Are you terrified to speak in front of an audience?
Growing up, I hated being the center of attention. I didn’t like being called on in class, I was quiet (shocking I know), and I spent lots of time worrying about what others thought about me. I don’t know when I began to truly come into my own personality, but it was sometime around my senior year in high school. I started to give more presentations, speak more at family events, and I even looked for ways to stand out and give a talk or speech of any kind. In college I tried out for a drama team on a whim and was selected to be in the group. I found a love for improv and performance. I never performed in a play or took acting lessons, but I had a good amount of experience in front of a crowd. Then I became a teacher.
There is no better place than the classroom to learn how to speak in a public setting. I remember the first day that I had students of my own. Every child sat down in a seat and I closed the door. When I turned around there they were, 28 pairs of eyes looking at me, sizing me up, and preparing to cook me alive. They did too. I pulled out all the stops for that first year. I learned how to capture an audience and how to lose one. Many days I went home wiped out from trying to control the room, to keep up with all the planning and organizing, and to deliver quality instruction. It was exhausting, but by the end of the year, I got a good handle on it. Over the next six years, I got to the point where I could walk into a room and deliver quality without a hint of apprehension. Being in front of an audience became second nature.
My skill in the classroom began to bleed over into my other jobs. At His Heart, which I discuss in this blog post here, I was the designated “tour guide.” I gave the official spiel to all our volunteer groups that came to work with us. A few years ago I started hosting a podcast weekly and took my skill at speaking in front of an audience into the airwaves. After my fight with cancer and starting this blog, I found that speaking to groups about my journey was incredibly helpful in getting past the fear of cancer. It became almost therapeutic to share my experience to others around me.
Over the past few months in my new career at Yelverton Consulting that you can learn about here, I have had the great opportunity (and time) to speak to local groups and events about my story. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. I hope that these speaking engagements lead to more opportunities. But for the moment I wanted to give some tips that I learned from teaching that definitely applies to anyone that has an upcoming presentation or meeting that they have to speak at.
Tip #1: Know Your Source
There is absolutely no way that I can stand in front of a crowd and talk about playing the guitar. I know very little about the guitar and even less about technique and equipment. Students always knew when I didn’t know what I was talking about. They can sniff it out a mile away. The best thing to do was to just be up front and honest. I would say, “Ok, I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” When you are up in front of an audience, do your due diligence. Know the source so that when you talk, you can speak openly about the subject. No one knows you better than you, so the easiest topic I talk about is my journey. I know it the best. Find that topic or group of topics that you know the best and then learn more. I know the topics that I can speak strongly on and I steer clear of the others. But a big caveat to this idea is when you are required to talk about a topic that you know very little about. Maybe you are assigned a project at school or work that you know nothing about. Well that is where research comes in. It only takes one instance of being embarrassed on stage or at a podium to learn that lesson. Take a topic and run with it.
Question to ponder: What topic or topics could you talk freely about right now with minimal research? (Hint: What are you passionate about? Got it? Now run with it!)
Tip #2: Know Your Audience
Think about everyone you talk to on a weekly basis. In that group that you just pictured there are some things that you just can’t say in front of some that you can in front of others. For instance, I know that talking about math during my talks would probably put everyone to sleep (“I was told there would be no math!”), so I try to stay away from big math lingo. But how do you gage an audience? I start this process with a series of questions directed to the person asking me to speak. Who is the audience? What do you want to be the end result of my talk? Etc. These questions give you a picture of your audience before you ever see them. Once in front of the audience, it does not take long for you to know them. You can see who is engaged and who is on their cell phone, who laughs and nods at your words and who stares blankly at you. The best way to avoid boring the audience is to know them and speak to them as if you are among them. Then you can take them with you anywhere.
Question to ponder: What group of people could you speak to and be the most effective with? (kids? students? veterans? etc.)
Tip #3: Get After It
Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of study on a particular subject to become a master at it. Well if that is the case, we need to be getting up and at it. Because of my job, I was forced to practice public speaking everyday of the school year. I had to come each day ready to present and get better at engaging an audience daily. If you have a big presentation coming up, what are you doing to prepare? Writing notes helps me formulate my talk and gather my thoughts. I rarely look at my notes when I am talking, but I took the time to sit and write them out, which in turn solidified the talk into my mind. When I don’t make notes, I flub my words, lose my train of thought, and get nervous. On top of notes, the more that I actually go through my talk mentally or speak it out loud, the better I am during the actual speech. Start by performing your talk in front of friends, family, or just your spouse and encourage them to give constructive feedback. I find it almost harder to talk in front of a small group of those that really love you than a large group of strangers. The key is to practice. Keep at it until you feel solid in the content and delivery. If you are solid there, the rest will fall into place.
Question to ponder: If you strive to be better at public speaking, where is a good, safe place to practice on your upcoming speech or talk? Who would provide constructive feedback?
I have had the privilege to speak at many events over the past few months. I have given talks at Clinton Public Schools, MS Wildlife Fisheries and Parks Super Hunt, and the MS Assessors and Collectors Association Fall Conference. I have also emceed the annual LLS Light the Night Walk as well as appeared on the Do Good MS podcast. If you have a need for a speaker at your next conference or even a little boost to your next staff meeting, send me a request to speak here. I would love to work with you! For those out there practicing to give a talk or are as into it as I am, I hope my few thoughts help to make your next speaking engagement the best one yet.