By Nicola Field
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld nailed our phobia of public speaking when he said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Our dislike of public speaking can come down to fear of rejection, according to Tim Bevan AFIML, Chairman of the IML Speaker’s Forum in Brisbane. He explains, “Suddenly we are separated from the herd and we have innate concerns about ‘will the audience be hostile?’ Or ‘will I bore them?’”.
Rather than avoid public speaking altogether, taking steps to improve your skills can boost your confidence – and your career.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
Emma Bannister is the founder and CEO of Presentation Studio, specialising in presentation writing, design and training. She says, “Preparation is so important, and nerves should encourage better presentation.” Bannister believes content is critical. “This is your foundation,” she says. “If your content is good you can be confident in your own message. It can be a massive game changer when you know the information you provide is helping your audience achieve something.”
The clincher is to deliver content in a way that is clear. “Keep the message simple, and repeat your most important points so that people can understand them, remember them, and act on them,” advises Bannister.
Technology has changed the way we deliver presentations, and PowerPoint in particular is widely used, though not always to best effect.
“PowerPoint slides should never be used as a script to read from,” Bannister cautions. “Having a lengthy essay appear on a slide is the equivalent of using a crutch or autocue.” Moreover, she notes that when an audience is focused on reading the screen, they can’t listen to what’s being said, and that makes the speaker irrelevant. Bevan adds, “PowerPoint slides should only feature three or four bullet points, this way the speaker can talk around those points.”
FEEL THE ENERGY
When it comes to managing nerves, there’s a lot to be said for the old maxim ‘take a few deep breaths’. Bannister explains, “Deep breathing is critical to ensuring oxygen flows to your brain so you don’t forget what you are saying.”
While it may sound counter-intuitive, the quality of your delivery will improve if you regard your audience as friend rather than foe. “Instead of being afraid of your audience, make eye contact with audience members and use their energy,” suggests Bannister.
“If you’re speaking in a darkened auditorium, ask for the stage lights to be dimmed so that you can see members of the audience.”
Nerves can be the catalyst for rapid-fire speech, and this can seriously downgrade the quality of what you say and the image you project. As Bannister explains, “We often speak rapidly, or talk a lot just to fill in space. Slowing down your pace and allowing for pauses is vital. Have a sip of water if necessary but pause long enough to allow a message to sink in with your audience.”
According to Bevan, a pace of around 120 words a minute is ideal: “When we speak quickly we lose the power of pause, gesture and intonation.”
Speaking slowly also improves clarity. This matters because as Bannister points out you may have audience members who are not native English speakers. This further highlights why simple icons rather than lengthy essays are a must for PowerPoint slides.
PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT
Sitting through a monotone speech can be tortuous, and good speakers contrast their pace, volume and modulation. Bannister notes, “As human beings we like change – a bit of variety helps to keep everyone actively listening.” It may sound like a tall order but it can all come with practice. “Don’t just read through your speaking notes on your screen,” says Bannister. “Say them out loud to your team, your kids, the family pet – anyone who will listen. Get someone to video you – or video yourself.”
Bevan emphasises the need to rehearse, saying, “Practice makes permanent, and practising using the wrong techniques can become habit forming.” In his involvement with the IML Speaker’s Forum, Bevan has seen the benefits of practice combined with constructive criticism. Ryan McKergow MIML, for instance, is a current member of the IML Speaker’s Forum and was recently awarded an IML ANZ Sir John Storey Leadership Award in the Emerging Leader category. McKergow joined the group in early 2018, and says, “I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement in my public speaking ability, and also in my day-to-day communications, which is vitally important in my role as a leader.”
For nervous speakers, a lectern can seem like a safe harbour. However, Bannister cautions “Audience members often don’t like it when a speaker stands behind a lectern.” She recommends enquiring about the availability of a remote system for the microphone, so that you can move around a little.
The key word is ‘little’. Going overboard with gestures – or repeat gestures like pointing and waving, can be distracting for the audience. Bannister suggests: “If you’re not sure what to do with your hands, follow the likes of Barrack Obama, whose resting position was often one hand on top of the other just below his watch. When speaking, his hands were expressive and animated but not repetitive.”
When all else fails, smile. According to Bannister, “As a general rule, when the speaker smiles, the audience smiles back.”
The thought of fielding questions from an audience can be especially daunting as this is one area where curve balls can be thrown. Bannister says it is possible to control at least part of this by explaining at the outset that you will be speaking for 10 or 20 minutes and taking questions at the end of your presentation. “This discourages interjections and maintains the flow of your presentation,” she notes.
At some stage, you will need to respond to questions, and even Bannister admits “this can be tough”. She advises, “Always start by repeating the question so that everyone else knows what was asked. Make eye contact with the person, and even if you don’t have a ready answer, explain how you are addressing the issue moving forward.”
THE NO-GO AREAS
When it comes to workplace presentations, humour can be risky business. “What is funny to you can be offensive to some of your audience members,” cautions Bannister. Play it safe by skipping the jokes altogether.
Bannister also believes metaphors can be equally hazardous: “I’ve seen US-based speakers consistently using baseball analogies, talking about home runs. Audiences outside of the US can become quite upset about this.” She says this highlights the need to “Respect your environment and use analogies that are relevant to your audience – if you must use them at all.”
Few things can be more uncomfortable than the sinking feeling that your audience has lost interest, and unfortunately, these days, people may even start checking their phones during a presentation. That may seem impolite, but the onus is on the speaker to prevent this happening. “Mixing up your content, visuals, and tone of voice and volume keeps the energy and engagement of your audience,” says Bannister. “People notice when things change so keep a good mix.”
Ultimately, a good presentation is relevant to your audience. As Tim Bevan points out, “Don’t focus on yourself, focus on the audience. Your aim is to be a person of influence over your audience.
This article first appeared in the February 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters magazine.