I once told myself that my public speaking career probably started way back in the mists of time (about 40 odd years ago to be precise). Boisterous was my middle name, really. Squeals of laughter and shouts of excitement echoed across Ramilies Park, Farnborough, the Army housing estate where I spent my formative years, memories of which are still vivid and tangible.
The reality is somewhat different. My first real talk was given in the Army and was done in typical, brutal fashion of the day: one evening to prepare your lecture/talk and a whole day to wallow in misery after your presentation skills and subject matter were ripped to shreds. To be fair, my ad-hoc talk on the possible uses of a waste paper bin (including being re-roled into a papoose) was pretty poor.
But the stage was set. Like a vast travelling companion at my side, the sights and sounds of those first 20 minutes of what I later come to know as ‘public speaking’ are still with me. Not because I am scarred or riven with the angst that many people feel when considering public speaking, but because I stepped off the rostrum with a distinct feeling of excitement buzzing through my body.
Hook. Line. Sinker!
Since then I’ve given many talks to many people – companies, schools and organisations – and every time I stand up to speak the same emotions and feelings whirr through my head. There’s a dizzy mix of excitement, fear and, from time to time, uncertainty. But why? You’d think that after so many years getting up in front of people, laying your reputation on the line and opening yourself to the world would be easy, right?
Public speaking is easy. And for the above reasons public speaking is the hardest thing most of us will ever do.
Some Common Reasons Why You Will Never Be A Public Speaker
Let’s look at some of lingering rumours that seem to have attached themselves to speaking in public:
Speaking in Front of Strangers is Really Difficult.
One of the most quoted reasons for not speaking in public is our fear of putting it out there to strangers. The fear of being ridiculed is only reason why so many people refuse to get up and present. Other concerns revolve around the fear of looking anxious when speaking which can be so extreme that the person suffers from a panic attack people we have never met. And many of us have a massive fear of the unknown, including strangers. These are powerful beliefs that prevent many people from even considering giving a presentation or talk.
The Sounds You Make
There’s an even more damaging myth that seems to circle the corridors of public speaking, staring down like a gargantuan vulture intent on picking over the carcass of our speeches – we don’t speak proper! Forget authenticity, forget being you, forget the heart of your message; without an expensive education and the hint of clipped tones you’re going down in flames.
You’ve Done Nothing in Life
This is huge for many of you: only big names get to stand on the stage and cast their spell over the audience. Forget any kind of public speaking, paid or otherwise, if you’re not in some way famous. After all, who would want to listen the message of… who?
You have done nothing noteworthy; your life is simply a mosaic of dreams that you were never able to stitch together into a coherent image that pulled you forward to the place where your vision merged with reality. You nothing to say; your achievements are, at best, trivial, pale and limp when placed alongside the experiences of people like Ranulph Fiennes, Dame Kelly Holmes, Mulala…
Four good reasons why you’re not good enough to stand up and spread whatever message it is that writhes at the back of your mind, the voice desperate to be heard. Pack up your soapbox, hang your head and go home. You don’t have what it takes.
Ignore Every Public Speaking Myth You Hear
Why? Because, to put it quite simply, all of those above points are, well, shit! Every day of the week I meet people who have amazing stories to tell: the Big Issue sellers inside and outside of London (yes, there really are homeless people living beyond the borders of our vast capital), the pensioners sat alone in cafes, the migrant workers from mainland Europe. Each and every one of them has a fascinating tale. Why shouldn’t they be heard?
Most of the reasons for not standing up and getting your message out there are self-induced. Read that statement again. Yes, some of you will now be up in arms, outraged. And that’s just what we need – more challenges; more drive for change; more action and not just talk (ironic, but relevant).
The world is awash with people who are in a constant state of preparation, or ‘…could have done it if the timing/location/message/insert excuse of choice had been right.’
We all have something to say and there will always be more than a few people willing to listen.
How to overcome the fear of public speaking.
Get up and do it! There, easy.
Look back at the reasons why you shouldn’t consider ever speaking in public, or private, and you’ll realise that every single ‘why not’ is actually one more argument for why you should go for it.
Let’s break down the earlier examples:
Speaking to Strangers is Not Hard
We do it every day, without fail. We talk on the bus, in the coffee shop queue and, unless you work in a very small company, or don’t work, to people on the shop floor. Personally, I find it much harder to speak in front of people I know, a fact that many of my friends and colleagues think is strange – logic dictates we should be more at ease in comfortable surroundings filled with familiar faces.
So how do we dispel this myth? Over the years I’ve been given a number of suggestions and the one that seems to come back like a bad penny is this: imagine your audience naked i.e. laugh at the people who’ve come to listen to you and your message. Bad idea. In terms of poor advice, this one has to rank as the most ridiculous. If you’re planning on any kind of speaking career you need to respect the people who come to listen to your message, not belittle them. Respect flows both ways, as soon as you start looking down your nose at your audience they’ll know. Goodbye credibility.
Any time when I feel a little timid (a feeling all of us experience, no matter how long we’ve been putting ourselves out there) I stop and remind myself why I’m there. Most of my public talks are for causes: getting people more interested in preserving the world we live in; helping to build confidence in young pupil; the charities I support. Pausing to reflect on the fact that what we do is about those causes we believe is an amazing antidote to a case of stage fright.
The Sound of Your Voice isn’t ‘Right’
How we talk is far less important than what we say. Let me explain: there’s a common misconception that unless you have the clipped, dulcet tones of a 1940’s BBC Radio presenter you’re not worth listening to. At best this is a ridiculous idea, at worst it’s damaging in a way that prevents some important messages from being voiced. Let’s put it another way - have you ever heard Zig Ziglar talk? Grating, right? But you can’t deny the power of his words.
Let me caveat this advice with one thought: whilst the sound of your voice matters little to most people the words you use have a huge impact on your standing. By this I mean, if you’re giving a talk to local religious group your frequent F-bombs will touch a nerve.
Do yourself a favour and focus on your story, not how you sound.
You Have No Stories to Tell
Moving along now... What have you done with your life? Climbed mountains naked? Run back to back marathons every day for a whole year? Do you hold a world record for something.... Anything? If you're like me, and pretty much the rest of the human population of Planet Earth you are... gulp... Normal. You have a job, you might have a partner and a family. He'll, you might even have a pastime beyond slumping in a chair at the end of a long day. Welcome to Normalville, population 7.5 billion and rising.
Wait a minute, there are people who want to hear what you have to say. You know that part time work you do as a firefighter? People want to hear your story, to live the fear and excitement through your words. What other jobs have you had in life? Armed Forces? Great, go talk about leadership and discipline. Talk about peace keeping and war. Speak and educate.
3 Tips to Help Maintain Focussed When Giving a Publics Talk.
As you probably know, there is a mountain of advice on the web that, in many cases, is simply regurgitated from one article to another. Instead of repeating those mantras I’ve decided to list three tips that have helped me keep focussed when talking to an audience.
1. Use the Stage Lighting
Probably the most quoted piece of advice given to any speaker is to maintain eye contact. But what happens when you’re terrified at the thought of someone looking into your soul and seeing your fear? Calamity! Instead of eyeballing your audience use background lighting to give the impression you’re maintaining eye contact. What I mean is this: most stages are lit in a way that puts the spotlight on the speaker and places the audience in the shadows. Instead of searching out their eyes you can let your gaze settle on the lighting and from time to time scan back forth, giving the impression you are sharing your attention with each and every member of the audience.
2. Inject Passion into Your Talk
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I have a dream” speech. Listeners were in a trance-like state, hanging on his every word. For 17 minutes he held sway over some 200,000 people who had gathered to hear him talk about civil rights in America. King was already a powerful speaker having learned the craft over the course of many sermons he gave in church. But what added real punch to his words was his passion. Before you get up on stage and start talking, ask yourself if you’re seeded your talk with the passion that will deliver the message you want others to hear.
3. Know What You Want to Say
Sounds ridiculous, but everyone is prone to rambling and it’s this fact that will kill audience attention – and your interest in public speaking. I have been known to let my words veer off course and into territories that are of little to no interest to my audiences. Before you start thinking about rehearsing you speech make sure you know EXACTLY what message you want to get across. Once you’ve nailed the heart of your topic it’s time to practise. It helps to create a document detailing the nature of your talk and the message you want to seed in the audience’s minds. Then ask a friend to listen and note when you’re going off-piste.
No matter what path we choose in life, we all have to start somewhere. Many years ago I knew a young man who set his heart on a very specific role in his Army career. After much training (and a lot of pain) he made the transition across units. And the skills he learned – lessons that seemed insignificant at the time – have become invaluable tools he uses every day.
The point? Don’t every believe that some part of your life isn’t interesting and that people don’t want to hear your story.