Polish your public speaking skills

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At least one in every five people reading this has a deadly fear of public speaking. 

But if you plan to get ahead in your career there’s a good chance you’ll have to address a group at some point. 

Here’s how to master the art.

Generations of otherwise functional adults are scarred for life by a deep, dark secret from their formative years. For some it was the memory of having to do something called an English oral. Perhaps it was the trauma of having to stand up at a school assembly and deliver an end-of-year address.

Years later, at an otherwise stress-free conference involving a new piece of software, the memories come flooding back. Sweaty palms, quaking knees and wavering voice combine with enough “umms” to supply a Buddhist monastery for a year.

Yet public speaking is an essential skill for working people. Basically, all you need to get you by is some good preparation and a sense of Zen-like calm.

But above all, remember that it isn’t that difficult to entertain or inform an audience that wants to be entertained or informed. Zoom in on where your audience is and get them on your side. A reference to something they’ll all find funny or be able to identify with (the strange conference venue, the weather, something amusing that happened that morning) should do the trick. Tell them something interesting and keep it short.

Here are some other things you’ll need:

  • Know your subject. It’s going to be very difficult to focus on your presentation if there’s a nagging voice saying “Oh, I hope nobody asks about the new software’s firewall problems”. If there’s some area in which you don’t have expertise, try to have someone on hand who can answer the questions. 
  • Know the venue. In their book, The Smiling Pawpaw and Other Presenters, Ronel Engelbrecht and Chris Rademeyer recommend establishing minute details of the equipment you’ll be using, the carpark closest to the venue and the lighting that’ll be used.
  • Know the crowd. If you’re talking to a conservative crowd, avoid raucous jokes and brash humour.
  • Keep it simple. Unless you’re talking to an audience that knows your subject intimately, avoid jargon and acronyms. Offer to go into technical details during question time. Otherwise you’ll lose people in the first three minutes.
  • Make notes. Divide your presentation into an introduction, body and conclusion. Don’t write out your presentation word-for-word or you’ll end up reading it. In that case you may as well email people your notes to read in their own time. Rather make bullet points and rehearse until it flows.
  • Insert reminders. Highlighted phrases like “Look up” and “make eye contact” on each page of your notes can help you do just that.
  • Know the equipment. Whether you’re using a whiteboard or a full-on data projection system, know how everything works. Have a dry run at the venue. If you sound a bit tinny, don’t worry. An auditorium will sound different when it’s packed with human flesh, which does interesting things to acoustics. You can always ask whoever’s running the PA system to make your voice a little “warmer” or ask a friend or colleague to sit at the back and listen to you run through your spiel.
  • Engage with your audience. If you have allies or sympathetic colleagues in the audience, place them two-thirds of the way back and make a point of looking at them periodically, rather than staring blankly and with growing panic at the sea of faces.
  • Speak up. Stay several inches from the mike, or you’ll pound your audience’s ears with every consonant you utter. Few things are as irritating. Speaking too loudly also costs you an audience’s goodwill.
  • Use your hands. If you’re using bullet points, count them off with your fingers.
  • Consider voice training. If you sound like a donkey gargling a set of bagpipes, don’t expect anyone to listen. 
  • Don’t belabour the point. Present your piece, watch the clock and get off the podium. You can always offer to take questions afterwards.
  • Don’t catastrophise. Breathe deeply, imagine the audience naked (it’s reputed to work) and smile. They’ve all been in the situation and probably know what you're feeling.

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