Sunday 20 July 2014

Public speaking - How to nail it.

I am not a good public speaker.  I do it and I get good feedback but that is because I try, try and try.  It is not natural.  However, last year I came runner up in a University speech competition for PhD students. Part of why I entered is because it is a weakness of mine, hence represented a real challenge for me personally. Participating required mastering several personal weaknesses.

What most people don't know is that I froze during the heats.  Yip, I had that moment when the mental lights go out and you just stare at the crowd.  Absolutely horrible - the brain was switched off/blank.  The crowd stared back, because they were just as nervous as I was and our combined nervousness just ground the proceedings to a halt.   It was possibly one of the worst moments of my life.  I had worked so hard, only to fail due to nerves.

Somehow I made the finals.  I knew than that I HAD to nail the final speech in order to get my confidence back or else live with the fear of freezing forever.  Here is how I did it.

The basics in order of importance:

1.  Connection.
You must talk 'with' your audience not 'at' your audience.  Doesn't matter how good the rest is - this is EVERYTHING.  A speech, presentation, talk, or whatever, is a dialogue, not a monologue - master this and you will never fail.

2.  No notes
Do not use notes.  They disconnect you from the audience.  Better to forget some content than lose the connection.  You may mess up your first few talks without notes but you will quickly master it.

3.  Vary your voice.
Pitch, tone, pace, volume,  rhythm. These are the tools of the trade.  Think of the audience like a toy car that needs to be pushed along the floor.  You need to give a big push to get it going, it coasts on momentum, but then slows, then you push again and off it goes, then slows.  This is what is happening to your audience's concentration.  They need regular pushes (surprises), your voice is part of this.

4.  Clear message
Structure the talk, know where you are in it and what points you must make.  Think about how the audience will hear and comprehend your content.  The message should include heart, information, and data.  Get the order right (heart first always).

5.  Move your body
Movements must be discernible - we live in a visual world - move when you practice. Face the crowd always, but move, move, move.  But, Do NOT, ever, turn your back to the crowd, even to look at a data show - its like hanging up the phone.  Point and gesture, but do not break the connection.

The stuff they never tell you

1.  Don't sit with the nervous people.  Fear spreads, nerves spread.  Emotional energy is contagious.  Do not go near nervous people before performing - isolate yourself physically if possible, mentally at all costs.

2. Dominate
Be the ego.  Does Kanye West get nervous?  Nope- in fact you are darn lucky he even showed up. Cultivate this attitude, don't advertise it, but get this attitude.  Your audience will appreciate it.  They want the ego, they want confidence, they want a show.  Give it to them.  Don't be Uriah Heap - a creepy David Copperfield character who pretends to be humble.

3.  It is a cultivated skill not a gift
You have to work at it.  Sometimes you will nail it, other times it'll be terrible - the main thing is to review and always think about how to improve.

4.  Chin - keep it up, figuratively and literally.  Literally - Stand tall and look out, never down.  Figuratively -You are never as good as people tell you and never as bad as you think you were.

5.  Memorise the beginning part of your talk and use this time to engage your audience.  Use the spare mental space to connect.   Move from monologue to dialogue as fast as humanly possible. Use a 'hook' to make this happen - a hook is a speech device designed to capture and engage the audience.

6.  Find three people in the crowd, right-side, middle, left-side and talk to each of them equally.  This gives the impression of addressing your whole audience.

I hate this picture, but it is proof that I conquered some demons that day.


  1. Great tips... Super practical. And nice blog post. I think you're channelling some James Altucher here. Well done.

  2. Ha ha, I'm trying to avoid being like James. This blog post is the result of being busy - otherwise it would have turned into the usual fourteen page novel. But, interestingly, I was thinking that each of the points could actually make up the content of a workshop and be turned into assessments for feedback.

    Could be a great workshop in there.