I love public speaking. It is my primary creative force and a significant part of the work that I bring to the world. But it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time more than a decade ago when speaking in front of large groups of people was paralyzing. However, my work required it of me so I decided to deal with it head on. After hundreds of talks, presentations and workshops with thousands of people I’ve learned that speaking:
1. Is a skill
2. Requires practice (lots of it, I might add)
Public speaking is about changing your audience. That doesn’t mean that you are responsible for that change. Every adult is autonomous and only your audience members can decide for themselves if what you are sharing matters in their lives. You are the guide, and public speaking is the journey. Your role is to show them where they are currently and where you want to take them.
To change your audience you first have to change.
Change what you do with fear. As we know, people fear public speaking more than death. What we actually fear is judgment and reprisal. Evolutionarily, being watched was only one step away from possibly being eaten by a big beast.
I have had a few less than stellar talks in my time. As difficult and unpleasant as these experiences were, I was never once eaten by a beast and I can assure that you won’t be either. On the contrary, these are the experiences that will help you become the speaker you were intended to be. Use your fear as a catalyst to motivate the best in you. My coaching clients often say that fear makes them feel vulnerable. This is the place where great, authentic performances come from if you mobilize that feeling.
Speaking is a conversation. Stop reading from your slides. Whether you take a position, weave a tale or help your audience connect the dots, whatever you do stop relying on slides as your teleprompter. The goal is to connect with your audience, move out from behind the podium and to physically look them in the eye. Yes, it takes a certain amount of fortitude in the beginning, kind of like playing tennis at the net. You will likely experience a unique combination of fear and vulnerability. This is also where you have a great deal of credibility. This is where you can truly connect with your audience.
Stepping away from your slides will require that you know your material deeply. But when you flex these muscles and your audience responds with delight, I promise you will never go back to the old ways of presenting.
Start in analog. I learned this from the best, including Garr Reynolds (http://www.garrreynolds.com/), Nancy Duarte (http://www.duarte.com) and Cliff Atkinson (http://beyondbulletpoints.com/). Start to create an outline for your presentation/talk with a blank wall or flip chart paper, sticky notes and a marker. Write a single idea – it could be a few words or an image – on a sticky note and post each sticky note on the wall. You will start to see a flow and patterns will emerge. Your core message will become evident. This will spark more ideas for your presentation (and other presentations as well). Rearrange the sticky notes until you feel your message is about seventy percent complete. Only then would I recommend you go to PowerPoint or Keynote, if you choose to at all.
Think like a designer. Start with a blank presentation. Avoid the following at all cost: templates, bullet points, chunky word slides and fancy animation. Why? Because these methods detract from your message by confusing your audience. Instead, use powerful images and as few words per slide as you can possibly muster. Distill your thoughts down to their essence. This is how the brain takes in and retains information. Invest your time and money in high-quality visuals from Istock (http://www.istockphoto.com), or Big Stock (http://www.bigstockphoto.com), I frequently find images for my presentations on Flikr (http://www.flickr.com/) under the Creative Commons license (http://creativecommons.org/).
Less is more. Budding speakers have the tendency to want to share everything they know. The sentiment is noble but misguided. The fire-hose approach to spraying information out at your audience will cause them to become overwhelmed and disengage. Ultimately, they leave your talk having learned nothing, and in my mind that is a terrible waste of an opportunity as well as a precious waste of everyone’s time.
I tell my students in the adult education program at the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for the Studies in Education (http://bit.ly/npsXRN), they will forget 80 percent of what they have learned in 30 days if they don’t use it. This often surprises them and it is true. We are bombarded with information throughout our day. The human brain does a superb job of acting like an information bouncer. If incoming information isn’t immediately relevant to what we need it is automatically kicked to the back of the line. You can cut out 20-50% of what you plan on offering.
You will likely resist this call to action, as I have in the past. This will require that you are even more compelling and that you choose every word very carefully. Chunk information into groups of three. For example, the good, the bad and the ugly or yesterday, today and tomorrow. Make it easy for you and your audience to follow the flow of the presentation.
Start strong. You don’t need to thank the committee who brought you in to speak, nor do you need to inform your audience that you are delighted to be there. Express this gratitude by immediately engaging your audience. Be provocative. Take a stand. Share an unexpected fact. Lead with an inspiring quote. Be professional and give them a reason to pay attention. Be very worthy of their precious time.
Don’t bury the lead. This is an old journalism expression that states that you immediately tell your audience what matters. What is the core message that you are here to share with them?
Tell stories or case studies, share examples. Gail Larsen (http://www.realspeaking.com/), Nancy Duarte (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nYFpuc2Umk) and the master, Seth Godin (http://vimeo.com/5895898). All these people are inspirational speakers and teachers, remind us that storytelling is an age-old tradition and the easiest way to share our message.
Learn from the best by watching TED (short for technology, entertainment and design) videos (http://www.ted.com/) or attending or better participating in your local Toastmasters (http://www.toastmasters.org/), TEDx (http://www.ted.com/tedx), Pecha Kucha (http://www.pecha-kucha.org/), or Ignite http://igniteshow.com/) events.
Practice. Continue to practice your speaking skills. As a speaker this will always be a work in progress. For every hour I put into design, I put at least three hours into practice. Then get out and talk wherever you can, such as your local library, community college or service organizations.
Speaking will change the way you see the world, it will change how you interact with audiences, and it will change how you see your own fear and limitations. It will change what information you consume. It will change your craft, it will change how you think, it will change how you see your work and it will change your relationships. Speaking will change you, and this perhaps that is the most noble way to change the world.
Natalie Currie is sought after as engaging speaker and insightful business and certified life coach. She works with clients who are focused on the triple bottom line: people, planet and profits including, social entrepreneurs, social enterprises and sustainability intrepreneurs. She is most known for helping her clients leverage fear and realize a much bigger vision for the contribution they bring to the world.
Natalie harnesses her two-plus decades of experience in the corporate (Johnson and Johnson Inc.) and entrepreneurial sectors (professional development and coaching). She focuses her passions which include, brain-based & strength-based coaching and positive psychology, to mobilize social change. She designs and facilitates inspiring and actionable keynotes and experiential workshops through her unique combination of engaging design and storytelling.
Natalie is a part-time Faculty Member at her alma mater, the University of Toronto, in their Continuing Education Department (The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). She is a certified life coach through the Martha Beck Institute, is a member of Slow Food Toronto and a founding member of the Toronto chapter of Slow Money.
Natalie lives just north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada with her nature-loving and saxophone-playing husband Steve. When not business-building Natalie can be found at farmers’ markets, cooking in her kitchen, or hiking wherever her travels take her.
Natalie writes about well-being, business, sustainability and lifestyle at: www.thewayfindingcoach.com.