Almost twenty years ago, I gave my first big presentation on behalf of the software company at which I worked.  It was a disaster: there were far more people in the audience than I’d expected and I hadn’t known that my presentation would be videotaped.  My hands shook, lips trembled and my face drained of all colour – and it was all captured on camera and then shown to my senior managers.

It took a while to recover from this initial, nightmare-ish foray into the world of public speaking.  On the advice of one of my managers, I tried a Second City course to help loosen me up in front of an audience.  I laughed a lot (mostly at myself) but I knew I needed more practise after the course ended.  I signed up for another speaking course with a professional actor – she videotaped me and the other participants speaking and I began to feel (slightly) less terrified by the thought of being on camera.

Finally, I decided to sign up for Toastmasters, the public speaking club I’d been hearing about for years.  Everything people had been saying about it was true: with the steady practice its format provides along with the warm and enthusiastic support of other club members, it’s impossible not to get more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd and effectively so.  I enjoyed it so much that I started getting involved in the running of my club, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m currently serving as President of West Mall Toastmasters (check us out!).

Today I’d like to share my three top tips for becoming a better public speaker:

#1 – Consider your speaking weakness to be your speaking strength

Do you feel like you talk too much?  Ask yourself: what is great about the fact that you like to talk a lot?  I.e. What do other people get out of hearing you speak?  Is it valuable information that you’re sharing, or insights into your life that could be helpful in their own?

Or, do you feel like you’re too soft-spoken to be effective?  Ask yourself: what is the best part about being soft-spoken?  How do other people benefit from that?

Our tendency is to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we criticize ourselves too harshly.  You may need to hone the quality that makes you stand out, but it’s a valuable quality nonetheless and the trick is to have the courage to see it that way; to see yourself that way.

#2 – Get Your Audience Involved, Quickly

These days, attention spans are so short that if you don’t involve your audience in your presentation, you may lose them altogether.  Quiz the audience in your introduction, and use humour if you can: if your speech is about using social media for your business, ask them, “how many of you have stalked an ex on social media?” to get a sense of how many people in the room are actually on social media.  Ask, “how many of you can use the word hashtag properly in a sentence?” (this would be directed to an “older” crowd of course, e.g. anyone like myself who is over forty!).

A tip I picked up from a facilitation course I attended is to get people into paired or small group conversations as soon as possible.  This creates trust and allows people to feel comfortable with each other right away, which increases engagement and participation throughout the presentation. People don’t just want to listen to you yakking away – rather, they like to get involved and share their thoughts and opinions in a supportive atmosphere.

#3 – Practise, practise, practise

The single best way I know how to get better at public speaking is to practise doing it, over and over again.  Getting up and speaking to a crowd – whether it consists of five or fifty people – helps you face any fear you may have and even get used to feeling anxious from time to time.  Each time you speak, it’s important to reflect on what went well and what you can improve on in order to learn and grow from each experience.  The more you speak, the more you’ll notice the techniques that other speakers use to engage and inspire their audiences, and you’ll be able to try some of them out as well.

Some people think that in order to speak well, you have to be able to come up with good content off the cuff.  The best “impromptu” speakers I know have practised far more than you can imagine (think of any good comedian you like – their spouses and friends have heard their jokes many times before, and multiple versions of them). Those one-liners that I throw out from time to time?  My cat’s heard them ten times before.  Those questions I ask to the audience, which seem spontaneous?  The face looking back at me in my bathroom mirror would beg to differ.

Public speaking is necessary to grow your business or lead in your organization – as much as you may like to avoid it, you’ll have to develop these skills at some point if you want to move up in the world.  Public speaking is also about having the courage to be who you are in front of an audience; to own your own wisdom and claim the authority of your experience in a crowd.  That in itself is worth the effort of becoming a better speaker.

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Public speaking is just one of the practices I help people develop to support their careers and leadership in life.  If you’d like to learn about additional practices you can work on to help you create positive change in your life, please visit Listen, Sense, Grow or contact me for a free consultation.