The Uneasy Speaker's Guide to Confident Public Speaking

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Joe Chernov
Joe Chernov



Public speaking has never come easily to me. I recall a middle school assignment in which I attempted to demonstrate how to lace Adidas in Run-DMC style. My fingers trembled so badly that I never managed to slip the lace's aglet through the sneaker's eyelet. Yet despite my hard-wired uneasiness, for the past several years, public speaking has become an unavoidable part of my career.

view from back of person giving speech at podium in front of flashing lights

While I may never be able to turn "it" on as effortlessly as David Meerman Scott, the following pre-, mid-, and post-session process has helped me become a stronger and more comfortable presenter.

These tips didn't come from a textbook or public speaking class. They're the byproduct of at least a hundred speeches to audiences ranging from handfuls to hundreds. The real world, it turns out, is still the best teacher.

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How to Become a Great Public Speaker

1) Err on the side of over-prepared.

A speech can go wrong for any number of reasons. Technical issues, a poor topic/audience match, a mental freeze … these things happen. But there's only one "unforgivable" reason for a bad session: underpreparedness. Preparedness yields confidence, and confidence contributes to success. Think you're done preparing? Practice one more time. You'll thank yourself for it.

2) Buffer your talk with a song.

Thirty minutes prior to giving a speech, I peel off and listen to a song alone. Personally, I listen to something mellow, just to take the "edge" off. I imagine others might benefit from a high-energy track, though. In the end, it's less about the song itself than it is about creating a buffer that separates the preparation from the session. 

3) Attempt to greet everyone.

I borrowed this tip from professor Edward Tufte, who, before his information design seminars, greets every attendee with a handshake. As the audience files in, I introduce myself ("Hi, I'm Joe. Thanks for coming to my session.") to as many attendees as time allows. This process not only reduces the "stranger danger" impulse that can sometimes derail a talk, but it also warms the audience to you even before the presentation begins.

4) Nail the first minute.

It's much more difficult to straighten a bad session than it is to keep a good one on course. So, think hard about how you want to begin your speech. I tend to tell a relevant personal story or, if I'm speaking at a conference, chat about a related session I attended. The goal is to help the audience identify with me -- ideally, on a human level. I've seen others succeed by "wowing" the audience early. The key is setting the right trajectory early.

5) Find three friendly faces.

Effective speakers use body language, facial expressions, and eye contact to simulate a "connection" with each member of the audience. Early in a speech, I mentally divide the crowd into three segments -- left, center, right -- and find a receptive person in each section. The distribution allows me to continually shift my focus throughout the room, while the friendly faces serve as a comforting "home base" wherever I turn.

6) Honestly assess your strengths.

It's tempting to act like your favorite presenter, but audiences gravitate toward authenticity. Just because you may enjoy Dave McClure's irreverence or Andrew Davis' energy doesn't necessarily mean those styles will come naturally to you. Conduct an honest self-assessment (Are you more like a teacher or a coach? Is your attitude cavalier or conservative? Can you riff or do you prefer a script?), then amplify those characteristics on stage. 

Now you’ve done it. You’ve prepared, listened, greeted, and interacted … all in your own unique style. Now what?

Well, at the end of every speech, I ask myself, "If you had a do-over, would you take it?" Sometimes, the answer is, "Yes." If this happens, figure out why it went poorly and identify what you will do differently next time. Then get over it. Cut yourself some slack. Carrying baggage from one lousy talk into another is only going to start you in the red. Like rapper Joe Budden said, "Only fools trip over something that be behind 'em."

How do you prepare for public speaking events? Got any tips of your own that help you prepare well for speaking endeavors?

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Topics: Public Speaking

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