and hold. That’s another way to get people’s attention by the way. They don’t expect silence. It’s precious commodity in today’s world. Walk around the floor a little, get used to it. And then start.

There’s no ‘have to’. Do what makes you comfortable because only then will you give a good speech. Speaking slowly is always better than speaking fast. Pauses are important. They make people lean in and listen to you carefully. Stand-up comics use it all the time to great effect. You are no different from them. Both you and stand-up comics are seeking the audience’s undivided attention and total engagement.

Engage your audience

If the idea is to communicate with them then you need to keep them engaged. No one likes to listen to speeches. You know that from your own experience. Think back to the people who’ve really captured your attention while speaking. Notice what they did different. They owned the stage. They ‘spoke’ to you. They didn’t try and inform, but engaged you.

Humour is a great way to connect with the audience. If they’ve had people speaking before you, then there’s a good chance that they’ve been exhausted. Their attention is sure to be wavering.

Nothing gets people back in the room like a good joke. Or a surprising fact. Or some interesting trivia. Or maybe a trick question?

People love stories and they want to be moved. These are the weapons in your arsenal. You are a storyteller and the room is your arena. The best speakers use every element possible to get their point across. Maybe you want to turn the lights off and play some music to get people in a certain mood. Do whatever suits you.

Chuck that presentation

A lot of talks in the corporate world are centered around presentations. That’s the best reason for you to not use them. More people die of presentations than in terrorist attacks. I don’t have the research to back this up but I am damn sure about this.

Presentations suck people’s attention and draw their eyes away from you. You don’t want that. You want people’s undivided attention. You want them looking at you.

The only valid reason for using slides is to visually represent some complex idea you might be presenting or if you want to leave the audience with some final thoughts. Use images, if you must. But please forego the text. Please!

Let your emotions show

Now, a lot of people seem to favour sobriety and formality over impassioned speaking. Yes, you work in a corporate setting and people around you are formally dressed. But underneath that superficial veneer is a beating heart. We are all creatures of flesh and blood and we yearn for excitement, for deep feelings and for passionate causes. We want to be moved. The better you are at making people ‘feel’, the better you are as a speaker.

And the only way to make people feel for anything is by feeling it yourself. Allow yourself to show emotions. A cursory look at any great speech will show you what I mean. Of course, don’t go overboard. Sure, it’s difficult to have feelings for an insurance product but that’s not what you are talking about, are you? There’s always a deep human need, a desire you are trying to fulfill. Whether it’s a team’s need to achieve something extraordinary or your management’s aim to grow bigger or a group yearning to know more about something to get ahead in life. Identify that core and build your talk around it.

Nothing matters like your body language

If you know your subject and are confident this will sort it out itself. But you can always improve and get better. A lot of that can happen in practice in front of the mirror. Watching people you consider good is another way of improving. There’s no dearth of videos online. Check out the TED series of videos or watch someone like Obama speak to a crowd. Don’t copy paste but see what works for you and keep it.

Another great way to learn is to record your own speeches and watch it to understand what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. And then consciously try to work these chinks out. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for feedback from people you trust.

Rome was not built in a day - you know that, so keep at it and you will get better with time.

Be yourself

Bring yourself to the party, as they say. There’s no template here. There are all kinds of great speakers. Be your own kind. Of course, use whatever you find useful. Learn from whoever you like. But don’t underestimate yourself. The world doesn’t need more of the same. People want to see YOU, hear YOU and know YOU. Give them a glimpse of it.

If whacky is what you are, be it all the way. If you are nerdy, let it shine through. If football is what drives you, use it in your speeches.

Create a style that’s your own. You never know, people might end up copying you.

That’s when you know you’ve arrived. That’s when you know, you’ve become a great speaker. I wish you luck on this incredible journey. Let me know how you fare. I’d truly love to hear from you.

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