Among the most common (and strongest) fears among people is the fear of public speaking. Something happens when you feel all eyes upon you (either on a stage or in a classroom). This is different than when it is just your turn to contribute to a group discussion – YOU are the focus of everyone in the room.
While there are some who relish the spotlight, most of us tend to avoid calling attention to ourselves. In most environments, anonymity is preferred to attention.
However, when you are assigned to give a presentation, you needn’t worry yourself sick about it. The following list of tips (gleaned from those who regularly speak in front of an audience) is sure to provide some help in becoming a confident, able speaker.
1. Know your audience and tailor your presentation accordingly.
Even assigned topics can be transformed into engaging presentations when the speaker knows who they are with and directs the material and presentation appropriately. Nothing loses an audience more quickly than the belief that what they are hearing has no relevance to their current status (farmers typically don’t go to seminars about icebergs). If you are speaking to an audience who are experts in the topic you are discussing, provide current news, trends or status of ongoing projects in that field – you don’t need to cover well-documented data, you need to engage their minds.
2. Know your material thoroughly.
Nobody wants to listen to a fumbling speaker who keeps flipping pages or stuttering because they are not as familiar with their material as they should be. Once you prepare your talk, review all the facts until you can cite them without notes. Be the expert in the topic you present – sincerity and passion about your subject will add impact and engage the audience better than the best visual aids or humor. Rehearsal (for time and comfort) is vital for you as well. Include a take-away for the audience. Give them something to take with them – a new idea, application or perspective that challenges them. This will give your presentation that much more impact.
3. Posture and oral presentation are critical.
Stand tall, don’t slouch. Speak slower than normal (yes it will feel weird) and don’t fear the pause (3 seconds says “oops, I’m lost and need to regroup” while 7-10 seconds says “I just said something important that you need to contemplate for a moment – this is purposeful”). Eye contact adds impact, but if you truly can’t do that, speak just over their heads – to the back wall – while turning slowly from side to side. This will give the appearance that you are speaking to the entire room. Repeat your most important points; extra emphasis = impact.
DON’T READ YOUR NOTES – talk to the audience (not at them). Reading your notes to your audience says that you could have just published an essay and distributed it. Readers tend to keep a monotone (another speaker’s bane) and actually disrespect the audience by showing that they didn’t bother to prepare an interesting, conversational presentation (an immediate atmosphere killer). Vocal inflection is your best friend! Also, have a specific ending point and shut up when you are finished. If appropriate, run just 5-10 minutes short of your allotted time for Q&A (and always repeat every question asked for the benefit of those in the back) and thank the audience for their time – even if attendance was mandatory.
Note: Confidence in your material leads to confidence in your presentation. You are in control of the situation; take advantage of that position. Don’t rush in and start speaking the moment you arrive at the front of the room – take a moment to settle in (breathe in and out) before you launch. This will project an air of confidence in yourself and will lay a good foundation for audience engagement.
4. Visual aids can help or hinder your presentation.
Whether you use PowerPoint or overhead diagrams and pictures, visual aids will add impact to your presentation. Wells-crafted, uncluttered slides can enhance your discussion while complicated, outdated or blurry visuals can destroy the best presentation. Short answer: keep your visuals simple, brightly colored and relevant to the point at hand.
5. Use an attention-grabber to get things started.
Sharing an emotional story can help connect you to the audience. Presenting a completely random fact will throw them off and cause them to pay attention to you. Appropriate humor is the most common form of opener; if it’s been overdone, bring something different to your presentation. This will not only help you engage the audience, it will make your talk more memorable. If you are one speaker out of several, this tactic will help you stand out from the crowd.
6. Don’t “sell” the audience.
You are offering information and ideas, not signing folks up to buy a time-share. Your job is to inform, not to sell. There is a vast difference between salesmen and teachers; your audience knows the difference. At the end of your time, you want your audience to have new knowledge and be challenged by what they have heard, not beaten down and force-fed something they don’t want. While presentations are monologues by design, you need to present yourself conversationally.
7. Turn your body responses into positive energy.
Your body reacts physically to emotional stressful. Anxiety increases right before a public presentation; in a stressful state, you will not be able to read/respond to your audience and you will be in less control of your own physical presence. Get a good night’s sleep before your presentation as tired people do not function as well (despite how they think they do!). Take a short walk before your talk – a little light exercise will burn off some “nervous energy” and allow you to relax mind and body so that both will be under your full control. Then you will be at your physical best and your presentation will be excellent!