5 Ways to Keep Calm and Speak On
I remember the first time I spoke in public after leaving school. I was terrified.
It was in my early days of radio and the station I was working for was trying to get more people listening at work, so we had a contest where a winning office got a night out with dinner and drinks at a local watering hole. It was my job as host to greet people, make sure they had a good time (but not too good if you know what I mean) and say a few words to thank everyone for coming and tell them what was planned for the evening.
I started to speak to the group of about 20 people and suddenly realized it was nothing like talking on the air every day to thousands of listeners. My voice was strained; I stumbled and had no idea of what to do with my hands, which seemed to be getting sweatier by the second.
I learned that day why speaking in public makes so many people dread it. But I’ve also learned why people with that fear can overcome it.
What Are They Thinking?
I started to wonder why I got so nervous speaking to such a small group of people when the ratings numbers showed that when I did the news, or a talk daily talk show thousands of people were listening. It didn’t take me long to realize the difference was easy to understand. I sat in a dark room by myself reading the news and could never see what the reaction of anyone in the audience was. All of a sudden I had 20 people looking at me as I spoke and I didn’t know what they were thinking, but I feared it wasn’t good.
When I work on presentation skills with groups of people, one of the first things I let them know is the need to be prepared for a bunch of people looking at you and not saying a thing. It’s your job to speak when you make a presentation and it’s theirs to listen. The problem with that is, you’re not sure what they’re thinking.
Do they like me? Do they like what I’m saying? What do they think about the way I look? Or how about the way I’m dressed? These are all questions that quickly go through the mind of the inexperienced speaker.
I remember speaking a couple of years ago and a man sitting right in front of me had a copy of the morning newspaper spread out on the table in front of him as he read it from front to back. When I saw what he was doing I got offended at first. After all, I was speaking, but didn’t want it to affect what the job I was doing. I continued to look around the room to keep eye contact with the audience and when I got to his table I looked at him the same way I looked at everyone else. It wasn’t easy and frankly it’s much easier to look at people who give you positive feedback when you speak. The problem with that is, as a speaker you tend to focus too much on a few people in the audience and don’t maintain enough eye contact with others in the room.
Regardless of whether you have a written speech or you’ve rehearsed one that that will allow you to ad lib without using any notes, the biggest challenge for most new speakers is dealing with silent reaction from the audience. I supposed it won’t help any if I also add that most people in an audience will decide in the first 30 seconds if they like a speaker or don’t. They don’t make that decision consciously; it’s just something that happens. It’s human nature. The trick is to get more people liking you than disliking you.
5 Things to Keep Your Cool
Now that I’ve likely saddened anyone who has to make a speech or presentation in the next few weeks, let me give you five things that can help you avoid getting nervous when you speak.
1. Get Experience Any Way You Can
People who speak a lot may get a little nervous, but in most cases they look forward to the chance to speak and their feeling is more one of excitement than fear. They want to get started. I’ve rarely heard of people who speak on a regular basis to get overly nervous. At times, based on different circumstances, they may get a little nervous, but it’s not anything people in the audience can detect. I know it’s a chicken and egg thing, but the more experience you get, the better you’ll do.
2. Be Prepared
Being prepared gives you confidence and the more confidant you are will help in keeping you calm as you speak. At times I get a little on edge when I realize something is out of order with my slide deck, or perhaps I forgot to review something I had planned on. Nobody ever regretted being overly prepared, so take as much time as you need before you speak to make sure you’re ready to go.
3. Be a Greeter
A great tip I’ve learned is to be in the room early, get set up and ready to go. That gives you a chance to talk to people in the audience in advance, get to know their names and chat about everything from how they’re enjoying the conference (if there's one going on), to where they’re from, to the weather. The more people you “know” before you speak the more confident you’ll become. You also never know when a conversation you had with one of them will fit nicely with your presentation.
4. Engage the Audience
The best way to take the total spotlight off you is put it on people in the audience. At the right times ask questions of those in the audience, or get somebody to share their thoughts on a topic. Another trick I’ve seen came from a speaker who pretended on a couple of occasions to forget the name of a well known movie and let the audience fill in the blanks for him. There are all kinds of ways to get the audience involved, just don’t get too cute or overdo it. Asking for a show of hands from the audience too often gets awkward.
5. Let Them Applaud
When you finish, wrap up with a strong ending, thank the audience for attending and then stop. This is the point to let the audience applaud. I’ve seen too many speakers who weren’t sure how to end, so they said something like “That’s all I have – any questions”? When you do this, it doesn’t give the audience a chance to applaud at the end. Applause brings closure to your speech. After you take some questions, thank the audience again and head off the stage. It’s a great way to provide closure to the speech.
By the way, if nobody has any questions - don’t beg. I’ve seen some good presentations end awkwardly because the speaker stood on stage for too long begging for questions. If nobody has a question a few seconds after you’ve invited questions, simply say “Great, thanks again” and get off the stage.
One final thought.
It’s completely normal to be nervous the first few times you speak. We’re all worried about rejection, or messing up. Remember though, there will be very few people in any audience who want to change places with you. They know it’s not easy standing in front of a crowd and speaking.
Just don’t think of people in the audience naked. I never figured out how that’s supposed to help any speaker.
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