Public speaking is usually thought of as delivering a speech to a large group of people. But public speaking is also having a business conversation with your supervisor, persuading your spouse to go to the movie you want to see, speaking up at staff meeting and asking questions about the menu in a crowded restaurant.
Most people are afraid of public speaking because they don’t want to look stupid, sound scared or make a fool of themselves. Mark Twain, the American author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, said “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars”.
Here are seven tips for improving your speaking skills:
1. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally. You have to practice. Even something as simple as persuading your spouse to see the movie you have been wanting to see gets better with practice. Lenny Laskowski, a professional speaker and member of the National Speakers Association points out that Proper preparation and rehearsal can help to reduce this fear by about 75%.
2. Don’t rehearse in front of a mirror. That’s not what you’ll see when you are speaking. Rehearse by speaking the words you want to say out loud. You can do this while driving, in the shower, or while doing dishes. You’ll want to say the words out loud to hear how they sound, to work on breathing and to gain confidence.
3. It’s not about you. You are doing the speaking, sure, but the point of your speaking is directed at an audience–strangers or co-workers. How can you reach them best? What phrases are they familiar with? What examples will they understand? I once wanted to make an important point, and chose to emphasize it with a classic Greek quote from the poet Homer, who wrote The Odyssey. I spoke the quote with all seriousness, then saw, to my panic, that no one had ever heard it before. “It’s Homer,” I said, hoping to make myself clear. A young woman in my audience looked at me quizzically. “Homer Simpson said that?” she asked. Use words, examples, metaphors and references your audience knows.
4. Ask questions. Often speakers think they have to have all the answers. If you are speaking to your supervisor, you may need information. This can be uncomfortable, as you have to risk admitting you don’t know something, maybe something you should know. Instead of starting out with “I know I should know this, but I don’t. . .” start with, “I’d like to ask you a question about the marketing plan you mentioned last month. . .” People like to feel like experts. If you give the question context up front, your supervisor will be able to follow along and answer your question.
5. Speak briefly; start with the main point. A common mistake people make in staff meeting it to start with a long explanation or background. The audience becomes impatient waiting for the punch line. The room gets noisy with coughs and people shifting in their seats, or rattling papers. That makes the speaker nervous and defensive. Saying something like, “I hate to keep asking this, but. . .” doesn’t help you get heard. It tells people about your insecurity.
- Start with the main point, “I have a question about our budget.”
- Then put some context in. “On page 4, the second paragraph says that we may be laying off people. . .”
- Finally, frame your specific question. “Will this affect our department?”
Then wait for an answer. If you want someone specific to answer your question, ask the person at the beginning of the question, not at the end.
If someone asks you a question, break eye contact and give yourself a few seconds to think through the answer. This avoids space fillers, such as “ahhhh” and “ummm,” or even poor answers like, “Why would you ask me that question?”
6. Don’t use the word “why.” Asking someone why they used that PowerPoint presentation, gave their article to the webmaster, or other specific questions make people defensive. Avoid saying “Why did you do that?” or “Why did you think that was a good idea?” Instead, say, “Could you tell me more about that?” or “How did you get to that decision?” Asking for more information or a specific point without the question “why” will get you more information and less anger.
7. Prepare for small speeches and big ones. This article started with that suggestion, and I’ll end with it. Practice at least three times. The first time you practice, you’ll discover words you don’t want to use. The second time, you can hear where you need to put in more proof statements or examples, and the third time builds confidence.
Speaking in public takes practice and patience, but it pays off quickly. Try one of the tips above at the next meeting and see if you don’t do a better job of speaking. Now you are on your way.
–Quinn McDonald is a life- and certified creativity coach who helps people develop and deliver speeches.