Panic-Free Public Speaking: Lessons We’ve Learnt From Great Presenters16 APR
For over a decade, brightfive’s Graphics Team have helped hundreds of speakers at countless events. We’ve produced and supported presentations for events of all shapes and sizes - from meeting rooms of 30 to stadiums of 10,000 - all over the world. In this time we really have seen it all. From truly exceptional speakers to...well...those who would certainly benefit from reading this article. Here we share some of the lessons we’ve learnt from great presenters, as well as the (equally important) ones we’ve learnt from the not-so-great.
Most of us find the idea of presenting, to even a small audience, horrifying. Fear of public speaking (or glossophobia) is very common. According to glossophobia.com, as many as 75% of people suffer from this anxiety and most claim they fear it more than death(!).
Yet, for many who reach a certain level in their organisation, public speaking becomes unavoidable. This is a daunting prospect for anyone, and many are quite suddenly expected to address an audience with little to no experience of presenting. No wonder they’re terrified!
There’s no magic way to make your nerves disappear. But, by being well prepared, you can make the experience a great deal easier.
A note on nerves
Feeling nervous before addressing an audience is normal. Even a seasoned actor steps on in the first act with butterflies in their stomach. Nerves can in fact improve your performance. The adrenaline gives you energy to perform and sharpens your mind, helping you remember your script and think fast on your feet during Q&A.
As Chris Anderson, TED Talks Curator, explains; “Nerves are not a disaster. The audience expects you to be nervous.” The audience, in general, are on your side. Everyone hates to see someone struggling on stage - the pain is palpable. They want you to do well and they will empathise with you for being, understandably, a little nervous.
So, give yourself one less thing to worry about - try not to get too nervous about being nervous!
Substance over style
No amount of confident stage-striding, convincing finger pointing or dramatic pausing can compensate for a bad script. Any speaker’s top priority should be producing decent content.
Your audience will forgive you for not being the slickest speaker, or fluffing the odd word. However, they will look less kindly on having their time wasted with a dull, ill-prepared or pointless presentation. Here are a few tips for writing a good script:
Keep it brief
Aim to write a script that is slightly shorter than your allotted time. This will allow time for you to answer any questions or add any points you may think of as you go. Don’t worry if you end up finishing early. Running a little short is not a problem, whereas overrunning can have big implications for the rest of the event.
Any audience will appreciate a shorter, more succinct presentation as opposed to a ramble. Which leads us to…
Don’t try to cover too much
It is better to focus on one point and explain it well, than to skip from point to point without ever saying much of anything. If you try to cover too much, you risk losing the attention of your audience. Realistically, they’re not going to remember everything you say. Identify 1-3 key messages you want them to take home and work on really communicating these.
Tell a story
As we are told time and again, people respond to narratives. Your presentation should be a balance between reporting (informative and data-rich) and storytelling (engaging and human). Narrative presentations follow a traditional linear story structure - beginning by setting the scene before introducing conflict, and explaining how this conflict was overcome resulting in a satisfactory ending. This structure can be employed to good effect to tell the story of a company, product or project. There is also a great deal of power in telling your own stories. A (relevant) personal anecdote can really engage an audience and get them on side.
Invest time in writing a good presentation, the rest will follow. If you have confidence in what you’re presenting, you will present it with confidence.
Use (don’t abuse) technology
Presentation software, PowerPoint in particular, gets an unfair amount of flak. Whilst it’s true that a bad PowerPoint does you absolutely no favours, a good one can help to keep your audience engaged and drive home key messages.
We’ve written before about creating effective PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, so I shan’t go into great lengths about it. Instead, here are a few tips to help you use technology to improve your performance:
Don’t hide behind your slides
I mean this both literally (d’uh) and figuratively. Your slides are there to back you up, but you are the main act.
Don’t put your entire script on screen, your audience will end up reading, not listening. Avoid distractions such as crowded slides, sound effects and too many quick changes. Ensure your slides are relevant - if your script and slides appear to be at cross-purposes this is, clearly, very confusing. In short, make sure your slides are working for, not against, you.
Learn your lines
Oh, we’ve said it before and I’m sure we’ll say it again - don’t use your slides as an autocue. There’s little a speaker can do which is more off-putting than repeatedly turning away from their audience to read their slides.
Reading on stage generally isn’t the best plan. When an audience is aware that you’re reading aloud they immediately feel distanced from you. This is no longer a conversation, but one-way communication. It’s always preferable to learn your script by heart. You can always use simple bullet points to remind you of your key points - either on cards or a screen (for your eyes only).
If learning your script isn’t possible, you’ll need to use autocue. Autocue can be a great tool, and it’s really easy to use. But, it’s vital that you’re briefed by the experts and that you’ve practiced with it before you step onstage.
Presenting is a skill. This is good news as - even if your previous attempts to speak in public were less than successful - with practise, you can improve. Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself before speaking:
Learn how to use your voice
Your voice is a tool, probably one you've never learnt to use to its full potential.
Using vocal warm ups and experimenting with pitch, volume, pace and intonation can help you become a more engaging public speaker. In this great TED Talk, Sound Consultant, Julian Treasure explains how becoming familiar with your vocal toolbox can greatly improve your speaking.
If the resource is available to you, a consultation with a Speaker Trainer is the ideal way to learn.
Practise, practise, practise
This seems like a rather obvious point, but it is probably the most important one. You need to practise. Learn your speech inside out. Practise in front of a supportive audience and get feedback from any experienced presenters you know. The confidence that comes with really knowing your script will be reflected on stage.
Use your nervous energy positively
We’ve seen many presenters become so pumped with adrenaline and nervous energy that they just have to do SOMETHING. Unfortunately, that ‘something’ is often changing their content! Ask yourself - are changes essential? Last-minute changes carry associated risk. Remember - it’s not only you who is now familiar with your content. Your Showcaller and their Graphics, Video and Sound colleagues have all rehearsed and may not have time to rehearse again with your last-minute changes.
Keep busy by going somewhere quiet and rehearsing, either by yourself or with a trusted colleague.
Learn to calm yourself
If nerves are an issue for you, learn some calming breathing techniques you can practise backstage. This article has two to try (you can do these alone - no need for partners as it suggests). A few tongue twisters (yes, like ‘She Sells Sea Shells’) will also help to keep nerves at bay. These have the added bonus of getting the muscles in your mouth and tongue warmed up.
Get on stage
There isn’t always the possibility of rehearsing in your performance space, but if that opportunity is available to you - take it. People tend to feel more nervous in unfamiliar settings, so getting to know the space can help you relax on stage.
Make sure you’ve checked who is going to introduce you (so you can thank them) and whether you’re introducing the presenter following you. Also check if you’re expected to mention any housekeeping information (such as a coffee break) at the end of your presentation. Understanding what’s required of you early will help eliminate those last minute panics.
It is also helpful to practise with any technology you will be using on the day. If you are speaking with an on-screen presentation, ensure you understand how this is being run. Are you operating it from your laptop? Are you using a remote? If someone is operating the slides for you, are they following your script for cues, or are you cueing them with a remote? If you are using a comfort monitor or autocue, make sure your know where to look.
If possible, meet the people supporting your show. Who is in charge of your microphone, who is operating your slides, who is running the autocue? A quick chat with each of these people can be very helpful. They can answer any technical questions or concerns you have, and it is reassuring to know who to turn to if you do encounter any problems. We’re generally a pretty friendly bunch.
The moment of truth
This is it, time to take the stage. If you’ve followed this advice, you’ll know your presentation back to front by now and have a good understanding of your tech works. So, all you need to do is get through the next X minutes!
We tend to speak quickly and breathlessly when we’re under pressure. Make an effort to pace yourself and breathe. You may feel like you’re speaking unnaturally slowly. This is most likely a sign you’re speaking at exactly the right pace.
Don’t fear silence
Another habit of nervous speakers is to fill every silence. They race through their script to avoid any lulls, and use fillers to plug any gaps (‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘err’, etc). Silence is not the enemy; a pause can be powerful. Silence allows room for a point to sink in and invites the audience to respond - to laugh, think or question.
Make eye contact
This is one of the older tricks in the book for good reason. Find a handful of friendly-looking faces in the front few rows and address your speech to these individuals. You will appear more engaged and genuine - like you’re actually speaking your audience, rather than reciting lines.
Be (as) natural (as possible)
Easier said than done, I know. What I mean here is this - many great speakers are quite physical. They are so passionate about what they’re talking about, it is expressed with their body as well as their voice. They stride about and use their hands and this works very well for them.
However, if this kind of spontaneous movement doesn’t come naturally, don’t force it. If you are consciously mimicking the hand gestures of Steve Jobs, it will look awkward and it will distract both you and the audience. If movement doesn’t feel right then don’t move - take a firm stance and try to avoid drifting or nervous pacing.
Try to enjoy yourself
Finally, try to enjoy the experience. I’m not saying it is always going to be wholly pleasant. This may still be the most stressful thing you can imagine, but encourage yourself to see the positives. Here is your chance to share your work, opinions or even your passions with a willing audience. If you’ve made the effort to produce a quality presentation, this is something to feel really good about. As TED’s Chris Anderson says
“A successful talk is like a little miracle - people see the world differently afterwards”.