We turn on the television and see people speaking before crowds or handling reporters with confidence and it all looks effortless. A few may be born with a gift, but the overwhelming majority are effective speakers because they trained themselves to be so. Either they’ve pursued formal public speaking education or coaching or they’ve taken every opportunity to stand on their feet and deliver speeches.
I have found that being a successful public speaker boils down to following these seven essential principles:
- Stop trying to be a great speaker.
To truly connect with an audience, first understand that people want to listen to someone who is relaxed and comfortable as well as interesting. In the routine conversations we have every day, we have no problem being relaxed. Yet too often when we stand up to give a speech something changes. We focus on the public at the expense of the speaking. To be an effective public speaker, you must do just the opposite. Focus on the speaking and let go of the public.
If you can carry on a relaxed conversation with one or two people, you can give a great speech. Whether your audience consists of two people or 2,000, and whether you’re talking about the latest medical breakthrough or what you did today at work, it’s never about turning into someone you’re not. It’s all about talking directly to people, being your authentic self and making a connection. That’s all.
- Stop trying to be perfect. When you make a mistake, no one cares but you.
Even the most accomplished public speaker will make mistakes. Just remember that the only person who really cares about any one mistake is the person doing the speaking.
People’s attention constantly wanders. In fact, most people only really hear about 20% of a speaker’s message. The other 80% they internalize visually. This ratio is true in nearly everything: watching a football game or a television show, or even having a heart-to-heart conversation. When you make a mistake, the audience rarely even notices. The most important thing you can do is keep going. Don’t stop, and unless the mistake was truly major, don’t apologize. Unless your audience is reading along with your speech, they won’t know that you left out a word or said the wrong name.
- Visualize. If you can see it, you can speak it.
Great winners in all walks of life draw on the power of visualizing. Sales people envision themselves closing the deal; executives picture themselves developing new ventures; athletes close their eyes and imagine themselves making the basket or hitting the home run.
In public speaking, the best way to fight anxiety and become more comfortable is by practicing in the one place no one else can see you–your mind. If you visualize on a consistent basis, your mind will become used to the prospect of speaking in public, and pretty soon you’ll find that the idea no longer elicits those same feelings of anxiety and fear.
If you have a presentation to give, set aside 30 minutes a day to visualize yourself giving it. Do so in as much detail as possible. See yourself up at the podium. Feel yourself relaxed and comfortable. See yourself delivering the whole thing and connecting with your audience. If you do this every day, by the time the real presentation arrives your mind will be trained to accept the situation as familiar. You will feel much more relaxed and confident in front of the audience.
- Be disciplined. Practice makes good.
Our goal is not to be a perfect public speaker, since there is no such thing, but to be an effective one. Like anything else in life, that takes practice. It’s easy to take communication for granted, since we spend our lives speaking to people. But when our prosperity is directly linked to how good we are in front a group, we need to give the task the same attention as any other serious job. Even world champion athletes practice their craft on a consistent basis.
When I work with clients, I always record their speeches so they can study their presentations. For most of us, however, the best way to practice is simply by giving a speech in the comfort of our home or office. The more you practice it, the more prepared you will be, and that leads to confidence. If you have a speech to give in a week, rehearse it on a daily basis. Deliver it out loud as soon as you get up in the morning, at least once in the middle of the day and twice before you go to bed. Do this every day, and when it’s time to deliver the presentation, you will be prepared. You’ll know the material inside and out. Along with visualization, this is the most effective way to overcome anxiety and build confidence about performing before an audience.
- Describe. Make it personal.
Regardless of the topic, audiences respond best when speakers personalize their communication. Take every opportunity to put faces on the facts of your presentation. People like to hear about other people, about the triumphs, tragedies and everyday humorous incidents that make up their lives. Capitalize on this.
Whenever possible, include yourself personally in your public speaking. Not only will it help your listeners warm to you, but it will also do wonders at putting you at ease. After all, where is your expertise greater than on the subject of you?
- Inspire. Speak to serve.
Yes, talk about yourself, but make the main focus not yourself but your audience. When you think about it, the proper purpose of a speech is not to benefit the speaker but to serve the audience, usually through teaching, motivation or entertainment. So in all of your preparation and presentation, constantly think of how you can help your audience members get what they want from you. When you do this, your role as speaker becomes a role of meeting the needs of the audience. It is sure to take much of the fear out of public speaking, too.
- Build anticipation: Leave your audience wanting more.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my years in communications is that when it comes to public speaking, less is usually more. Rarely if ever have I left a gathering and heard someone say, “I wish that speaker had talked longer.” On the other hand, I imagine you can’t count the times you’ve thought, “I’m glad that speech is over. It went on forever.”
Surprise your audience. Always make your presentation just a bit shorter than they expect. If you’ve followed the first six principles, you’ve already won their attention and interest, so it’s best to leave them wishing you had gone on for just a few minutes more, rather than squirming in their seats waiting for you to finally stop.
Source: Richard Zeoli, author of The 7 Principles of Public Speaking, is the founder and president of RZC Impact, a communications firm specializing in executive-level communication coaching and strategic messaging.