Have you ever listened to a public speaker give a speech or presentation and suddenly your mind starts drifting elsewhere? I need to answer that email. Rebecca wants me to work on this until Friday. What should I do on the weekend?
You play with your phone, or if you don’t have any handy technology, you start doodling stick figures on a notepad to pass the time. Suddenly, you see the slide, ‘Questions?’, and panic because you weren’t listening.
All sorts of thoughts race through your head, ‘don’t look at the speaker, avoid eye contact’. ‘He’s looking at me. If I look down, he won’t pick me right?’. Part of you is relieved when the event ends.
Great! I get to leave.
But what if you are the person delivering the presentation and nobody seems vaguely interested in what you are saying?
You know the signs; people start fidgeting, glancing in the opposite direction and generally have a bored look on their face. You can tell they aren’t paying 100% attention to you. It can be disheartening, tiresome and downright frustrating, especially if you have spent hours crafting your content.
As a public speaker, I have witnessed this situation far too many times to keep count. Surprisingly, this doesn’t just apply to beginners. I have seen keynote speakers (aka the holy grail of public speaking) nearly send their audience to sleep.
Do I ever remember their message? Nope.
The good news? It’s fixable. Almost always. Sometimes it only takes a few little tweaks to make a huge difference. So let’s cut to the chase. How do I do it?
From an 8 time top award winning 19 year old public speaker, here are some pro tips on how to nail your next public speaking event or presentation:
1. Re-work your content into the ‘golden three’. Seriously.
Common problem: Does your content really have a message? I have worked with public speakers who couldn’t understand why their speech or presentation didn’t create a ‘buzz’ atmosphere. Upon analysis of their content, it was clear to see why. They had littered their presentation with over 10 points or ‘key’ messages. This is a big no-no, especially if you’re presenting to a larger audience who can’t personally drill down into your content.
Simple Solution: For all of my speeches and presentations, I use the ‘golden rule of three’. Three key messages or points. No more, no less., When I tell speakers this they often stare at me with a perplexed look and say, ‘but Charlotte how can I possibly fit all of my information and expertise into 3 points. It’s impossible!’ That’s the problem! You don’t want to bombard your audience with all of your expertise. I call it ‘content shock’.
Too much in too little time. Information becomes too hard to absorb, process and remember.
Using the rule of three in your content not only enables you to express your thoughts more clearly, emphasises your key points, and increases the memorability of your message, but it also has a benefit for the speaker. Think about it, you only have three key points to remember, rather than 2 pages of text or 20 slides. Suffer with stage nerves or forget your content because there’s so much of it? Re-work your content into the golden rule of three to give your audience a message to remember.
2. Learn to love the silence
Common problem: Speakers often rush through their speech. Why? The 2 main culprits are 1) nerves and 2) a time limit. Plus, some speakers have never learnt the art of pacing. If you wouldn’t rush your favourite meal, why would you rush your best speech?
Simple solution: Pause for 5 seconds to emphasise key points. Confident speakers feel secure with silence, poor speakers despise it. This is probably the most underrated technique which, when used well, can instantly make you appear more professional. But wait? Pausing for 5 seconds? Are you crazy? Won’t this make me look like an amateur who has forgotten their content? The short answer is no. The best place to add a pause would be after a key point, a natural break in your trail of thought, or during the transition from one message to another. Silence literally oozes confidence, because it symbolises that you know your words have impact.
With regards to pacing, I would recommend alternating between 145 words per minute to 160 words per minute, depending upon the individual sections of your presentation or speech. Some public speaking ‘experts’ recommend speaking slower than 140 wpm to really emphasise your points, but from my experience, you run the risk of giving the listener the perception of slow thinking and inability to convey a message. Not a good look.
3. Body language and tone
Common problem: Ever heard ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’? Think of this in terms of your audience. If you’re delivering your presentation or speech in a monotonous or lifeless tone, how can you expect your audience to be anything but lifeless? You want your audience to feel energised, enthusiastic and regard you as an authority in your field.
People often need an external force or stimuli to get them feeling energised and upbeat. This is your job as the speaker. It’s tough, but once you get the hang of it, becomes much easier to replicate.
Similarly, a lot of your message and credibility will come from non-verbal cues i.e. your body language. If you’re stiff as a post, you will probably come across as not confident in your ability or your content – both of which will damage your reputation, and maybe even your self-esteem. Likewise, if you’re exaggerating your movements, or gesturing too wildly or too frequently, people will become more focused on your actions rather than your words.
Simple solution: Even if you have a bunch of unhappy looking faces staring back at you, try to convey your message in an optimistic tone. This will involve altering your intonation or pitch of your voice to garner interest.
This technique works incredibly well when asking rhetorical questions, and introducing shocking or surprising facts and figures.
Pro tip: Time gestures or movements to coincide with new ideas or messages. For example, if you have just finished point 1 (of three, of course) change your stance to reflect this transition. This will help your gestures seem more natural and will allow your content to flow more easy.
4. Walk the talk…
Another super important point to make, don’t stay in one spot for the entire presentation or speech. It is perfectly acceptable to walk and talk, after all I do it. However, there is a difference between a ‘slow, few steps’ at a time pace, versus what I like to call a ‘jaguar’s pace’.
I remember delivering a speech and Q+A session at a prestigious public speaking competition a few years ago, and the event was based in an old debating chamber. The room was circular in shape, and the podium was partially hidden by pillars.
This meant that 1) the audience couldn’t see me, 2) I couldn’t see 65% of the audience and 3) I would lose that all-important eye contact.
Other speakers stayed on the podium, and delivered their speech. I, on the other hand, decided to step down from the podium, move myself in front of the pillars and deliver my speech at eye-level to the audience. To combat the circular nature of the room, I walked and talked, ensuring to make eye-contact with the people to the sides of me in addition to those seated in the middle. Not only did this technique have the desired effect of audience inclusion, but it also set me apart from other contestants.
Plus, I managed to bag the trophy, and the title. 😉
5. Stories, stories, stories…
Common problem: As children, our appetite for storytime was insatiable. We couldn’t get enough of it. We loved them! So why do I rarely hear speakers using them? Suddenly, everyone in the adult world thinks that filling their content with figures, statistics and facts make them seem more of an authoritative figure in their field. Whilst this may be true to some extent, this will not capture your audience’s attention as much as a classic story will.
I have never heard anyone say ‘wow, did you see how amazing that guy’s pie chart was?’, yet I’ve seen someone’s personal story quickly become a hashtag Twitter trend. Just goes to show the power of a story.
Simple Solution: If your story involved some emotion, tell the audience that. If you were sad, tell them. If you were happy, let it show. Sharing genuine feelings creates an undeniable link between the speaker and the audience. If you’re looking to become a professional speaker or are one currently, it is absolutely crucial that you build an immediate and lasting connection with your audience. Not only will this build your brand and create a buzz surrounding your name, but these people could become your paying customers in the future. Stories trump speaking skills every time, no matter how refined or eloquent your speech.
Pro tip: How do you know when you’ve used a ‘good’ story? When your audience mirrors your expressions. If you smile, they will smile with you. If you laugh, they will laugh with you.
I’m feeling nice so here’s a super bonus pro tip for you…
6. Don’t rely on your notes
Common problem: Last but not least, try not to rely on your notes, and definitely do not read from your slides. This is particularly tough if you’re a beginner, or if you have a tendency to become nervous on stage. When professional speakers suggest not reading from your notes, we are doing it for 2 very good reasons. 1) If your audience has to read, they are going to tune out from you speaking and miss all that amazing content, 2) If you read to your audience, they will wonder why you didn’t just write an article or send a memo. Why would they need to spend their precious time listening to you recite what is in front of them? I can guarantee you will lose their attention if your presentation or speech relies on reading. Your slides should help accentuate your key messages, not contain the entire message.
Simple Solution: I’ll be honest, this is something I worked on overtime. At the beginning of my public speaking career, I was always super nervous before speaking. I’m talking about full shakes, jitters, butterflies, headaches, sweaty palms…you name it, it probably happened to me. To combat this, I learnt all of my content off by heart until I could recite my speech or presentation in my sleep. Who needs sheep right?
I would also write my entire speech on notes as a backup plan just in case my brain faltered during the presentation. I should note that this is not a good idea if your content is extremely long. I was lucky to never have dropped my notes, but can you imagine if the notes appeared in the wrong order or were shuffled somehow? Disaster.
As I spoke at more competitions and public events, and became more familiar with the art of speaking, I progressed to only writing the 3 key points on my cards. Here is another reason why the golden rule of three is super useful. Less cards to hold.
Eventually I realised that I stopped looking at the cards for pointers, and that I was using them solely as a security blanket. A security blanket I no longer needed. I stopped using notes altogether after approximately 12 events. It felt like a new found freedom when I finally ditched the notes, it was exciting but daunting at the same time.
Pro tip: When you’ve spoken a few times, take the plunge! Ditch the notes and transition to picture only slides, with just a few key words for the audience’s benefit.