Some people can stand up in front of a group of strangers and give an entertaining and coherent talk without rehearsal, notes, or even having the faintest idea of what they were going to say before they stood up to say it. This article is for the other 99.9 per cent of us.
Don’t feel bad about it as glossophobia, fear of public speaking, is incredibly widespread and some are so fearful that they will limit their choice of career to try to avoid it. There are coaches who can help you but having myself struggled to get from appalling to okay, maybe I can at least nudge you towards mediocrity.
When I started, I was so bad that in order to introduce myself in a meeting, I would print out then read from my own bio. Yet after a while, I found I could go on live TV or radio and talk with a degree of coherence (at least in my own mind) without it really bothering me. What helps is both practice and practice. The more you practise, each presentation the better you will be. And the more presentations you do overall, the better you will get at doing them.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Some think rehearsals take out spontaneity, but although I have seen plenty of bad presentations, I am yet to see one that was bad because it was too well-rehearsed. Rehearsing provides the muscle memory so that when things go wrong you can be sent off on a tangent yet safely return to the comfort of the script when required. You don’t need an audience to rehearse, the dog will do fine, as they really don’t care how often you need to do it. (Cats are not recommended as they tend to be judgmental.)
Don't make excuses
I once attended a public speaking course for all the senior people in our agency. The one who needed it the most, never even showed up. They hated public speaking so much that to practise it in front of a couple of supportive colleagues was too much for them. I suppose it’s understandable that the people who most need to rehearse are those who are most reluctant to do it, but if your job sometimes requires making presentations, you really need to swallow your embarrassment and get on with it. It gets better, honest.
I was once invited to a global conference in India to talk about creative advertising to the assembled big dogs. I put together a collection of work to show accompanied by some spurious insights and rehearsed it several times.
When it was my turn to speak I handed the technical guy my slides on a USB and strode on stage to an expectant audience. I’d only just joined and was keen to make a good impression.
Two seconds later the audience and I simultaneously discovered that my videos wouldn’t run, the pictures were distorted, and the words were jumbled. The hotel’s IT system wasn’t happy with my slides and had thrown a hissy fit. I escaped with a beating and mild mental scarring but had learned my lesson to check well in advance that my stuff would work with their stuff.
Leave them wanting more
Nobody ever complained that a presentation was too short. Your job is not to fill time, it’s to make your points in a compelling way. Once you’ve done that, get off.
Make them laugh
Similarly, nobody ever complained that a presentation was too funny, not even at a funeral. If you’re not naturally amusing, at least be self-deprecatory and allow the audience to share sympathetically in your failings. (Never tell jokes you haven’t previously tested on others, particularly if you’re giving a best man’s speech.)
If you’re using slides, they should be like a billboard: short, legible, and impactful. If they read like War and Peace, get the scalpel out. You should have as few as possible, but as many as necessary.
Loud and proud
Sometimes I’d feel my voice start to waver when presenting. The inclination becomes to swallow your words and rush through to the other side. However, hearing your own voice loud and confident provides a feedback loop that provides further confidence. If you feel your voice going, try and slow down. And talk louder. And with greater emphasis.
Some recommend that if you are nervous you should imagine the audience sitting in their underwear as this humanises them and takes away any intimidation you might feel. Personally, I find it leaves me with unsettling images that can take some time to lose. Your choice.
The best presentation I ever saw was from the late Malcolm McLaren, once the Sex Pistols manager. He turned up more than an hour late, clearly hungover (some of us had been drinking with him the night before) and his talk spluttered along for 10 minutes with the audience shifting uncomfortably. We felt bad for him and even worse for the guy who’d booked him.
Then, from somewhere Malcolm found his thread. He took us on a mesmeric ride through his experiences in the music industry, which was rapturously received by a bunch of cynical ad types, all without any notes. Sadly, as we’ve established, the chances of you being able to do this are negligible. Therefore, as interesting as your tale may be, make sure you’re rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s also best to avoid drinking with hangers-on the night before.
– Paul Catmur worked in advertising at a good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best
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