Studies still show that the number one fear of Americans is speaking in front of a group.1 Yet, this is something nearly every one of us will need to do at some point in our personal or professional life. Let’s take a quick look at the times we might speak in front of a group:

  • A manager telling his staff about a new policy or some changes in the organization. (If you can’t do this skillfully, you’re not likely to reach this level in an organization.)
  • A business owner addressing a gathering of potential clients and {readmorelink}Read the whole article{/readmorelink} press about an updated or innovative product or service she is offering. (If you can’t do this skillfully, you miss this opportunity to advance your business.)
  • An award recipient gracefully accepting his award in a brief speach. (If you can’t do this well, you can’t enjoy the award banquet as much, and you miss a chance to further develop others’ respect for you.)
  • A best man giving his speech to the reception guests at a wedding. (If you can’t do this artfully, you lessen everyone’s enjoyment, and miss a chance to add to the joy of someone close to you on their special day.)

These are obviously just a very few examples of opportunities to speak in front of a group. Here’s the interesting part: those who are skilled at public speaking _enjoy_ these opportunities, while those who aren’t skilled _dread_ them. Also, the skilled speaker is usually seen as much more personally and professional competent and confident than the unskilled speaker. And, in as far as speaking is concerned, this perception is entirely accurate.

Since public speaking is such an important and integral part of our personal and professional lives, it makes sense to become skilled at this. Good skills at public speaking can lead to better opportunities for advancement at work, better respect from your colleagues and friends, and much higher self-esteem.

Here’s the fantastic news: skill at public speaking isn’t difficult to gain!

I’m not talking about being the best there is, but about gaining enough basic skill to deliver short addresses and speeches without being nervous or uneasy, and with more competence than 80% of the people in the room.

Now that we all understand how important this skill can be, let’s start down the road to making it fun!

First, let’s look at why public speaking is so frightening to us. I believe that it’s mainly because we don’t know how it’s supposed to work. Speaking in public is strange to us, and it seems so easy to mess it up and so hard to get it right. But the opposite is actually true, if you’ve prepared properly.

There are six factors that will improve your public speaking and make it fun:

1. Knowledge. Know your topic, whatever it is. Don’t ever read a speech word-for-word – that makes most people sound dull and actually makes you more nervous, because losing your place will wreck your whole speech. Research your topic and be able to talk about it in detail without any notes. When you prepare your notes, use note cards (3″ x 5″) and only write down a basic outline and any key facts, exact quotes, or numbers you need to be able to cover with your audience. My personal recommendation is to limit yourself to one note card for every 20 minutes or so of your topic. If you’re using more than that, you don’t really know your topic.

2. Practice. Practice your speech alone, trying out different tones, phrases, and orders of material. Use this time to adjust your notes and find out what facts you don’t know well enough. Next, practice in front of an honest critic who’ll let you know if you’re doing something annoying (rocking back and forth, etc.) that you don’t notice. Practice your speech until you can do it all the way through _without_ the notes, so they’re only a backup when you’re actually delivering the address.

3. Enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about your topic – don’t ever be afraid to show passion. This is easy if you’re talking about your favorite charity. But even if you’re introducing a new policy to your department, it will go over well and you’ll earn your staff’s attention (and respect) if you show some interest and energy about the topic.

4. Humor. Whenever appropriate, use humor. But only if you’re actually funny. Here’s a quick test – when you tell a joke, how many people around you usually laugh (don’t count dates and those who report to you at work)? If it’s most of the people who hear it, then you’re funny. If fewer than half of the people listening usually laugh at your jokes, then they’re not missing your jokes – you’re just not that funny. Not everyone is, so don’t push it. A failed joke during a speech is worse on the energy level than no joke at all, so use them only if they’re funny. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but avoid any jokes that might alienate your audience or be inappropriate for the occasion.

5. Movement. Don’t stand behind the lectern and talk into the microphone there if you have a choice. Get out and move around the stage (or room). A speaker who moves around keeps a higher energy level in the room. Bonus: when you walk around, you’ll burn off some of the nervous energy that is inherent to the situation, so you’ll come across as much more confident. If your energy level is high, don’t hide it – move around with lots of energy. If your energy level is low, use movement to bring it up. Even a stately stroll across the stage looks more confident than a death grip on the edges of the lectern.

An extra note on handling a microphone: if you are using a hand-held microphone, be sure to hold it just about even with your chin. I recommend that most folks hold it in their off-hand (if you’re a righty, hold it in your left hand). For most folks, this will keep you from waving it around as you talk (most of us gesture more with our dominant hand).

6. Experience. Get out and do it. This is different from just practicing, because this means actual audience-attended experience. Every chance you get to stand up in front of a group, jump on it. Even if it’s just to hop up and ask a question, take the opportunity. The more often you’re in front of a group with them all staring at you, the less it will seem scary to you.

Now that you have the basic information to start from, the only way to get better is to practice. Start by practicing on your own, in front of a mirror (a full-length mirror is best), using both prepared and unprepared material.  Once you are comfortable with the basic mechanics, it’s time to practice in front of people. I’d suggest either joining a group that has some opportunities to speak (civic organizationns, etc.), or join Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org).

 


1 Interestingly, death is third now, having been supplanted by the fear of outliving our retirement income.