Let’s say you’re a bit like me and you agreed to speak at a public event because you’re ambitious and have something to say. You also have no experience to fall back on when it comes to presenting yourself on stage, so the only thing you have to guide you through this endeavor is your ingenuity and sheer will.
What do you do?
Let’s begin with what you shouldn’t do.
You shouldn’t expect this to be easy. Public speaking is a craft, dare I say an art. It takes tons of experience for it to become like second nature, so if you aren’t so good at it yet, don’t bang yourself up about it. But you should certainly meet this endeavor with an air of seriousness. After all, you’re serious about giving this talk, aren’t you?
The next thing you shouldn’t do is consume a bunch of self-help videos and articles about the hypothetical 10 Easy Steps You Can Take to Become A Public Speaking Guru. Such content is good click-bait and easy inspiration, but it improves your speaking skills as much as reading a bicycle manual teaches you to ride a bike. At its best, it’ll give you an abstract idea of what it looks like to shine on stage. At its worst, it’ll provide you with false expectations regarding what it takes to deliver a good talk.
So, what should you do? As I said, public speaking is a bit of an art, and all creatives create in their own distinct way. I can tell you a bunch of generalized tips that can apply to everyone, but your situation is unique to you, and generalizations don’t help so much on that front. What I can give you, however, is my own personal account on what I did when I found myself in such a predicament.
It’s Okay To Be Afraid.
I freaked out because I’d agreed to do something difficult with no prior experience. Yes, I had watched YouTube videos and read articles about it, and even gave presentations in grade school. But this was different. I imagined emulating great speakers like Simon Sinek, Sir Ken Robinson, or Oprah. Imagining is great. It inspired me to do well—helped me believe that I could do well—but inspiration lacks substance. In my fantasies, I could be my ideal and make no scarring mistakes. Real life didn’t feel so safe, and no amount of internal hype would magically make me a public speaking black-belt.
In real life, I get nervous.
In real life, I’m afraid that if I make a fool of myself, it doesn’t go away by the mere act of waking up from the nightmare. It feels like I’ll have to live with the memory of how badly I did, and depending on the degree of my debacle, I may never wish to go on stage again. So it was critical that I didn’t screw it up because I wanted to do well, and if I did well, maybe someone would benefit from my talk in some meaningful way. If I dropped the ball, they’d never get their wasted time back. It was imperative that I make the talk worth their while, so eventually, I stopped reading about it, stopped watching guides, and started practicing.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Practice won’t make perfect because perfection is impossible, but as the old saying goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” And that’s better than nothing, right?
People go about practicing in different ways. Some go straight to Toast Masters events with a rough sketch of a speech to hone their skills. Others like me began with making a statement that I believed to be true and ought to be said aloud. Why? Because my background wasn’t in public speaking, it’s in writing fiction. Any talk worth remembering tells a story, and to me, any good story will say at least one true thing (thank you, Hemingway). When I gave my talk, that statement was this: “When we try to change people against their will, we’re attempting to force them to adopt the standards we hold to ourselves—i.e. unconsciously attacking a weakness of ours that we see in them.”
It took me a whole day to come up with that statement, but once I had it, I was able to outline the rest of the talk around it. From that outline came a rough draft, and from that first draft came . . . a second, slightly less rough draft. It was at this point that the time for writing had come to an end. The next part was to speak.
Over preparing is better than under preparing.
I read my talk aloud and recorded it with my smart phone so that I could listen to it whenever I wasn’t able to rehearse, like when I was riding the bus, doing a monotonous task at work, exercising, etc. To anyone with any sense, I’d have probably looked obsessed—and you know what? They’d be right. The more obsession, the merrier. I was, after all, on a deadline, and I wanted to be able to recite this thing in my sleep.
How often did I rehearse? Whenever I had the chance, really. I’d rehearse to myself multiple times a day, and when my wife got home from work, I’d speak in front of her. I called up a few friends who were willing to spend an hour listening to my talk, and when they weren’t busy, I got my siblings to listen, too. One of my friends even went so far as to coach me on stage presentation—to “stop wobbling back and forth and stand firm with your shoulders back; to not shake and pace too much, because any odd movements will distract the audience from what you’re trying to say.” Things like hand gestures and acting out scenes was fine so long as they were done well, so I practiced that, too.
There were times where my co-workers thought I might be losing it given my constant muttering to myself, so I gave them some context for my behavior and told them about the talk. It was embarrassing to have them catch me acting weird, but better a little embarrassment now than a lot in front of a crowd.
When the date of the event had arrived and I had to get on stage, I was still shaking. Trying my best not to, but anxious, nonetheless. It was my first public talk. I didn’t really know what to expect. When the MC finally announced my name, I got up and delivered my story as best as I could.
To Bring It All Together
In the end, I think the talk went well. No one spoke over me, and I didn’t see anyone on their phones. If you’re someone who simply doesn’t know how to handle yourself in front of a group, I advise you to find one person in the crowd to focus on and aim your sights on them. I’m an introvert, so dealing with groups is not at all my strong suit. But when I focus on one person, the talk becomes more like a conversation—they aren’t verbally responding to me, but I watch their faces to see how they react to what I’m saying. As a result, I end up feeling more comfortable on stage, and they feel more personally involved with the speaker. If you focus on one person for too long it can become awkward, so remember to switch it up. Focus on different parts of the audience. It’s an aspect of learning how to read the room.
If you do mess up on stage, like blanking out or not remembering what point you’re supposed to bring up next, don’t worry. You will feel a bit embarrassed if you’re new to speaking, and that’s fine. Take a moment to pause and collect your thoughts—the pause may even come off as dramatic to the audience. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly long pauses, maybe just chuckle a bit to relieve your stress and let the audience know you forgot what you were talking about. Most people will laugh because most audiences are understandable. They know you aren’t perfect, and if they themselves were on stage, they could fall short in the same way. The audience lodging tomatoes at you is probably the last thing that could happen.
So, what now?
Now you get off your computer and start working on your talk. If you can’t easily say what your talk is going to be about, write it out as your true statement and post it in the comments. The rest is just practice.
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