Public speaking tips to help you throw up less, maybe

A couple of weeks ago, I drove to Bend, Oregon to give a presentation before a group of environmental activists. Even though I assumed it would be a (relatively) friendly audience, I was my usual pre-public speaking bundle of nerves and frayed intestines.

This is nothing new. I’ve always been nervous about public speaking. I even get nervous during our weekly staff meeting before I have to give my program updates.

Around the same time, I was reading Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I found the book extremely validating, as I have always considered myself sort of an extroverted introvert. That is, a person capable of attending a networking event and not urping all over the suit jacket of someone whose business card I am requesting.

Included in the book are some public speaking tips that I found helpful. I’ve included those tips below along with some of my own feedback.

1. For many speakers – and especially for introverts – preparation is key. Take your time crafting your speech so that it flows logically and is illustrated with stories and examples. Practice it out loud, until you’re comfortable. If it’s an important speech, videotape yourself. The main reason public speaking can be uncomfortable is that you have no idea how you’re coming across.

I have to admit, though I force myself to prepare like crazy, sometimes my instinct is to do the opposite. The logic goes like this: if I don’t prepare and then tank, I can just shrug my shoulders and be like, whatever, I didn’t put that much work into it. Keep your expectations low. Is what I always say to get really, super pumped. This is a very effective approach for advancing one’s career.

In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail, but at least you know what you’re getting, and isn’t that better than your crippling sense of uncertainty? Ah, Ben, you speak my unspoken language.

Also, I would NEVER videotape myself. The only thing worse than hearing the sound of my own voice is seeing it paired with all of my awkward elbow gesturing and facial muppetry.

2. Think about what your particular audience wants to hear. Are they craving new information? Insights? What problem do they hope to solve? Give them what they want and need. It’s about them, not you.

For this particular presentation, I was speaking to a group of environmentalists with varying degrees of familiarity with my topic. Some of them were brand new to the issue, while some were experts with years of experience on me. This makes it tough. Do they want an overview? Or do they want to get into the weeds? Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be both.

I did my best by setting expectations up front. I told them my goal was to provide an overview of the issue and to make a case for why it should matter to their community. I also explained that we could get into greater detail during the Q&A portion of the evening.

Still. I got heckled for spending more time talking about birds than fish. I was interrupted to discuss technical details only relevant to one person in the audience. I was hassled for not being aggressive enough in my campaign. And then for being too aggressive. I was accused of being a radical. A radical? Me? Perhaps the clip-in dreadlocks I wore to fit in gave them the wrong impression.

3. If you haven’t spoken publicly in a while and feel rusty, watch videos of speakers that have shots taken from the speaker’s vantage point, where you can see what it’s like to face the audience. (Many TED talks have these shots.) As you watch, pretend you’re the speaker. Get used to what it feels like to have all eyes on you.

Here is Susan Cain’s TED talk. It contains some shots shots of the mammoth audience from her vantage point that gives me vicarious anxiety and the accompanying fear shits.

4. Similarly, if you can, visit the room where you’ll be speaking. Practice standing at the podium, looking out into the rows of seats.

This is incredibly helpful if the option is available.  I like to know what I’m dealing with. Is there a podium? If there is a podium, is it high enough to disguise my profuse crotch sweating? Or should I just wear my extra-wicking undergarments? If I lock my knees for too long, in which direction should I pass out to avoid braining myself on a table corner? That kind of thing.

5. When you listen to a great speaker or hear someone mention one, get a transcript of the speech. Study it. How was it constructed? What kind of opening and closing were used? How were examples presented? How did the speaker engage, inspire, and educate the audience? Most people are not born great orators. They study and practice. (This tip comes from Steve Harrison, the co-founder of Reporter Connection.)

Here’s a good speech on a relevant topic. The transcript is available as well. Power pose!

6. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker, and accentuate the positive. If you have a great sense of humor, use it. If you’re not a natural cut-up, don’t try to be. Instead, focus on what you do best. Do you have a great story to tell? An interesting idea your audience hasn’t considered? Information they need to hear? Frame your speech around your message – and around who you are as a person. Thoughtful and thought-provoking is every bit as powerful as dynamic and entertaining.

I never try to be funny when I’m giving a presentation. I aim for authoritative, and if I manage competent, I consider that a success. I prefer one on one interactions in my social life. I truly enjoy having conversations with  people, assuming those people are not assholes. I bring that into my presentations by encouraging a conversational Q&A after my formal talk is finished. I’d like to think that this allows me to fill a more natural role as moderator of a group conversation, but really it’s just a way to take the spotlight off of my sweaty forehead and that gross, white panoo that accumulates in the corners of my mouth when I talk for too long under duress.

7. At the same time, public speaking is a performance, and that’s a good thing, even if you’re not a natural actor. Have you ever wondered why people enjoy costume parties? It’s because they feel liberated when interacting from behind a mask, from within a role. Dressing up as Cinderella or Don Draper removes inhibitions as effectively as a glass of wine. Think of your onstage persona the same way.

I do this by playing the role of Lady Who Likes Public Speaking. Seriously. I’ll tell myself: For the next hour, I’m going to act like someone who is having a damn good time up here. Sort of a fake it ’til you make it mentality.

If that doesn’t work, Ursula the Sea Witch is also a viable option.

8. Smile at your audience as they enter the room, and smile at them when you begin speaking. This will make you feel relaxed, confident, and connected.

This really works! If your smile is frozen on your face, it’s harder for the vomit to get out.

2 thoughts on “Public speaking tips to help you throw up less, maybe

  1. This is great! Really enjoy your writing style. But, it would be a whole lot funnier if I wasn’t an introvert about to give a public presentation that might just make me “urp” or barf a little in my mouth on my long fall face first into the ground. Ugh.

    1. Ha! Thank you! We’re in it together — I have another presentation tomorrow evening and the butterflies are in full force. I like to think that someday it will get easier. Until then, at least we know we’re not alone! Best of luck with your presentation!

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