For a high school video production class, I hosted a live TV segment that was broadcast on our local cable channel. I sat at a desk in our little makeshift news studio to report on a popular security guard at the school and his impact on students’ day-to-day lives. Other students adjusted the cameras and made sure the sound levels were right. At 10:30 am on the dot, we went live. I still vividly remember the feeling of getting the first few lines out coherently, and then…
It felt like someone hit the eject button on my brain and everything emptied out instantaneously. I stared blankly at the camera trying to remember what I was going to say next, wishing I could disappear down a dark hole. Finally, after what felt like a year, I remembered my next line. I got back into a rhythm and was able to finish the segment. When I finally brought myself to watch the tape weeks later, the pause was only 10 seconds of dead air, though it had felt like an eternity in my head.
Most of us have a story about public speaking gone horribly wrong. These experiences can scare people into thinking they are never going to be good at it, but I don’t think this is true.
Over the course of my career, I’ve presented to over a hundred large and small groups on various topics. With practice, I’ve learned how to transform this terrifying activity into one that feels exhilarating. That scary, intense feeling has never gone away, however, I figured out how to block out the noise, channel my adrenaline, and deliver something I’m proud of each time.
I want to share four basic things to focus on before a big or important event where you have to speak publicly, whether that’s a presentation to a large audience or a performance review with just one or two people.
1. What’s the (Main) Point?
Pick two or three key facts that you want to get across, and make sure you emphasize and repeat them. What feels repetitive to you, will help your audience. Not only does the repetition help the information sink in, but in reality, your audience might miss the key message if you only say it once! If there is a presentation component, include pictures or text prompts in your slide deck or on index cards for specific jokes or facts that you want to make sure to get in.
When I presented on home energy conservation, I wanted to make sure that people knew that different appliances use drastically different amounts of electricity. So I made sure to have a slide with pictures of a power strip and an energy meter. Seeing this prompted me to tell a personal story about when I tested each device in my home entertainment center and was surprised to see how much energy my television used compared to the others.
You want these key points to be the first thing an audience member thinks of if someone asks them, “What was that about?”
2. “What’s in it for me?”
Is it a room full of middle-aged employees attending a mandatory training, or a group of passionate volunteers in their early 20’s hanging on your every word? Those two audiences will react very differently, so you need to tailor what you say appropriately. You need to think about what’s in it for them.
For example, when I spoke about home energy, I focused on different topics for three distinct audiences:
- For homeowners, I focused on major upgrades like adding insulation and replacing furnaces or water heaters.
- For renters, I stuck to easy, DIY options like LED lights and power strips.
- For Realtors, I framed the same information as “resources for your clients” and emphasized increases in home value from energy improvements.
3. Slacks or Jeans?
You also need to consider your role and how you want your audience to perceive you. Think about the tone you want to strike – self-deprecating, serious, playful, or professional? Do you want to be viewed as a peer? An expert? Comic relief?
Try to reflect this in the way you dress, the introduction you are given before your turn to speak, and in your energy on stage. These things should be in alignment so you present a cohesive picture to your audience that fits with the words coming out of your mouth.
A perfect example of this dynamic comes from my previous job. I had two separate events aimed at building contractors. At the first event, I was presenting important information to them, so I wanted to project some authority. I wore a nice pair of slacks and a long sleeved dress shirt to contrast their jeans and work boots. For the second event, I was facilitating a conversation, so I dressed down in jeans and sneakers to blend in with the contractors.
4. Be Your Own Audience
It helps to perform the presentation a few times aloud before you do it for real. Just saying the words out load is a great start. It helps you discover and remove awkward phrasing (“did I just say THAT?!?” is better at home than in front of a large group), and gets your brain thinking about the content in fresh, creative ways. You want the words to flow naturally when you are in front of your audience, striking a balance between memorization and freestyling.
Grab a roommate, family member, pet, or poster on the wall, and go for it! Having someone who can provide feedback can be helpful, but the most important thing is just saying the words a few times.
One Last Thing…
Stand-up comedians, who do arguably the hardest version of public speaking, frequently talk about “working out” their joke muscles on stage multiple times per night. Throughout an evening of short sets, they tell the same joke to different audiences to dial in the timing and emphasis until they are delivering it exactly right to make it as funny as possible.
When you see a comedian’s hour-long special on TV, filmed in a big theater, it is the result of hours and hours and hours of practice and refinement in small clubs. Give yourself that same advantage! “Work out” your presentation muscles as much as possible before you get onto the big stage, so you have it down solid.
I still feel nervous every time I get in front of a crowd of people and all eyes and ears turn to me. That rush of adrenaline has never gone away. However, I know that I have prepared properly and set myself up for success. With plenty of practice (no shortcuts there), instead of the “eject” button, my brain hits “play” and I slip into the rhythm of my presentation. It’s never easy, but hopefully these tips will reduce the fear and anxiety around public speaking, and let you focus on delivering a fantastic, memorable experience for your audience.
Image: “Stump Speaking” by George Caleb Bingham (1854)
Lou’s background is in outreach for environmental programs. He is currently working toward becoming a corporate trainer focusing on employee engagement. He’ll be back on Small Answers soon with thoughts for the day of your presentation.