The fear of public speaking has routinely been rated the number one fear, even above death! Think about that for a second. Someone petrified of public speaking and asked to deliver a eulogy would rather be the person in the box than the one delivering the speech! I can sympathize. My first speech was five minutes long before my junior high English class. Apparently, it was designed to teach us the importance of public speaking. I was petrified. I decided to talk about how I had put a model truck together. I stood in front of the class, almost passing out from fear. I looked straight down at the floor and mumbled some incoherent stream of consciousness for five minutes until the teacher put me out of my misery by saying my time was up.
Fast forward several decades, and today I routinely speak to business audiences giving programs from 30 minutes to several hours. Today, among other things, I am a paid professional speaker and have been paid thousands of dollars for giving a one-hour speech to a professional business association. It has become one more way to build my multiple streams of income. Those of you petrified to speak in front of a group of any size might be asking what could possibly have changed from that fateful day in front of my junior high English class and today. The short answer is practice. The longer answer is a bit more nuanced.
Public Speaking – One of the Most Important Business Skills
First, if you are utterly terrified to speak in front of any group, why would you put yourself through that pain instead of simply avoiding it for the rest of your natural life? The reason is that this is not a practical way to live. We live in a world where people need to communicate with others, and sometimes that is best accomplished with a speech in front of a group. More important for people living the Money Outlaw lifestyle is that in the business world, being a great public speaker is one of the most important skills you can cultivate. Learning to be a good public speaker will improve all your communication skills–not just your public speaking skills.
I have used public speaking to make sales presentations, earn income, raise capital for real estate investing, and build credibility and leadership among my peers. People who can speak well in public and give a good speech in front of others will be viewed with more credibility, leadership, and authority than those who can’t. This is simply human nature. I don’t know why, but I have seen it happen repeatedly over the years.
I can talk to a single person about any topic. I may or may not convince them I know what I am talking about but let me deliver that same topic to a group in the form of a public speech, and I will be regarded as knowledgeable and an authority on the topic. There is a joke in the speaking industry that you will be viewed as an expert if you deliver a speech 50 miles or more from home. I have found this true throughout my career, but it even applies when speaking in my own backyard.
“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.”
Practice Makes Perfect
The good news is that the path to becoming a better public speaker is simply practice. It is a skill like any other and can be learned by anyone. Dedicate yourself to making it part of your lifelong learning and you will improve. How do you improve if you are too petrified to stand up in front of a group of any size, even to practice? The answer is to do it in a safe space.
A few years after my disastrous junior high English class speech, I entered high school and joined ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp). This program teaches leadership skills to those contemplating a career in the military. My whole grade during my freshman year was based on my ability to deliver a 5-minute speech in front of the class. We were trained all year, among other things, to deliver this one speech flawlessly. I was still terrified when I gave my speech, but at least I didn’t look at the floor and delivered it reasonably well. The only thing that made this possible was lots and lots of practice combined with my whole grade hanging in the balance. I gave speeches several more times during high school for ROTC. This was a reasonably safe environment to deliver it in because all of us were required to do it, and nobody wanted to be critical of someone else knowing their turn in front of the group was coming.
The Real Secret to Public Speaking: Toastmasters International
Even though I did OK at public speaking during my ROTC days in high school, I was still nervous every time I spoke and was far from a good public speaker. When I got to college, I heard about a group called Toastmasters International. Toastmasters was started well over 100 years ago, in 1905. It is an organization that teaches people to become better public speakers. There are chapters all over the world, with potentially several chapters in any city. Most are very low-cost to join and meet at least monthly.
Toastmasters is a safe place to learn and practice your public speaking skills. Everyone in the organization is there for the same reason – to become a better public speaker. The organization has a strict code of conduct to give gentle, constructive, and specific feedback. Members have an opportunity at every meeting to improve their speaking skills. In addition, the organization has laid out a specific learning path for new speakers where each person does ten speeches of approximately 10 minutes each. The first speech focuses on a specific skill set, and then the new speaker goes to the second speech, which focuses on a different skill. Piece by piece, each speech you make builds up your skills. When you have completed all ten speeches, you become a bronze Toastmaster and know the basics of giving a speech. From there, members can move on to new skills and keep advancing.
I was a member for several years and learned almost all my speaking skills through their detailed and excellent program. Years later, when I started speaking professionally, I discovered that almost all professional speakers were or continue to be members of Toastmasters International. Even after I became a professional speaker, I stayed in my chapter for years and used it as a place to practice the material and improve my techniques. I can’t say enough great things about Toastmasters or what I got from it. Over the years, many people have complimented my public speaking skills, but I owe that to my start in Toastmasters. I believe this is a hidden gem for entrepreneurs, investors, or anyone else in business.
How to Practice Safely
The best public speakers follow a basic set of strategies and techniques, and as their experience grows, they will develop their own style and techniques that are unique to them, but all of them follow the basics. Here are some tips and strategies to get you started.
Practice in Front of the Mirror
The safest place to begin is by yourself in front of a mirror. Memorize a couple of paragraphs of a speech on any topic and deliver it to yourself in the mirror. Focus on holding eye contact with yourself as you deliver it. This may sound like a silly exercise, but one of the things that cause new speakers to get nervous is seeing people in the audience make eye contact with them. This causes a lot of people to get nervous and forget what they were talking about. If you practice in front of the mirror and focus on holding eye contact with yourself, you can get used to holding eye contact with someone, even if it is you to start. In addition, you can focus on hearing how you speak out loud as you would if you were delivering a speech. You can see if you have strange facial expressions or hand gestures that others might find distracting. You can also deliver your speech to your favorite pet laying nearby, be it a dog or cat, but are equally non-judgemental.
Practice in Front of a Video Camera
In addition to practicing in front of the mirror, you can use a video camera to record yourself. Set up your cell phone camera and record yourself giving a speech. Set up the camera before you or off to the side and record your delivery. Go back and watch your delivery. You will be surprised by how many things you notice, from distracting hand gestures to vocal pauses. You can see how smoothly you deliver your speech. Again, this is a safe way to practice and learn without anyone being around. If you like what you see, show the video to a trusted friend, and ask them what they think. Solicit feedback from different people and write down their thoughts. Between practicing in front of a mirror and using a video camera, you can get a lot of practice without another living person even hearing you. It doesn’t get much safer than that.
Public Speaking Tips
Once you have had a chance to practice in front of a mirror or using a video camera, you are ready to focus on some basic presentation skills that every speaker must do well in delivering any speech. These skills are best performed in front of a live audience where you can solicit feedback. One more reason to join Toastmasters. These will take a bit of practice, but ultimately it is simply becoming aware of them so you can work on eliminating them or using them effectively. These are also the ones that Toastmasters focuses on helping you improve.
Everyone has heard vocal pauses before. People use them in one-on-one speech as well as public speaking. It is a pause you insert using a verbal cue. Most people do this when they have too much nervous energy or are unsure what to say next. When you hear people say “ah,” “um,” or “you know” and other verbal pauses. Once you become aware of them, you will hear them all the time, especially when others give any kind of speech. They are very distracting and need to be eliminated. Toastmasters have a very effective technique for helping people eliminate them. When people speak at any Toastmasters meeting, someone will ring a bell if they use one. It doesn’t take long before you become aware of them and realize how many times you use them. This will help you eliminate them. In my first speech at Toastmasters, I used 27 of them in a 1-minute speech! That is almost once every 2 seconds. Today when I speak, I rarely do it. The constant reminder with the bell made me aware I was doing it and helped me be more conscious of it and eliminate them.
If you suddenly blank out and can’t remember the next point you wanted to make, you can use a rhetorical question. Memorize some questions you think the audience would have ahead of time. If you cannot recall your next point, simply ask a rhetorical question and then answer it. Sometimes this strategy is enough of a pause to allow your brain to catch up and get you back on track. Just make sure your question fits with where you are at, and it flows. Don’t ask a completely inappropriate question about the material you are on.
Your tone of voice is an essential skill to develop. You want to use a steady pace with occasional variable delivery when you are talking. You don’t want to sound monotone. You also want to be heard without talking too softly or loudly. This simply takes practice. Once you speak enough, you learn how to modulate your voice for the space you are speaking in for the audience you are talking to. Over time you will learn how to add inflections on certain words, such as raising your voice slightly to emphasize a point. Ultimately, you are trying to talk naturally as you would with anyone, but in this case, you are doing it in a speech instead of one-on-one.
You want to watch what you are doing with your hands when speaking. Some people “talk” with their hands, which can distract from a public speech. President H.W. Bush was famous for speaking with his hands and became the butt of many jokes by comedian Dana Carvey. He eventually got better, but it goes to show you that this is something that can afflict everyone. Conversely, you don’t want to stand stiffly with your hands glued to your side like some robot. Your hands can be used to emphasize a point or for other special effects; again, it just takes practice, as, with the first two points, you simply want your gestures to look natural. If you are speaking behind a lectern, you can rest your hands on it and only remove them when you want to gesture to something or make a point, like holding your arms apart to demonstrate the size of something, for example.
This is probably the hardest skill to master when giving a public speech. For some reason, when people make eye contact with someone, they often lose their train of thought and start using vocal pauses or simply stop and can’t remember where they were at. However, the solution isn’t always to look down, either. If you do that, you lose your audience, it might be hard to hear you, and your audience isn’t sure who you are addressing. Ultimately you need to make eye contact with people, but to a new speaker, this is hard. A hack I was taught in the beginning is to focus your eyes just above people’s heads on the back wall of whatever room you are speaking in.
By essentially focusing on the back of the room, your head is up, and if you are just above people’s heads, then it looks like you are making eye contact without actually doing it. Occasionally looking left or right while doing this gives you the illusion of moving your head naturally and looking at the audience. Still, you won’t be distracted by making actual eye contact. As you gain confidence, you will eventually want to make eye contact with people and gently move from one person to another as you make points. Again, this simply takes practice and confidence.
The bad news is that the best speakers don’t use note cards. The good news is that some tricks work, like notes, that you can use. Before any beginning speakers start to go into a panic attack here, you can use notes, but it is something you should work at eliminating over time. However, you should not read a speech word for word. The reason is that doing so means you aren’t making eye contact with your audience and are looking down. If you use notes, use bullet points for key points and possibly some sub-bullets under each main point to keep you on track. This brings me to my next speaking hack. I often prepare a PowerPoint presentation and use it during my speech. My slide deck is essentially my visual cues and note cards wrapped together. Each slide lists the bullet points I will discuss, and I even put sub-bullets under the main points. By glancing at my slides, which gives the audience something to follow, I can queue myself to the next point I need to discuss.
Another trick I use is down in the corner of my slide; I will often put one or two words to queue myself about a story I want to tell on that slide. For example, once, I was giving a speech on digital marketing, and I had a slide discussing PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising. To emphasize a point on how to target, I prepared a funny story about my first-time doing archery. Down in the corner of my slide, I put in small letters the word “Archery.” The word was in a small font and down in the corner. Nobody looking at my slides knew what it meant and probably didn’t even notice, but it reminded me that I wanted to tell that story on this slide. Now, one note here. You need to know your material well enough that a bullet point or sub-bullet can tell you what you want to discuss. Please don’t write your entire program on a slide and read it. Your audience can read the slide and don’t need you. Your job is to deliver the material, not read it to them. Just use bullets. Finally, be prepared with the possible questions you might be asked.
To overcome stage fright, you will need a variety of strategies. Before you go on stage, try what soldiers call combat breathing. Essentially you take a long slow breath in for a count of four. Then hold your breath for a count of four. Finally, slowly exhale for a count of four. Do this several times, about 5 minutes before you go on stage. This will help you calm down and focus. Once you go on the stage, just before speaking, take a couple of deep breaths. Doing both will help you calm your nerves and prepare yourself for speaking. Even today, I still use both techniques when preparing to speak. It isn’t just for beginners.
It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.
Learning any new skill is difficult, but learning public speaking skills should be on your short list of skills to learn. I have used my public speaking skills more times than I can count. It has become an essential part of my career success. A good public speaker can deliver everything from a sales presentation to TED Talks and everything in between. They are comfortable in almost every public speaking situation. The credibility you build with an audience when you can stand in front of them and confidentially and skillfully deliver a speech in your area of expertise is priceless. By delivering a great speech on digital marketing, I have won multiple consulting contracts from audience members who learned from what I delivered and wanted to hire me for their company.
This is one of my primary ways to generate sales leads. I will agree to speak to a business group for free and sometimes for a fee. Near the end of my presentation, I will tell the audience to drop their business card in a jar on a table if they want a copy of my slide deck. When I send them a copy of the slides, I start a dialogue, often leading to new business.
I have also earned many leadership positions and board appointments through public speaking. People see me do this, think I would be good for this or that position, and will approach me to see if I am interested. By giving speeches, I am assumed to be more charismatic and knowledgeable on a topic than simply conversing with someone one-on-one. It gives people a good impression of my knowledge of a topic and is a great way to build credibility. As a result, public speaking has been a core piece of building my freelance business.
Overcoming my fear and becoming an accomplished public speaker has changed my career trajectory and given me opportunities I would have never received without my public speaking abilities. It is a skill like anything else. It can be learned. It isn’t a magic power only a few are blessed with. Even if you are terrified today, I was in that group; you can still learn this and become good at it. Find a Toastmasters chapter and join. Start working through their program. It will give you the skills and confidence you need to be a great public speaker.
The information contained within this website is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for obtaining legal, accounting, tax, or financial advice from a professional tax planner or financial planner. Full disclosure
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