I fired up a podcast yesterday to listen to a panel discussion that I had been meaning to get round to for a while. It was a panel discussion chaired by a journalist and a bunch of bloggers I read regularly. They were going to be discussing an area where they all, naturally, have expertise and have written about extensively. Headphones on, I clicked play and prepared to be enlightened.
I was appalled. Not with any of the content, or with the bad acoustics, but because of the number of pauses, run-on sentences that didn’t go anywhere, and the tsunami of “Ums” “Ahs” and “Ers” that peppered every panellist’s speech. It was as though a random subject had caught the first session of a middle school debating club unawares. It was shocking.
How could this have happened? This was a nationally renowned journalist and several high-profile bloggers who are used to being the centre of attention. They write for a living, have published books, appeared on television and radio, have even done their own podcasts. Why did they sound so rubbish? It wasn’t as though they had never sat on a panel or spoken in public before, they were intimately familiar with the topic at hand, and the audience had been quite small. In fact, that was why I had downloaded the podcast: audience tickets had been so limited that I hadn’t managed to secure one.
The failings of supposes professional aside, what my painful listening experience highlighted for me was how easy it is for a good message to go unheeded because of bad delivery. Wincing at each unnecessary stumble as the speakers made their presentations, I realised that my wondering what was wrong with them was distracting me from some of the nuances of what they had to say. Imagine if they had been pitching me a businesss idea! While they were pointing out the advantages of their shiny new bauble over a rival’s offering, I’d have been puzzling over whether they’d had a bit tooo much complementary wine before laying out their wares.
I’m lucky, in that I have never had a problem with speaking in public, even off the cuff, and my voice is not so ridiculous that it takes attention away from what I am saying. Nevertheless, I am only too familiar with how harrowing other people find the thought of having to wax lyrical about anything in a room full of strangers; I once had a friend who passed out before giving a speech, he was so nervous. So in the interests of those who would rather plant bamboo shoots under their fingernails than give a oral presentation, here are a few tips to make the experience as painless as possible.
- Prepare Unless you are being asked to give an impromptu presentation, you will usually have some idea about what you’re going to be talking about, and who your audience will be. Do your research. Make sure that you have the relevant facts and figures memorised (or to hand, if you’re going to read from notes), and if there will be questions when you’ve finished, figure out what the likeliest ones are and be ready to answer them. Also see if you can anticipate any unlikely questions and try to come up with answers for those to. Sketch out the order in which you’ll address your various points, trying to keep everything flowing in a coherent manner.
- Rehearse There’s no point doing all that preparation if you then decide to wing it on the night itself. You don’t have to press-gang friends and family into acting as an audience, though that might help. You can present to an individual, or a pet, or even an empty chair. I find it most effective to actuallly pitch to myself, looking at myself in the mirror to make sure I’m not doing anything crazy with my eyebrows or waving my hands too much. Run through what you’re going to say, and if there’s a section or phrase that doesn’t work, go back to your notes and do a rewrite.
- Check your equipment If you are going to be illustrating a point with the ubiquitous Powerpoint presentation slides, make sure that everything is working before you give your speech. Make sure the projector works, that you know how to set up your laptop, that the slides will be in focus and that you know how to move from one to the other. This gives you one less ting to worry about once you have actually started. Plus you can also make sure that everything is in order and that they relate to what you’re saying.
- The audience are people too Sure, you can imagine them naked, if you find that easier, but I think that would just make me giggle. Eye contact is important when speaking in public, so while it might be tempting to bury your head in your notes and just read out your speech, don’t; your voice will sound muffled and you will seem disengaged. Instead, pick out someone in the crowd who looks friendly; look at them for about three seconds, then move on to someone else in a different part of the room, look at them for about three seconds and so on. To the rest of the audience, it looks as though you’re looking around the room when really it’s just a few individuals. If you find eye contact too intimidating, try focusing on items of clothing, such as ties, or brooches.
- Slow down Most people tend to speak faster when they’re nervous, which is why they then litter their speech with “um” and “er” when they’ve lost track of what they were saying. The temptation to speak quickly is because you want the experience to be over with. But it makes you sound skittish, and if your mouth is moving too quickly your brain will need time to catch up. Don’t rush, no matter how agonising you find it to be up on stage. Slow down to what you think is too slow (I promise you, it isn’t) and go through your points in a clear voice. You will sound more authoriative and coherent, even if you are a nervous wreck on the inside.
- Mind your tone Unless you are just reading out a list, you’re telling a story. Stories ebb and flow, and their meaning is narrated not just by the words you say but also how you say them (see what I did there?). You don’t need to go crazy with pitch and emphasis, but again, if you’ve prepared and rehearsed your speech, you’ll know where to stress certain words and phrases and whether you need to pause in order to let something sink in. Changing up your delivery alerts those whose attention may have been wondering and helps you to highlight the most important points you have to make.
- When answering questions, wait If you are going to be taking questions from the audience when you’re finished, make sure that you have had time to here the question and process it before you start to answer it. If necessary, ask for the question to be repeated or clarified. Don’t worry about looking clueless: you have anticipated questions and have prepared outline answers to them in your preparation haven’t you? So take your time, make sure you’ve understood, smile, and then answer the question as succinctly as possible, giving the details that have been asked for. If it is a question that has more than a couple of parts, answer each in turn, before offering an overview to sum up. Don’t feel as though you need to be long-winded. You’ve already given your speech, so this is just a series of brief elaborations on what you have already said.
It can seem daunting, having to stand up in front of a group of your peers and people you respect and present information to them, but it doesn’t have to be an ordeal. With a bit of preparation and a clear focus on what needs to be done, anyone can be a competent public speaker. I just wish the people I was listening to in my podcast had remembered this.
[Image by AndyWilson]