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Posted over 2 years ago

Public Speaking: Lessons Learned and Some Advice

I don’t consider myself an expert at public speaking, but I was recently reminded that I’m probably better at it than I give myself credit for. I’ve been complimented in the past, and again recently for appearing both confident and comfortable in front of a group.

As our class recently gave presentations, I found myself noticing some students speaking quickly, some reciting facts, others engaging the audience, and others reading from their notes while avoiding eye contact entirely. Many people struggle with public speaking, and it can be even more difficult when the expectation is that you’re not supposed to use any notes.

Personal Background

Like most people, my experience with public speaking began by making class presentations as early as elementary and high school. Beyond the traditional class assignments though, I’ve had a series of other “opportunities” to practice speaking in public. Of course, I didn’t exactly think of them as opportunities at the time.

Outside of the classroom, I ran a few extracurricular activities in college, which meant having to periodically speak in front of a group, sometimes even using a microphone. I led a networking group where I would sometimes be the featured speaker, but at the least would make some announcements and introduce a guest speaker. When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, I gave a speech to about 5000 people at my commencement ceremony. I also spent two years teaching at a community college, which meant having to speak in front of multiple classes two or three times a week. If that wasn’t enough, I also taught a few continuing education courses and made a few presentations to potential investors at conferences around the country.

It's only when I take the time to list out these experiences that I realize how many there were. I never thought of myself as a naturally gifted public speaker, but the summation of these experiences has certainly made me more comfortable in front of an audience.

Still, I’m not ashamed to admit that before giving a speech or presentation I still feel anxious. I worry about taking up too much or too little time. I worry that I’ll trip over my words or leave out some key piece of information. But once I stand up and start talking, the nerves usually go away.

Tips and Suggestions

One tip that I can offer is that I don’t think about the entire group that I’m speaking to. I focus instead on individuals, much the same way you would in a social setting. Picture yourself speaking with a group of two other people. Do you look past them? Do you stare down at the ground as you talk? Do you pick one person and stare a hole through them? Most likely, you make eye contact with one person for a few moments and then move your gaze on to the other person. You move your head back and forth in order to keep both people engaged.

I do the same thing when speaking to a group. Instead of looking at the entire group or blankly staring beyond them, I pick out individuals to briefly connect with. I’ll find one person who appears to be paying attention and look at them briefly. Then I move my gaze around the room in search of someone else.

Doing this keeps me from becoming consciously aware of the fact that all these eyes are focused on me. My attention is on only one person at a time. This approach also makes people in your audience feel like you’re actively engaging them, whether that’s your intention or not.

When I started teaching, I worried about pacing myself. If I was teaching a class that was three hours long, I didn’t want to end after just 45 minutes. Likewise, if I was given 90 minutes, I couldn’t cover two hours of material. I also knew that with that much content and multiple classes every week, that there was no way to memorize everything I wanted to say.

I started off by printing out my PowerPoint slides and making little bullet point notes that would serve as reminders for what I wanted to say when I got to each slide. I would glance down at my “cheat sheet” and then look back at the class until I needed another prompt. Sometimes the notes got fairly long and were less like bullet points and more like short paragraphs.

As with most things in life, I got better over time and with practice. I also learned a few things that at first may seem somewhat counterintuitive. For example, it’s easy to overprepare. If you try to plan out every little detail and exactly how you plan to say what you want to say, you’ll probably end up making things harder on yourself.

If you’re giving a short talk, it’s easy enough to memorize what you want to say, but as your presentation gets longer, memorization no longer works.

Speaking of memorization, I attended a workshop several years back intended to train people who are preparing to be interviewed on television. Many people don’t realize that the interviews you see on television, especially on the morning news shows, are usually planned in advance. The reporter is given a set of questions to ask. Often these questions come directly from the guest who then has their answers prepared ahead of time. Interviewing someone about a book they just wrote isn’t the same as interviewing and questioning a politician about their policies on the late-night cable news channels. They want you to look good.

In the workshop, we were taught to memorize our answers. We were told to record ourselves answering the questions and then play it back on an endless loop for days. Listen to it in the shower, in the car, while eating, and as you fall asleep. Listen to it, repeat it, and practice it relentlessly until it becomes second nature. Because most morning show segments are only a few minutes long, memorization was an option, and one that has helped many nervous guests get their words out.

But if it’s any longer than a few minutes, and especially if you have slides to show, then using prompts is a much easier method. Most people, myself included, have a tendency to put way too much on their slides. We do this because we want to provide as much information as possible for our audience. But we also do it because we anticipate being nervous. If you’re nervous, your slides can be a crutch, reminding you what to talk about. The problem is that too many people simply read their slides.

When you put slides up on a screen, your audience will usually read the slides first and then pay attention to you. So, if you’re simply reading your own slides, you’re just repeating to your audience what they just read. A better approach is to keep your slides short and simple. Your audience will quickly take in the slide and then focus back on you. But what about the whole being anxious thing and worrying that you won’t know what to say?

Another piece of advice that I can offer is to focus less on facts and more on concepts. If you try to tell your audience a bunch of facts and statistics, you’ll have to either memorize them or read them off your slides. But if you’re teaching concepts and using examples, you’ll only need a prompt.

You can put statistics and facts on your slides, but then discuss the ideas behind the facts. For example, you could put up a statistic that reads, “according to the CDC only 19% of people wash their hands after using the bathroom”. Instead of reading it word by word, talk about it. Talk about how disgusting that fact is. Talk about why you think it is that so many people don’t wash their hands when we all know we’re supposed to. Letting your audience read your slides releases you from the burden of having to memorize those facts and figures. You can then take your time to speak about the significance of them.

Another way to do basically the same thing is to spend time defining words. You’ve researched your material and you know the content, but your audience doesn’t. Therefore, if you see a single key word on your slide, it should serve as a prompt for you to define that word and perhaps provide an example. Examples are great, because you don’t have to use the same one every time. As long as you know that you can come up with at least one, whichever example you use in the moment will work.

Remember also, that pictures can serve as prompts as well as words. You can include a picture on a slide that’s intended to remind you to explain something. Instead of picking a random picture just to fill empty space on your slide, pick a meaningful image, or even a chart/graph. In the example above, instead of using a picture of a bathroom sink you might use a picture of paper towels. That could prompt you to talk about the folly of washing your hands and then opening the door and touching a dirty handle. Instead, using a paper towel to open the door is a more hygienic option.

Stories are another great approach. They’re easier to remember and again the wording doesn’t have to be exact for you to get your message across. Stories also serve to engage your audience and hold their attention. They can be a great way to break up the monotony of presenting facts. Using a picture that reminds you to tell a relevant story can be an effective way to solidify your point.

I was teaching a class on aging once and wanted to make a point. My slide had a picture of an older man holding a hammer in front of his house. I told the story of this man who decided to add a fence to his property. He called a few contractors but felt they were asking too much money for the job. So, this 85 year old man went to a home improvement store the next day. Once there, he bought a bunch of supplies, having decided to build his own fence. I told the story about how he spent hour after hour working on the fence all weekend long, digging holes and tamping down posts. I then mentioned that come Monday morning this man found himself in the operating room of the local hospital.

Everyone made the conclusion that at 85, he had clearly overdone it with the manual labor and likely had a heart attack. But I had a different point. At that moment I stopped using the man’s first name and referred to him by his title… that of doctor. I never said that this man was a patient. He was in the operating room because he was a surgeon. This led into my lecture about the aging process that included several additional examples of stereotypes about older adults.

My students were all engaged by the story and likely remember that story better than the graph I showed afterwards.

Using props is another technique that I’ve used in the past. Just like a bullet point or a picture on a slide, a prop can serve as a prompt. It also gives you something to focus your own attention on if you’re feeling anxious looking at your audience. Have you ever been nervous about something and found that playing with something in your hands helps? Not only that, but a prop gives your audience something to look at, pulling their attention off of you, even if just for a moment.

In fact, when I took that television interviewing workshop, they encouraged us to use props, using them like notecards when possible. My business partner used a baseball as a prop and wrote three words on the ball, so that both the ball itself and the words written on it would prompt him about what to say next. That baseball was a two-for-one prompt.

The anxiety that comes with public speaking may persist, but there are ways to reduce your anxiety and make your presentations a little more comfortable. Practice and experience clearly make a difference, but sometimes a few small tricks can also help. The next time you find yourself speaking in front of a group, feel free to use one of the tips described here such as focusing on concepts over facts, telling a story, using props as prompts, or focusing on one person in the audience instead of looking out at the entire crowd as a giant sea of eyeballs. Also, don’t try to revamp your entire presentation style at once. Trying one tip or trick at a time and figuring out what works best for you is a more effective and natural approach.

Comments (1)

  1. Mark, Great suggestions and examples!

    I am a big fan of

    There are clubs all over the world!

    Learn and practice speaking with like-minded friends.