It is my fundamental belief that great communicators are not born, but made. Becoming a persuasive public speaker and presenter is within the reach of everyone.
Yes, some people might have a natural head-start in terms of confidence or extroversion, but a highly trained introvert is often a better speaker than an extrovert who perhaps hasn't done the work.
In a world driven to distraction with so many competing voices, those people who have mastered effective communication and storytelling will be extremely marketable and in-demand. The deterioration of communication skills in recent years has created even greater opportunities for those who can move people to action with their words.
If you're ambitious or want to make a change in the world, you should be investing in communication skills training. When finely tuned and layered on top of your primary skill set, you will become a dangerously effective person.
Investing in your own self development is one of the highest ROI decisions you can ever make. But before you dive in to the deep end, here's ten free tips to get you started:
1. Nervous? It’s not about you.
Focus on the message. Think about how little time and attention you spend thinking about people you barely know. That is how little your audience will be thinking about you. Focus on the message. The message is the hero. Focus on delivering it well, and doing justice to the subset of ideas contained within it. It’s true - the audience may think of you more often and more fondly if you do this well. But it’s not the life or death situation it’s cracked up to be.
2. Be Relatable.
First impressions matter and you want to bring the audience onside as early as possible. Remember, you are quite literally above everyone else ‘on a pedestal’ - that’s the nature of public speaking. If you have been introduced, give thanks for the kind introduction and name-check the relevant people. A little bit of self-deprecating humour goes a long way, just don’t lay it on too thick or it will seem forced.
Bringing yourself down a peg can help make you more relatable and get the audience to cheer for you. Generally, an audience WANTS you to do well and that’s something that a lot of people forget. They’ve come to listen, to learn, and they just don’t want to be bored by you, or listen to someone who is unlikeable or unfocused. Masochists aside, most people are just hoping for one or two actionable pieces of advice or insights that they can think about afterwards. Reminding yourself of that can help remove a lot of the pressure that you artificially pile upon yourself.
3. Develop heightened Awareness.
Be aware of your own energy as well as the tone and cadence of your voice. If during your presentation you feel yourself start to fade, know that it is within your power to re-energise yourself. You can: raise the volume of your voice, use extended silence for effect, quicken your pace of speech slightly, or use more expressive body language to bring yourself back to life and reclaim the attention of your audience.
Being present and highly conscious of the energy you bring to a room is a skill that you can develop every single day. If you can heighten awareness of what your body and voice are doing, you’ll realise just how powerful you really are.
4. Keep slides minimal.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of ‘death by powerpoint’ and yet, how many presentations do you see that still inflict this pain on their audience? IF you have to use slides, make sure they actually enhance your presentation. Do they make it better? If so, fantastic. If not, ditch them. If you must use slides, keep them uncluttered. Clear and interesting visuals are better. Go easy on the text.
Make them look and listen to YOU, not the slides. You really don’t want people reading the slides, and you especially don’t want to be reading off your own slides verbatim. The audience will get annoyed with you because people can read much faster than you can talk (consciously or subconsciously, they’ll begrudge you for wasting their time).
5. Have a FrameworK / Structure.
Great speeches, like great pop songs, don’t just go where they please. The words need scaffolding to cling to. Most pop songs (and great talks) follow a familiar structure, whether we realise it or not :
Where are we now?
Where do we want to be?
How do we get there?
If you’re an experienced presenter then you’ve probably used something that at least partly resembles the structures above. If these frameworks are new to you, then think about a presentation that you’ve recently given (or are about to give). How might your story benefit from following this rhythm?
6. Finish strong.
You want your talk to build to a crescendo, not fizzle out. Leave nobody in doubt that it’s the end. There are a number of ways that you can achieve a strong finish. You can use a famous quote that you love if it is relevant to your topic (do not just throw in any old quote for the sake of it). There is little left to be said that hasn't already been said better by someone else. There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of a brilliant quote (and quotes can also be an excellent way to open a presentation because if properly used, it frames what’s to come very nicely, and all great quotes pique our curiosity).
You could also end on a definite statement. A firm repetition of your conclusion, succinctly wrapped into one or two sentences is another fine way to conclude your presentation. Last but not least, I’m a great believer that your last two words should always be some version of a simple “thank you”. Good manners never go out of style. A powerful finish, followed by a clear and simple “thank you” signals very clearly that it’s safe for your audience to start clapping :)
7. Inject spontaneity.
A little goes a long way. For most formal speeches and presentations, you’ll want to take one of these four options:
1. Memorise your talk word for word (extremely difficult to do, but not impossible)
2. Have a precise script to read from (less stressful for you, but you’ll need to work hard to inject emotion into it, so that you don’t sound robotic or bore your audience to tears)
3. Prepare a general outline or flash cards with the ‘trunk’’ of your talk clear in your mind and the ‘branches’ of your talk can spin off in a controlled manner (the best option in most cases)
4. Totally wing it (not unrecommended, even for world class performers)
Whilst preparation is critical and the last thing you want is to be lost for words, people want to feel like the talk that you’ve prepared was made just for them. Even if you have given a certain presentation 50 times, don’t transmit that feeling of regurgitation to your audience. The rules of seduction apply here - make them feel special.
Some powers of observation can help you achieve this effect at very little cost. If something funny or dramatic happened earlier in the day, reference it. If there’s an eye-catching fact, interesting piece of data, or brilliant joke from the person who was on stage before you, can you slip it into your talk and make it relevant? If you can skilfully pull that trick off, that is going to show people that you are no robot reading from a script. If you have a personal relationship with one of the VIPs in the audience, and you can get away with a good-natured poke in the ribs, do it. Tastefully of course. There is nothing worse than a joke that doesn’t land.
So I say this with the caveat that you must use keen judgement. Context is everything. I find that if I say it in my head and I’m not 95% sure that it’s appropriate, then I just won’t say it. Not worth the risk. It’s a fine balancing act, but if you can pull it off, then it will add some stardust to your presentation.
8. Get out of your own head.
I’d recommend taking a couple of minutes to be friendly and introduce yourself to the event organisers, especially the person welcoming you to the stage. Be present and commit their name to memory. When you step on stage and say something generic like “Thank you to the organisers for the invitation today” whilst looking nowhere in particular, you are being polite, but you’re also being robotic. If instead, you’re able to say: “A massive thank you to Bob, Sarah and their team for inviting me to speak here today” whilst looking at them and smiling, that sends a signal to the audience that you are a pleasure to be around, and it shows the organisers that you genuinely care about making a connection, all of which means you’re much more likely to be invited back.
Taking a few minutes to chat to new people before getting on stage will also have the added benefit of getting you out of your own head, and force you into a more sociable, high energy version of yourself, that will set you up nicely for getting on stage. A journalist covering Dave Chappelle commented that he could not believe how relaxed he was just seconds before getting on stage. Dave was charming, conversational, present in the moment and then literally as his name was announced he apologised politely to the journalist and said “Pleasure to meet you, I need to go on stage now”. Now, you might argue that Dave Chappelle is at the very top of his particular game and you’d be right. He has had plenty of practice. Nevertheless, I have found this helpful and having a pleasant 1:1 conversation with another human being puts you in the right headspace to deliver a more personable and authentic talk.
9. Make People Feel Seen.
Don’t Assume Where Power Lies. Try and address each part of the room you're addressing.
If it’s a huge event, then you can’t possibly make eye contact with everyone, but you can make a conscious effort to turn your body occasionally to face each corner of the room and make them feel like you are talking to them. Project your voice to all corners. If it’s a smaller audience like a boardroom pitch and there’s a clear VIP or decision-maker, by all means address them, but be careful not to ignore the other people in the room. The supporting cast might have the decision-maker's ear and will also want to feel validated.
You can’t know where the real power lies. If the supporting cast feel ignored or unimportant, they won’t vouch for you, even if you’ve charmed their boss.
10. Control the controllables.
It sounds so simple as to be redundant but plenty of people continue to shoot themselves in the foot. Usually by turning up late for things. Don’t make your life harder than it needs to be. Plan your commute ahead of time using Google Maps and be sure to arrive earlier than you think is necessary. There is nothing worse than being stuck in traffic, wondering if you’ll miss your slot, then arriving stressed and being pushed straight on stage. Where possible, get familiar with the venue that you’ll be speaking at. The same golden rule applies to arriving for job interviews. Use the bathroom beforehand. Check the weather report the night before and the dress code (if any) so that you can prepare an appropriate outfit. Look good. Feel good. Do good.
11. (Bonus Tip) Be interesTED, not interestING.
This is actually one of my core life principles. How does this relate to public speaking specifically?
Most people are concerned with appearing interesting, which is normal and natural, but what’s really important is being interested. The audience wants to see that YOU are interested in your subject matter. Don’t merely try and convince them why they should care. Show them that you care. Show them that you actually believe in what you’re saying.
If they sense that you are interested and passionate about the topic you are speaking about, then not only is that naturally endearing, but they’ll also start to lean in. “If Michael cares so deeply about this, then surely it’s important? I better pay attention so that I’m not missing out!”
P.S. I hope that you found these tips helpful! For those of you that really want to level up and get instant feedback that relates to your unique situation, why not book a personal consultation or coaching session? I can give you that competitive edge, ensuring that your next speech, presentation, or interview, is the best one you've ever done.
public speaking training courses in Singapore, Hong Kong and London
Michael Campion runs public speaking training in Singapore, Hong Kong, and London, delivering workshops at some of the world's best known companies and universities.