How to ‘Speak Easy’

By Jennifer A. Schofield, M.Ed

Public speaking is Americans’ #1 fear.

Death is #4.

Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out that this means that at a funeral, most of us would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy!

Public speaking is not only our top fear, it’s also far and away the #1 most popular leadership development topic. I can relate – even after teaching hundreds of classes and speaking in front of groups sized 6 to 600, I still get nervous every single time. Admittedly, that adrenaline rush is part of the allure for me, and it’s manageable because I have honed some effective techniques over time. Here are my favorites:

1. Know your stuff.

Knowing a topic inside-out and top-to-bottom ensures you won’t be at a loss for words. Even if you stumble a bit, you’ll be able to easily regain your footing. Plus your audience will hear the confidence and authority in your voice.

2. Know your audience.

What do they already know about your topic? What do they want to know about it? If you are a realtor talking about the process for putting a house up for sale, knowing whether your audience understands the current market will inform what you speak about. Meeting your audience for the first time while you’re on stage? No problem! Ask for a show of hands to gauge where they are at.

3. Engage your audience.

A show of hands is just one technique. Use humor, rhetorical questions, 2- or 3-person discussion questions, or another activity to keep those minds engaged.

4. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice your presentation, and practice public speaking too. If possible, record yourself. The single most effective thing I have done to become a better speaker is to video record myself. The camera doesn’t lie – and doesn’t hide fidgeting, those “ums” or my own personal tendency to brush my hair out of my eyes. Video is simply the best way to objectively see your stage presence.

5. Get meaningful feedback

Most of us have a tendency to be too hard on ourselves. Ask a trusted colleague to observe you the next time you give a talk, and tell them what you are working on improving, whether that’s maintaining good eye contact, avoiding unnecessary repetition, or working on staying within your time limit. Whatever the skill you want to build, tell them ahead of time – and be sure to find out what you did well too.

6. Move your body to work off some of that adrenaline.

The quickest way to process that adrenaline is to move your muscles! If possible, do some quick squats or lunges to work your quads – our biggest muscle group. If that’s not available to you, find a wall or pillar and do some leaning push-ups while standing up. Or take a walk, climb a flight of stairs. That blood flow is good for your brain too!

7. Make a bulleted lists of your key points.

Rather than memorize word-for-word, memorize just your key points. This will keep your verbiage fresh and natural, instead of you sounding like an automaton. The two pieces you might want to memorize are the beginning and the end of your talk. Your confidence will grow once your opening rolls off your tongue, and you’re assured a strong finish with a few memorized sentences to wrap things up.

8. Join Toastmasters.

Like the above tip? I learned it at Toastmasters. Go online and drop in to visit the clubs near you. Shop around and find one you like – or create your own public speaking practice group with friends or colleagues.

9. Embrace your creature comforts.

Try and get a good night’s sleep. Even if you have trouble sleeping, know that you are still getting rest and you will still make it through the next day just fine. Use your favorite lavender-scented lotion, wear your lucky socks or your most flattering outfit. I have actor friends who have a ritual they do at every performance before going on stage. It might be voice exercises, walking a certain route through the lobby, or playing a trivia game with castmates. Whatever the routine, it settles the mind and normalizes their upcoming performance.

10. Know that your audience wants you to do well!

Think back to the last presentation you attended. You went in with hopes of learning something new, being inspired and maybe even enjoying yourself, right? Your audience is no different. They will give you a chance, all you have to do is get up there and take it!

I enjoy studying other speakers, and when I see something I like, I experiment with emulating it. I have curated a few jokes, borrowed a few gesticulations to punctuate my words, and am always trying to find the perfect analogies to underscore my objectives. Public speaking is just another muscle to develop, and flexing it can be quite fun!

Let us know in the comments - what were some of your best presentations, and what made them successful? Enjoy this blog post? Come work on your public speaking, and other high-impact leadership development skills at the Leadership With Soul Workshop offered March 28-29, 2019 in Redmond, Washington