Tips for a Successful Speech (and Not Making a Fool of Yourself)
By Cheryl Carrier
You can’t sleep, you can’t eat
There’s no doubt, you’re in deep
Your throat is tight, you can’t breathe…
Lyrics to the song “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer
Yes, that is what it feels like for some people who have to give a speech or a presentation.
I can vividly remember my first speech in Coachella Valley, CA in front of a group of regional educators and employers. My heart was beating rapidly as I stepped onto the podium. I grabbed the lectern like it was my lifeline while the stage lights shone brightly into my dilated pupils. I felt trembling in my arms and legs as blood rushed to my head, and the room started to spin. Yes, it was that bad. Unfortunately, the topic of my speech was not the fight-or-flight response.
I searched the room for my colleagues — the ones who just moments before were cheering me on as I headed up to the stage. I thought spotting their smiling faces would calm me. What I saw instead were two colleagues who looked as though they were expecting my head to spin like Linda Blair in ”The Exorcist!” So much for grounding and calming me. In fact, I think they might have been holding hands and leaning into each other out of fear. You know, like lovers do while watching a horror movie right before the masked serial killer runs screaming out of the darkness, wielding a bloody ax.
You are probably wondering why am I reliving this horrible moment in my life 14 years and hundreds of speeches later. It’s because I recently mentored someone who, for the first time in her professional career, was overcome with anxiety as she prepared to give a presentation. As she described her fears, the experience I described earlier came rushing back to mind as though it was yesterday. I truly felt the pain and insecurity my mentee was going through.
Today, yes, I still get nervous, but I have learned some really important lessons about public speaking and presenting. I shared those tips with my friend. As I mentored her, I realized that I too go through these tips every time I get up on a stage. And, if you thought it was easier for those uncomfortable with public speaking to present virtually, think again. While it may not be harder, it can be just as stressful. So, I have also included some tips that are always important but especially on target for virtual presentations.
Are you ready? Here we go!
What to Know:
- Know your audience. Seriously — do your due diligence! What does your audience care about? What are their concerns? Where do they tend to lean on issues related to your topic? What could persuade them to think differently? If you are going to talk about gun control at an IRA meeting — you better have your presentation rationale fully loaded if you hope to persuade someone to give up their guns.
- Know the topic. Be knowledgeable and passionate about your topic! (If I need to tell you this, then…yikes!) Make sure you get really clear about the goal of the presentation. Are you trying to build advocacy, inspire change, or build engagement? Who has asked you to present or speak? What kind of response are they trying to illicit? Persuade the audience with your passion, your experience, and your expertise.
- Virtual Presentation Tip #1: Because everyone is close-up and personal, if you don’t know your topic or your audience well, you cannot hide. Think the Buggles hit song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
How to Prep:
- Write a script. This may sound counter-intuitive if you want to appear like your message is second nature and that you are the expert — write a script or the result you want will not happen. You may not use your script word for word, but if you read it over and over to perfect your message, you will begin to develop a cadence and a flow. Heck, you may not even need a script on the day of the presentation. In the end, maybe all that’s required is an outline or bullet points. Whatever the case, developing a script and refining it will build confidence, increase capability, and help overcome those pesky nerves.
- Use your own words. I cannot tell you how important this is. There was a time when I used a colleague to read my script and infuse his words. Trust me, that does not usually work. To say the least, his words did not exactly roll off my tongue. The whole thing felt incredibly awkward, and it sounded even worse. Why? Because his interpretation of my message and how he would say it was so different from the words I would use. While both may be correct, using someone else’s words will not feel comfortable. You will find yourself stumbling with a lot of “ums” and “you knows” which certainly doesn’t grab an audience’s attention.
- Slow down and pause. This was a big point of learning for me. Talk slowly. Taking pauses can help emphasize a point and can add a touch of drama. It makes your speech more interesting. It can add gravity, it can add humor, it can add emotion, and, needless to say, it can help you catch your breath and find your place.
One more very important point — think about how you normally communicate. Chances are when you are in a conversation discussing something crucial or difficult you will naturally take deep breaths and long pauses. Use those same tendencies when speaking to an audience. Pause to take a breath, then make an eye-to-eye connection with your audience. Eye contact will make each of them feel like they are the only one in the room. For you, the audience is everything. They ground you, they empathize with you, they give you strength, and they acknowledge your message by smiling or nodding.
- Read “Talk Like Ted” by Carmine Gallo. Trust me on this one. It’s one of those reads that can change your life!
- Virtual Presentation Tip #2: For goodness sake, if you are going to read from a prompter or from a script, at least keep the webcam at eye level and look frequently into the lens. If you don’t, your audience will get the distinct pleasure of looking up your neck and into your nose or the horrible shot of the top of your head as you stare down at your script. Unless you have an especially interesting tattoo on the top of your noggin, neither are the kind of looks I would recommend.
Engage the Audience:
- Start with a story. (I give this tip four stars!) It doesn’t have to be your story, but it needs to be a story to which your audience can relate. It could be about something that happened at the conference you’re attending, it could be related to your topic, or it could be a great story about your travels en route to the event. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something the audience can identify with.
- Solidify the connection. Ask questions of the audience to get them involved, to build empathy, to better understand who is in attendance, or to just plain wake them up. But wait — if you are following my tips they are already awake, and they are sitting on the edge of their seats, hanging on your every word!
- End with a story or a stellar quote. Wrap up your speech or presentation with a pretty bow. Restate your premise, and remind your audience of the takeaways you want them to remember. Finish things off with a closing story. Personally, I often share the same story, because it is so meaningful to my work and the Ford NGL Mission. I talk about Sequoia tree roots, and how that relates to our valued communities and how our members support each other. Find your wrap-up story or stories, and refine them over time to work for you.
- Virtual Presentation Tip #3: Stories are an indispensable communication device. What’s great is that they are your stories, so you know them well. Stare right into the eye of the video camera as you deliver the details. Your audience will feel and see your passion and appreciate your expertise.
Do or Dies:
- Practice, practice, practice. Oh, did I already say this in “Write a Script?” Yep, I did, and it is so important that I am going to say it again. Practicing works. Trust me!
- Check your fly. “I see London, I see France, I see Cheryl’s underpants.” Well zip-a-dee-doo-dahl, zip-a-dee-ay! The audience sure did during my first speech! Need I say more?
- Virtual Presentation Tip #4: Make sure to get a good night’s sleep. Don’t go for the bedhead look, check your teeth for any spinach, and for goodness sake — wear pants! We have all heard the COVID-19 webinar horror stories. Don’t wake up the next day to find you are suddenly an Instagram or YouTube star, because you came up #shorts!
So, to wrap this all up, I am going to remind you again how important it is to know your audience, Be passionate about your topic, and prep and practice like your life depends on it. And don’t forget to check your fly, your lipstick — anything that might cause an unintended chuckle from the audience or anxiety for you after the fact. Above all, take a deep breath and smile. If you follow these tips, you’ll be owning it!
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Jerry Seinfeld