The fear of speaking in public ranks right up there with the fear of death. I had the same fear myself until I was chosen to be an electronics trainer for the Air Force. It was only then I realized just how afraid and lousy at speaking I really was. I went to my first day of the 8 week training course excited and looking forward to learning a skill that many have never mastered. I soon found out I was really terrible and needed a lot of practice.
Practice? Yes, that and knowledge are all it takes to become a really great speaker in a very short time.
I even have the first video they made of my very first speech. I still look at it sometimes when I need a good laugh. I was talking about investing in the stock market, and my hands did pretty much whatever they wanted. My hands decided, for some weird reason, to perform something known well among speakers as the "fig leaf".
Remember Adam and Eve? They were supposed to have worn fig leaves. Because I did not know what to do with my hands during that first speech, my hands decided for themselves to cover my crotch, clasped together with white knuckles. Geez, how embarassing. I never did that again while speaking!
I told you this story so you can laugh along with me. I also wanted it to help you understand some of the basics about becoming a great speaker.
1. Practice your speech over and over. There are several good reasons for this. The first reason is time. There’s nothing worse than "going over" the time limit your client gave you. Another good reason is to find out if you really know the material you’ll be talking about. Video taping yourself will show you mountains of improvement that must be done!
2. Write your speech out completely on paper first. While practicing (in front of a mirror always), slowly get away from "reading" your speech to just talking about it. Eventually, as you memorize what you’re going to say, you won’t need notes.
3. Always stand with your body (especially your mouth) facing the audience. This will feel strange at first, because your initial inclination will be to turn away from them. If you are using a presentation board or whiteboard, make sure that you write, then turn around and talk to them about it. Point to it with a pointer while facing them and speaking. So many speakers go to write on a board and end up talking to the board!
4. Your hands should exercise natural gestures while you’re speaking. Don’t flail your arms around or play "pocket pool" with the change in your pockets. Avoid nervous gestures like playing with your tie, or twisting your hair, waving a pointer around, or rubbing your nose. Speaking first in front of a mirror will help you avoid these later. While looking in the mirror, watch what stupid, nervous things you tend to do and be very aware of them always.
5. When you see your audience start to yawn or begin squirming, get your jokes ready. If you’re a natural comedian, you will be able to come up with one on the fly. If you’re not a natural comedian, have a couple of your favorite anecdotes ready to tell when they are needed.
6. Watch the audience closely. They are the most important element in your speech. If you have to, pick one person out and ask them questions to make the speech more interesting.
7. Speak with a voice that is neither too low, too high-pitched, or just plain monotone. Inject tone in your voice in every sentence. Practice this in front of a mirror so your speeches don’t become something people forget.
8. Your enthusiasm will make you memorable. The subject, I hope, is something you are very enthusiastic about, and it should show. The twinkle in your eye, the tone of your voice, and your body movements should suggest excitement and interest. It will rub off on your audience. You’ll see them sit up in their chairs and start really paying attention.
9. Look at everyone while you are speaking. Don’t pick out just one part of the room to talk to. The rest of the room will wonder if you’ve got a buddy in that part of the audience! Speak to all of them.
10. Know your subject thoroughly. Those mornings when I felt I had not studied enough the night before made me feel very uncomfortable with the electronics subject I was teaching that day. I like to study at night, sleep on it, and then I would really be ready the next day. If I tried to study just before the speech, it was never quite as effective. No matter what, knowing your subject well puts you at ease. This also puts your audience at ease.
11. Make sure you end your speech with something that sounds like a summary or ending. I don’t know how many times I have listened to speeches where the speaker just stops! There’s a long pause while the audience tries to figure out if that was it or not. Then comes some sprinkled clapping, unsure at first. How humiliating! Your ending should sound like a real ending.
If you are a writer, salesman, consultant, or any number of other business-related professionals, there will be times when you will be asked to speak in front of an audience. A lot of practice and preparation will make you great!
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