Awareness of what makes for compelling delivery will make better public speakers of us all.
Sweaty palms. Racing heartbeat. Feeling short of breath. Nausea. No, we’re not about to have a heart attack. We’re simply about to start speaking in public. That moment when we stand up in a meeting room or step onto a stage can feel both unnatural and uncomfortable. It’s when our bodies can get the better of us: cue those physical symptoms that betoken a whole host of other things going on beneath the surface.
A certain level of adrenaline is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help us to get into the zone, to focus on the task ahead. It means that what we’re about to do matters to us. For some of us, though, a healthy level of stress can tip over into full-blown glossophobia, a more serious fear of public speaking. But wherever we are on that spectrum, whether we tend to take presentations in our stride or loathe the very idea of them, the chances are that, as leaders, we won’t be able to avoid speaking in public; it’s simply too integral a part of business communications. Nor should we. Being able to speak in public with authority and clarity is an important weapon in our communications arsenal.
Thankfully, there are a range of things we can do to prepare, to control our nerves and mitigate our fears, to work on our presence and authority so that we can all learn to deliver that killer presentation. But, first, we need to know what we’re dealing with.
It’s personal: understanding our fears
Speaking in public can feel scary because it means dealing with the unknown. We may be speaking to people we don’t know; we may be in an unfamiliar environment; we might be anxious about forgetting what we want to say; we won’t know exactly what response we’ll get from our audience. That can add up to a whole host of uncertainty that, if we don’t anticipate and manage, can threaten to derail us. How we respond will depend on a range of factors, including our personalities and experience, but also on our own understanding of the factors that might trigger stress and feelings of overwhelm for us.
Research by psychologists has identified four key contributing factors that feed into our fears around speaking in public:
- Physiological: we may know we’re not facing an existential threat when we’re presenting, but that doesn’t stop our brains triggering a 'fight or flight' response – with the kinds of physical consequences we’ve already met. Unchecked, these responses will get in the way of our performance.
- Thoughts: most of us have an inner critic, that personification of negative beliefs about ourselves. We may think we’re just rubbish at public speaking, that we’re sure to fail or be found out as an impostor, that we’ll never live up to our audience’s expectations. Naming, listening to, and interrogating, our inner critic is the first step to being able to gain some perspective about those thoughts and reframe them (of which more below). The reality very rarely matches the beliefs we attribute to ourselves.
- Situations: we might be fine speaking to colleagues on a video conference, but hate the thought of an on stage presentation. We might manage our nerves if we have plenty of time to prepare, but fearful if we don’t. It might feel worse if the stakes are high, if we’re speaking to people who are more senior than we are or if our audience is unfamiliar. We need to think about the situations that might make us more fearful.
- Skills: practice and experience really do make a difference. The more we speak in public, the more comfortable we’re likely to feel about it, giving us a base of skill to build on and some real data with which to confront that inner critic. Competence leads to more confidence, which will help with the fear.
Armed with this awareness of what might trip us up, we can use it to develop our practice.
Managing our nerves
Performance coach Amy Jen Su suggests that there are some simple techniques we can use to get those nerves under control.
Reframe unhelpful thoughts
The first is all about recognising that feeling anxious or being nervous before a presentation is normal. We need to accept – rather than fight against – those thoughts and feelings and get comfortable with them. Once we notice what’s happening, we can work on reframing the situation we find ourselves in: can we see what we’re about to do as an opportunity rather than something to dread? Can we work on being present in the moment, rather than worrying about what might happen, or about things that we can’t control?
Being aware of what’s happening to us physically can also help. To give ourselves the best chance of performing well on the day, we need to get the basics right. Have a good night’s sleep, stay hydrated, have something to eat and avoid too much caffeine. If, when the big moment arrives, our palms are sweaty or our hearts are racing, there are physical practices that we can use to minimise their impact, even just before we start to speak.
We can ground ourselves – quite literally. Take a look at what’s around us. Anchor or touch something physical, like a table or lectern. We might not want to go as far as a public power pose, but we should feel free to pose away, to encourage “our bodies to change our minds” before we take to the stage. On stage, we can plant our feet firmly, parallel at shoulder width, and take a second to feel balanced evenly and "rooted".
If our upper body is tight and tense, our breathing and voice will be constricted. Dropping our shoulders, gently pressing them away from our ears, will ease the pressure and give our breath and voice a clear path.
Breathing faster and more heavily is a common physical symptom of presenting nerves. Try to slow it down, take a few deep breaths and let our breath come from our belly rather than the top of our chest. Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing oxygenates the brain and keeps us in control of our voices, helping us to remain calm and focused
For many of us, feeling prepared is a major nerve-buster. That means thinking well in advance about our key message/s; who our audience will be and what they’re expecting; where we’ll be presenting and when; how we can gather and structure the right content; how we can communicate our story. It also means practising our delivery and thinking about pace and timing, flow and transitions.
As part of that preparation, we need to think about how we’ll deliver our content on the day: what tech we’ll use; whether we’ll use a full script or notes, or whether we’ll memorise the whole thing.
It’s also good to become as familiar as we can with the space where we’ll be speaking, and the equipment we’ll be using. Turn up early to get a sense of the room, its size and how we might “own” it. If we have to walk onto a stage or to the front of a room, practise that “journey”. Think about lighting, where we can put any notes, a glass of water or any props. Will we need a microphone and will there be a formal sound check? Do we know how to move on any slides? Can we see a watch or clock to help with timing?
If we’re presenting online, similar rules apply: are we familiar with the software? Are we framing ourselves on the screen properly, without a cluttered or distracting background? Will the audio work? Have we made sure we won’t be interrupted? Is everything we need to hand?
It can really help to concentrate and practise our presentation opening, so that we can overcome what’s often the most difficult thing to do: starting to speak in the face of all that adrenaline. It will also set the stage for everything that follows. We might want to frame what we’re going to say; we might start with a personal anecdote, an unexpected fact or a rhetorical question; we could ask a real question of the audience to get them involved as early as possible.
Anticipating what audience members might ask is good preparation for any Q&A session. And, if we’re asked a question we can’t answer, we need to be honest. Say we’ll find out; give a preliminary answer and check back, or even turn the tables and ask if anyone else in the audience can provide the answer.
Once we’re underway, we’re likely to get into our stride. But, if we lose our train of thought or feel those doubts creeping back in, keep going. Bear in mind that most audiences want us to succeed and that we’ve been asked to present for a reason. A noisy or quiet audience doesn’t necessarily mean that no one is listening, so don’t panic: they may just have different ways of processing what we’re saying.
Chris Anderson, who curates the now-famous TED Talks, believes that acknowledging nervousness can also create engagement. He gives the example of best-selling author Susan Cain whose 2012 TED Talk about introversion has now been downloaded almost 30 million times. In the words of Anderson, Cain was “terrified” about giving her talk, but her authentic vulnerability proved to be a powerful way to win over the audience.
Anderson has seen just about everything when it comes to delivering a presentation and has coached some of the biggest names to improve how they come across. He firmly believes that even the most inexperienced or nervous speaker can learn to present compellingly.
Unsurprisingly, Anderson’s advice starts with the content itself, looking at how we frame our stories for maximum effect: how we can take an audience “on a journey”; how we can best structure that journey, keeping it concise, focusing on ideas and those stories; how we’ll use any tech and equipment. He exhorts us to plan our delivery and to practise and practise until what we want to say feels natural.
He also offers guidance on the physical act of being on stage, our presence. This is where how we say what we say, those non-verbal cues – our body language and how we use our voice – can make a difference, for good and ill. Non-verbal signals that betray nerves, boredom or a lack of authority can be undermining. For example, standing with a straight back and head held high exudes confidence, while staring at the floor implies discomfort, and slouching suggests indifference.
Fear can manifest in extraneous movements or freezing; involuntary behaviours may take the form of repeated throat-clearing, tremors, leg-shaking, fidgeting, pacing and face-touching. Anderson believes that one of the biggest issues for inexperienced presenters is that they tend to move their bodies too much, swaying from side to side or shifting from one foot to the other, both of which can be distracting for the audience.
Building our presence involves understanding what constitutes an assured demeanour – our gravitas – and tackling those elements of body language that get in the way. Think, too, of the need to align what we’re saying with our body language and voice, as with Florian Mueck’s Triangle of Coherence: our micro-expressions need to match our messages. A simple smile at the right moment, for example, puts people at ease.
Harvard University’s Carmine Gallo offers three key tips for looking confident when we’re presenting:
Make eye contact
Making eye contact builds trust with our audience. Chris Anderson suggests that we should find five or six friendly looking people in the audience and look them in the eye as we speak. Gallo recommends that we might record ourselves when we’re practising our presentations and note and work on how many times we look at our presentation rather than our audience. Looking at the screen effectively says “don’t look at me” and also breaks our connection with our audience.
Keep an open posture
When we present with confidence, we stand tall with our head up, in an open posture, removing barriers between ourselves and our audience. Confident speakers keep their arms uncrossed and their hands out their pockets. Standing clutching a lectern might help to make us feel less nervous, but that lectern can be a barrier too. Practise moving away from it at strategic moments.
Gestures can be very telling. They can be used to positively reinforce what we say. For example, if we’re listing things, we might use our fingers to count them off. Or we might stretch our arms to match a more expansive point we want to make. Conversely, placing our hands on our hips, constantly touching our hair or handwringing will have a negative impact.
Kasia Wezowski, founder of The Center for Body Language, has tracked the correlation between successful start-up pitch contestants and their positive body language by observing and scoring them, giving points for positive, confident body language such as smiling, making eye contact and persuasive gesturing, and taking points away for negative signals such as fidgeting, averted eyes and stiff hand gestures.
She has also studied successful leaders and identified common hand gestures that indicate effective persuasive body language:
How the voice persuades
Establishing presence is not just about how we use our body language. It’s also about that other key factor in non-verbal communication: paralinguistics, how we use our voices.
Monotonous speech patterns may bore listeners to (literal) distraction, allowing their minds to drift off elsewhere. Garbled sentences betray nervous energy. Understanding and exploiting the acoustic properties of speech, such as pitch, pace, tone and volume, helps us to win our audience’s trust and alert our listeners to the nuances of our messages. By mastering paralanguage, we can hold people’s attention, making our voice pleasant to listen to, while coming across as more influential, persuasive and credible.
Research proves it. Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger conducted four experiments on the use of non-verbal communication in persuasion, finding that speakers who modulate their voices appear more confident, which makes them more likely to succeed in convincing their listeners to take action. A speaker’s confident vocal demeanour persuades others by serving as a signal that they more strongly endorse what they’re saying in their message.
Improving paralanguage often amounts to simple things such as slowing down our speech, varying our pace and adjusting our volume and pitch. Sexist as it may be, high-pitched voices tend to be perceived as less authoritative than low-pitched ones. We can also learn to use pauses to good effect and to regulate the emotion in our voice, so that it matches what we are saying and what we want audience members to feel; telling a tragic tale in a jolly tone is not the way to win hearts and minds.
Once again, Carmine Gallo offers us three key tips, this time for sounding confident when we speak:
Eliminate filler words
Avoid filler words – such as “um”, “err”, “like” and “you know” – that serve no purpose except to fill the gaps between sentences. Also watch out for sentences that start with “obviously”, “basically”, “in fairness” and “to be honest”. Implying that we may have been lying to people in all of our other statements is not a good look.
Again, recording ourselves as part of our preparation will help us to identify the filler words we use most and to be more conscious about eliminating them.
Take time to pause
The consummate communicator Barack Obama is well known for using pauses effectively when speaking in public. It's a powerful technique, showing us that he's confident enough to embrace silence, has an acute awareness of the attention of his audience and is intelligently thinking through what he says. For Gallo, pauses are an expression of eloquence.
On a more practical note, pausing when we’re speaking can buy us valuable time to gather ourselves, to stop and think, focus on what we want to say next, and how. It also gives the audience space to reflect on what we’re saying and to anticipate what’s coming next.
Gallo likens a pause when speaking to a full stop when writing: both provide a break between thoughts. We can use this idea when preparing our script or notes, marking precisely where we’ll pause and for how long. When practising, take some breaths at each marked pause to become more comfortable with the silence rather than looking to fill it with filler words. The more we practise, the more this will seem like a natural part of how we speak.
On the day, there are some helpful pausing strategies to bear in mind. We might, for example, take a few seconds before we start to speak to settle ourselves. We can use short sentences. Using rhetorical questions to create a natural pause has the added benefit of provoking our audience’s attention and inviting them to agree with us. Another US President, George H. W. Bush, famously asked us during his election campaign to “Read. My. Lips. No. New. Taxes.”. Making his points deliberately, and with pauses, was a powerful way to deliver his message.
Vary our pace
Pace is the speed at which we speak. Varying our pace adds interest and helps us to emphasise the most important things we want to say.
Most of us will speak more quickly when we’re nervous, but we need to guard against this. Gallo reminds us that audiobooks are usually recorded at between 150 and 160 words a minute, slow enough to be understood but not so fast that listeners have a hard time keeping up. But simply keeping at that steady pace when we’re speaking to a live audience risks monotony and boredom. We can increase our pace when we want to communicate excitement or passion and slow down again when we want to reinforce key messages.
As with body language, these vocal techniques can be learnt, practised and honed. Remember, too, that warming up our vocal cords shortly before speaking loosens our muscles, broadening our range of pitch, helping us to enunciate and reducing vocal fatigue.
One final thing to bear in mind is that establishing presence is a personal thing; we need to find an authentic style that works for us. When using our voice, for example, we should sound as conversational as possible, being ourselves rather than forcing anything more formal. Similarly, we might not all be comfortable striding across a stage, but standing still and using gestures appropriately can give us a quiet authority that’s just as effective. While we can all make use of techniques and tips to improve how we present, there’s no single route map to success. We need to play to our own strengths and deploy the strategies that will work best for us personally.
TED’s Chris Anderson believes that “a successful talk is a little miracle –people see the world differently afterward”. That’s our challenge and opportunity: to use the platform we’re given when we’re presenting to influence, inspire and persuade. By getting to grips with what can get in our way and honing our skills through practice and experience, we can all spread a little public-speaking magic.
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Test your understanding
- Identify three ways that we can 'ground' ourselves when speaking in public.
- Describe two examples of positive body language and two that are more negative.
- Outline Carmine Gallo’s three top tips for sounding more confident when we present.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider two or three of the techniques outlined above and try using them when you next have to make a presentation. Did they help? How might they contribute to your ongoing development as a convincing public speaker?
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