One of the things emerging leaders often ask for help with is public speaking. Frequently, I’ve worked with those who were great in their individual contributor role, who suddenly found themselves front and center as a leader. Many were from the technical arena, and the idea of standing before their peers was paralyzing. As introverts, they are much more at ease in a test lab or quietly working in their cubicle. If you recognize yourself in this description, this article was written for you. My colleague, Deanna Murphy, often reminds us that “there is no comfort in the growth zone and no growth in the comfort zone”. Believe it or not, you can learn to present to groups and even enjoy it using these strategies.
“There is no comfort in the growth zone and no growth in the comfort zone” -DeAnna Murphy
- Remember to breathe. By taking deep breaths, drawing air in all the way to beneath your ribcage, you regulate the calming centers of your brain. And a side bonus is that this forces you to slow down. Pacing comfortably for those listening is crucial to their understanding of your message. And speaking too fast in the attempt to “get it over with” is a common rookie error.
- Keep a bottle of water within reach. You do this so when your mouth gets dry (and it will), you can breathe, take a sip of water, and carry on. This helps you be more natural and give listeners an opportunity to catch up with any notes they might be taking.
- Make eye contact with different people in the room. Look for receptive listeners or friendly faces to the right, to the center, front, back and left of your field of vision. If eye contact makes you uncomfortable, you can focus between their eyebrows, and no one will never know the difference.
- Organize for ease of memory. As you prepare your presentation, think in terms of the broad strokes you want to paint for your group. It’s truly helpful for you and for them to put a manageable structure in place, like three major points, or five areas to consider. If you keep those major points to five or fewer, you can remember them using the fingers on one hand as you practice; this physical anchoring helps memory. As you plan your talk, think about what you most want the listener to take away. If you keep it simple and structured in this way, you likely won’t require notes, which will make your presentation more natural and allow your personality to shine through.
- Don’t hide with slides. If you can avoid using slides, your audience will feel more connected to you and you with them. Sometimes slides are unavoidable, like when you share data. If there’s a way to use a flip pad or a whiteboard, those are more engaging than slides, which can mesmerize people into a stupor and prevent you from owning the points you want to share. In small meetings especially, people feel more involved and engaged without slides.
- Use body language to your advantage. Your information comes alive when you use your gestures and stance to illustrate the words you’re speaking. Think about the phrase “I called for a timeout” with the speaker’s arms hanging limply at his sides. Now compare that with the image of someone adding the body language of a timeout that referees use. The second image has more impact. A word of caution: sometimes nervous speakers pace back and forth, which becomes distracting. Moving around naturally is encouraged, but avoid pacing or any repetitive movement that might call attention away from your message.
- Use vocal variety. We’ve all heard speakers who talk in a monotone. Allow your voice to follow the energy of the words you’re using: “I was so FRUSTRATED!” is much more captivating than if it were delivered with the same intonation on each word. Remember to pause slightly from time to time to allow a surprising or revealing point to land fully.
- Share meaningful content. Find a way to share and convey the BIG WHY of your presentation that is authentic and meaningful to you. This is a good place to interject a short personal story illustrating how or why what you’re sharing is important to you personally. Begin to collect personal stories and anecdotes that illustrate points you’d like to make. You can jot them down in a few words for later use, and these will help your audience enjoy your material while relating to you on a more personal level. This practice deepens connection and will improve your speaking style. Often, a point illustrated in this way helps listeners put information into practical terms they can relate to and remember.
- End with a call to action. Finally, give your listeners a step to take to move from the knowing phase to the doing phase. How would you like them to respond? Make it easy for them to know what is expected or what their options are. Let’s say there’s a new project you are briefing your group on. Before they leave, find out who wants to take ownership or make a contribution to each part of the plan. If you’re making a sales presentation, be sure to clarify next steps before walking away. Have more resources you can point to for anyone who wants to go deeper into the material you presented: websites, books, etc.
When you have meaningful ideas to share and a guideline to help structure your delivery, that takes away much of the worry aspect of speaking. Nothing, however, helps as much as simply doing it often until it feels more natural. I practiced in a safe environment with Toastmasters, a great place to grow as a presenter. As you add public speaking to your skill set, you open the door to many more opportunities and ways for a broader audience to know about and connect with you.