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Diary of a made man

How to Become a Better Public Speaker

by Ian Balina

A year ago


There’s an old joke that cracks me up every time. It goes something like this:

A tourist is backpacking through Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a beer. The man orders a pint and sits in silence for a while. Suddenly, one local stands up and shouts, “Fifty-seven!” and the entire pub bursts into laughter. A minute later another man yells “Forty-one!” and again everybody cracks up. The stranger is baffled, so he asks the man next to him what is going on.

“It’s quite simple, the man explains. We’ve all told the same jokes so many times that we’ve learned them by heart. So, we gave each joke a number, and when someone shouts a number, we know which joke it is.

Excited, the stranger says he would like to try. He plucks up his courage, yells “Seventy-nine!” and…crickets. No laughter, no giggles, not even a smile.

“What did I do wrong?” asks the stranger frustrated.

“Ah, it’s the way you tell’em, friend!” says the local.

That’s a decent joke, but what does it have to do with becoming a fantastic public speaker you’re probably asking.

Quite a lot.

You see, there are a lot of moving pieces that go into becoming a great public speaker. It begins with the message you want to send to your audience, and it ends with the way you deliver it.

Public Speaking Skills Don’t Come Natural For All

You probably slave over your speech, carefully crafting each phrase. You put a lot of work into writing compelling arguments that prove your hypothesis. You’re funny. You’re witty. You got something important to say. But somehow, you miserably fail when finding yourself in front of an audience. Just like the man in the joke, when you deliver, you get no reaction. Or, even worst, you paralyze with fear, forget your entire speech and mumble a few words before you run off stage, heart racing and cheeks burning with embarrassment.

Then, another person comes on stage and delivers the best speech you’ve ever heard. They are eloquent and don’t hesitate for a second. Their stories are funny and engaging. They are confident and convincing and, most importantly, the audience loves them.

You watch them in awe and ask yourself: “How did they manage to be so compelling?”

And, “Will I ever be able to speak so well in front of an audience?”

Of course. But, it takes some practice.

Just think about it, none of the persons who are excellent lecturers just woke up one day, walked on stage and delivered a magnetic speech. Sure, some might just be gifted orators, but most of them have worked hard to master the art of public speaking.

And, the good news is that you can do the same.

You see, public speaking isn’t just about speaking. It is also about the way you communicate and present yourself to your audience. It is also about how people will perceive you after you’ve addressed them.

Facing the gaze of the many eyes that turn upon you can be a real challenge. Perhaps that is why so many of us are so afraid of speaking in public: there’s something about the power of the audience’s eyes that pierce through our souls.

So, how can you overcome your fears and that self-consciousness that paralyzes you before an audience? This comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to become a fantastic public speaker.

Fear of Public Speaking

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What is your greatest fear?

Some people fear spiders. Others may be terrified of rats, clowns or flying. Some phobias are incredibly bizarre, such as the fear of the color yellow or the fear of trees.  

There’s an almost infinite list of phobias, but what ties them together is that we are ultimately afraid of being harmed. If that is true, why do so many surveys show that the fear of public speaking is at the top of the list? Why do we fear to talk in front of an audience more than we fear death? After all, it’s unlikely to suffer any real harm after getting up in front of a group.

Or, are we?

To understand the mechanism behind our deep fear of public speaking, we must look at our evolution as social animals.

  • What Causes Social Anxiety?

Humans evolved in a world filled with risks. Evidence shows that early humans were commonly hunted by a variety of large predators. One of the ways we defended ourselves was by living in groups. That way, people were able to alert each other and fight predators together. Those who worked well together had more chances of surviving. The inability to integrate into a group and contribute to its well-being was probably a death sentence for early humans. So, the threat of rejection became a great risk to us. Alone, people weren’t able to protect themselves against predators and died within a short period.

This fear of rejection has become an intrinsic part of our lives. When faced with an audience, we usually experience terror because we are afraid of rejection. This fear emerges from a primal level, and it’s connected to our evolution as social animals. Ultimately, we don’t fear being ridiculed. We are scared of being ostracized from the group and left to defend from predators on our own. We fear rejection so much because until recently getting kicked out of a group was not only a form of social death. It meant death.

  • Overcoming Your Public Speaking Fears

Speaking in public puts you in a vulnerable position. But, just as with any other anxiety, you can overcome it. Understand that fear is a primal response that uses only your most basic instincts to process the information around you. It doesn’t employ the logical thinking and analysis tools we, as humans, developed over time. So, try to turn fear from a primal response to a logical decision-making process.

Here are some methods to help you overcome your fears, regardless of their nature.

  • Find every opportunity you can to face situations that cause you discomfort;
  • Don’t go on the “what if” path. Instead, focus on acting to your maximal potential in the present.
  • Take control of when you worry. In other words, you don’t suppress your fears; you just postpone attending to them for a bit. So, instead of worrying day and night about the speech you have to deliver next week, you set a particular time in the future when you can obsess about it.
  • Acknowledge the fact that the only thing that differentiates you from the best public speakers is practice. Take advantage of every opportunity you get to speak in front of an audience, whether we’re talking about a wedding toast or a work presentation. Learn from your mistakes, fix, improve and, sooner rather than later, you will get better.

The Benefits of Public Speaking

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Practicing public speaking can not only help you overcome your fears and weaknesses, but it can also bring a wealth of advantages, both personally and professionally. Many people invest their time and effort into improving their skills to sell themselves better and advance their careers.

  • Public Speaking Improves Career Advancement

A study conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension found that public speaking builds confidence. According to the research, it didn’t matter if the subjects were knowledgeable in the topic presented to them. The simple act of working with a group and setting and meeting a goal was enough to increase their confidence.

Another benefit of practicing public speaking is that it improves your communication skills. Both personal and professional interactions require you to communicate ideas to other people. Public speaking can teach you how to organize your thoughts and present them in a coherent manner and refute an opposing argument

Sharpening your communicational skills can also help you gain more visibility in the workplace. Your manager will be more likely to select you over your coworker to give a presentation to an important client because they know you can make the company look good. Your increased visibility can certainly lead to more opportunities, be it within your organization or somewhere else.

An employee who has confidence and knows how to communicate effectively is, without a doubt, an asset to any company. More than that, the ability to express your ideas in an eloquent manner and overcome any communicational problems that usually occur in the workplace can help you advance your career.

  • Public Speaking Helps With Business Networking

Let’s face it: while you can’t deny that networking is a great way to advance your career, it’s not always at the top of our priority list. It can be awkward, tedious and, at times, terrifying. To connect with others and build relationships you must convince them of your skills. And, that relies heavily on your ability to deliver clear, comprehensive, convincing and even entertaining speeches.

That’s where being a good public speaker comes to help.

One of the things you’ll learn after delivering many speeches is that you need an ice breaker. Your audience doesn’t know you, so you need something to grab their attention and make them curious about what you’ll say.

The same goes during a networking event.

It can be difficult to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, no matter how confident you are. So, have a line ready to generate discussion. Something as simple as asking them what brings them to the event can help you initiate conversation. Then, after you have built on your first mutual interest, you can move the discussion forward.

  • Public Speaking Helps With Self Promotion

Most people are familiar with selling on business-level, but it’s becoming just as essential at a personal level as well. You might think that you don’t have too much in common with a big company, but you do. You might have different agendas, but your goals are the same – to succeed.

Just like a company sells its products, you sell your skills to further your personal and professional life.

You might not be aware of it, but there are many ways public speaking can help you sell yourself. If you are looking for a new and better job, for instance, you want the recruiters at your ideal company to perceive you as a valuable asset. But, to do that, you need to convince them first that you are the right person for the job.

Public speaking can teach you how to present yourself in a compelling manner. Think about it this way: when you go on stage to deliver a speech, you know who you are, who your audience is, and what you want to achieve. The same rules apply during an interview.

Another thing you learn from speaking in front of people is that the best way to engage an audience and be remembered is to tell a story. According to Dale Carnegie, a human mind is an associate machine, meaning that we remember things better when there is an association or story attached to the subject. So, to sell yourself to a potential client or employer, you must make it easy for them to remember you.

However, learning how to sell yourself doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t invest an hour or two now and expect impressive results. It is a continuous process that takes a lot of attention and patience. But, in the long run, taking the time to manage the way people perceive you as a professional can help you achieve career success and personal satisfaction.

Public Speaking Tips

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A couple of weeks ago, I met a brilliant and fascinating entrepreneur at a marketing conference. When I asked him to tell me about his business, I could feel my mind drifting at the buffet bar, thinking about the delicious appetizers.

Don’t get the wrong idea; I am a great listener, but all that technical blabbering was putting me to sleep. And, the fact that he was speaking in a slow, monotonous voice didn’t help at all.

Later that day, I realized what the problem was – he was making me work to understand his ideas. He was a brilliant businessman, but the way he presented his product to me was wrong. I often experience this problem during conferences.

Our impressive product will bootstrap your way to establishing disruption in *random industry*. We will create a roadmap to your objectives with our expert knowledge in *jargon*, *jargon*, *jargon*.

Huh? Why are you making my brain hurt?

This example might be a bit extreme, but there are plenty of speakers that fail to communicate in a natural and engaging way. Just like the entrepreneur from the conference, they think they do a great job at delivering their message, but fail to realize they speak a different language from their audience.

So, how can you avoid that? Well, you need to understand that there’s more to delivering a speech than the words that come out your mouth. Everything from your tone of voice and your body language to the emotions you evoke can make or break your presentation.

  • Plan Your Speech Appropriately

The starting point in the art of public speaking is to plan for effective communication. Whether you are preparing for a wedding speech or an academic oral presentation, you first need to establish your objective. So, ask yourself: “Who is my audience and what effect do I want my speech to have upon them?”

With that in mind, write down everything that you think you could say to your audience to get them to take action. Remember that your purpose as a public speaker isn’t only to share ideas, but also to challenge people’s points of view and provoke them to change their behavior.

After you have your speech, read it, edit it, and revise it if necessary. Work on it until the message is clear, easy to understand, and flows coherently.

  • Don’t Read Your Speech 

Now that you have your speech create an outline of it and leave the paper home. The last thing you’ll want to do during a presentation is to read your speech.

Here’s why.

If there is one thing you can do to enhance the impact of your speech, persuade your audience to see things from your perspective and make them more likely to say yes to your ideas, it’s eye contact. This simple gesture can inspire powerful feelings of connection between you and your audience.

According to a study conducted at Cornell University, researchers found that if they altered the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on Trix cereal boxes, adults were more likely to buy Trix over other brands if the rabbit was looking at them.

Not only that sustained eye contact can turn listeners into participants, but it can also help you concentrate. When your eyes are scanning a room full of people, your brain can get confused. All those shapes and colors can slow down your mind as it’s trying to assess all the information around. By making eye contact with different persons from the audience, you can help your brain ignore all the stimuli and focus on what you’re trying to say.

Another advantage of making eye contact during your public presentations is that it allows you to “read” the room. By paying attention to your audience’s body language, you can determine if your message has the right impact and make minor tweaks to your speech to engage your audience if they seem bored or distracted.

Speaking of body language, let’s move to the next principle of becoming a great public speaker.

  • It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

In a study conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues at the University of California in the 1960s, subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word “maybe” in three different ways to express neutrality, liking, and disliking. They were also shown pictures of the woman’s face conveying those three emotions.

The subjects were asked to guess the emotions heard in the voice and seen in the photos. According to the results of the study, the subjects correctly identified the emotions from the photos than the voice 50% of the time.

Mehrabian conducted another similar study that had similar results. The combined evidence of the two studies led him to formulate the 7% rule: 93% of human communication is non-verbal while just 7% relies on the spoken words.

It’s not only what, but also how you say.

Here are a few body tricks you need to master to appear more confident to your audience:

  • Keep Your Chin and Head up: Don’t look down at the table or your shoes during a speech because it will make you look uncertain of what you’re trying to say.
  • Stand up Straight: Good posture plays a vital role in how others perceive you. Stand up straight to project an image of confidence and authority.
  • Plant Your Feet in a Wide Stance: You might think that no one will be looking at your feet during your speech, but a proper position can speak volume about your confidence (or lack of it.) Don’t stand with your feet too close together but place them at about one foot apart one from another, pointing outward.
  • Gesture with Your Palms: This trick will help you appear more honest and trustworthy.
  • Make Sure Your Hands Are Visible. Don’t keep your hands in your pocket because that can send the message that you are uncertain and uncomfortable. Crossing your arms can have an adverse effect, as well, making you look unreceptive.
  • Eliminate the Dreaded “Um”: According to Mehrabian, non-verbal communication is comprised up of body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%.) So, the way you deliver is just as important as your body language. Try to cut out filler words such as “um,” “uh.” “ah,” “you know,” and “like.” Although they might sound natural in everyday speech, they don’t belong in formal presentations.

There are numerous other non-verbal signals that you should pay attention to, such as your facial expressions or the intensity of your voice. Pay attention to the non-verbal cue you send and receive and your ability to communicate will improve significantly.

  • Appeal to Your Audience’s Emotions

Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there are three elements to the art of persuasion:

  • Pathos – the emotional appeal;
  • Logos – the rational appeal;
  • Ethos – the reputation appeal;

Pathos is used to describe the speaker’s attempt to appeal to the emotions of his audience by using trigger words, sharing stories or by giving them a sense of belonging

Logos means persuading by appealing to the public’s logic. When you appeal to logos, you appeal to your audience’s desire for logic and coherence.

Ethos is used to describe the public’s perception of the speaker’s authority and credibility. When speakers appeal to ethos, they appeal to their identity and their reputation – their morals, values, past experiences and so on.

While you should make sure that your speech doesn’t contain any logical fallacies, you should focus most of your attention on appealing to the emotional side of your audience. Studies have shown that our judgment is heavily influenced by emotions. You feel first and act second. That is the reason political discourses, marketing and most forms of entertainment are directed towards our feelings.

A speech that is written and delivered with a strong sense of emotional appeal has more chances of persuading the audience to take the desired action. Focus on emotions such as amusement, interest, surprise, hope, and happiness to keep your audience engaged during your presentation.

The Three Phases of Perfect Practice

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You might think that the best way to deliver an excellent speech is to memorize the content by heart. Although this method can give you a boost of confidence, it can also lead to numerous problems. Not only that memorization sounds unnatural but, if your mind goes blank for just a fraction of a second during your presentation, you could lose the train of your thoughts and create an awkward silence. Or even worse, you could panic and forget the entire speech altogether.

So, how can you become a great public speaker if memorization and reading off paper are discouraged?

The answer is practice.

Maybe you’re thinking – I came here for advice, not for bad clichés! But, that’s the truth. Smart practice makes perfect.

  • How to Use Muscle Memory to Improve Your Practice

When it comes to writing and delivering a speech, most people use rote learning. They memorize the words of the content through repetition, and when it comes time to present it, they recall the words and ideas from memory.

Skillful orators, on the other hand, believe that public speaking is as much about muscle memory as about rote learning. Think about it this way: delivering a speech is a real time activity. Some of the best speakers engage the audience during their presentation by making the audience repeat key messages or by stopping in the middle of the speech to ask them to share their experiences. You need to be able to develop arguments as you speak and present them in a clear manner to reach that level of engagement during a presentation.

Getting that kind of speed of thoughts requires smart practice. Here are the steps to take to create muscle memory.

  • Step 1: Practice Your Speech by Improvising

As mentioned above, don’t learn the content of your speech by heart. Instead, learn how to improvise.

Don’t write anything down; just let your ideas flow freely without any plan or preparation. Take note of the areas you struggle with and try to focus on improving and eliminating most of your weaknesses.

It might seem hard to believe that such an approach might work. After all, how can you present yourself in front of an audience unprepared? You can’t just wing your speech. And, you are right. But, the purpose of this exercise is to help you get over the fear of “what if.”

What if I forget what I want to say? What if they’ll ask questions and I won’t know what to answer? What if my ideas are wrong and everybody will make fun of me?

Instead of going down that spiral, try to understand that speaking in public is not a one-way communication, but an interaction between you and your audience. By memorizing your speech, you risk to lose contact with the public and create a feeling that the entire presentation is artificial.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a plan at all, but you should be able to improvise if the opportunity arises. Stick to a few main ideas and adapt according to the situation.

  • Step 2: Outline Your Speech and Practice It

Instead of writing the entire speech down, focus on the concepts. Create bullet points of the data, stories, and main takeaways you want to get across during your presentation. Use acronyms to help you remember the topics in your outline, then, speak naturally about them. Don’t worry if you forget some of the key points. You can move to the next idea and come back to them later.

  • Step 3: Improvise Again

By the third time you improvise your speech, you should feel a significant improvement. Not only that you can remember your key points, but you have also developed a pattern that helps you structure your ideas more accurately. The more you practice your speech (or speaking in public in general) the more you build up that procedural memory and instruct your brain to create and follow patterns.

To some extent, practicing your muscle memory is similar to any other form of fitness. The only difference is that you work with “improvisation” and “memory” instead of weights. After a few sessions at the gym, you may notice that you have less trouble lifting those weights. The same rule applies here. Not only that practicing will help you build muscle memory, but it will also make you feel more comfortable with the idea of the unknown.

  • Constantly Improve Yourself

Have you ever sent a school paper without realizing there’s a typo in your title? You’ve read the entire thing twice, but somehow you missed that error. That’s because we get so wrapped up in the ideas we want to share with our audience that we tend to discount secondary elements.

That’s why it’s important to practice your speech in front of some of your friends to get constructive feedback. If there is no one around to help you, you can record yourself during each phase.

Analyze the recordings and pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal communication. Are you slouching or fidgeting during your presentation? Are you making too many awkward pauses or using “um,” “uh,” or “like” too many times? Is your tone of voice too slow or rapid?

Ask yourself these questions and make all the necessary improvements. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with the results.

How to Prepare Before a Speech

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Speaking in front of an audience can be nerve-wracking. Even if you’ve practiced, you can still be afraid that you’ll make a fool of yourself. That’s normal. Even skilled orators can get a little anxious before an important speech. What matters is how you prepare yourself before the big moment.

  • Practice Where You’ll Speak

When it comes to public speaking, most of the stress and anxiety comes from the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen or who’s going to be there. Or maybe you are not familiar with the location.

An excellent way to reduce some of your stress is to eliminate as many of the unknowns as you can. For instance, you can spend a few minutes in the auditorium before everyone arrives to get a better sense of the space. Or, you can meet and chat with the people you are going to be speaking to before your presentation.

  • Warm Up Your Voice and Body

When you’re giving a speech, your voice and body become an instrument. And, just like any other tool, they need to be properly tuned before you can rock the mic. Practice pronunciation with tongue-twisters to warm up your lips, tongue, and jaw. Perform a few, quick exercises to get your blood flowing and loosen up a little bit. Or, just stand up at least five minutes before your presentation to get your body comfortable in that position.

  • Verbal Exercises

An effective way to eliminate some of the stress and focus your mind on the task at hand is to practice your verbal jijitusu skills.

Pick a random topic, set a timer, and ramble on that topic for the next 15 minutes. The idea of this exercise is to help you learn to strategically thread from any topic to a preferred topic. In additon, you learn to talk on any random topic without any preparation. Make sure to record yourself with an audi recorder, and go back and listen to see how eloquent your speech was. The more practice, the better you’ll get. Once you learn to talk eloquently on any random topic, you have mastered the art of public speaking.

Do these exercises and by the time your big speech comes, you will be a well-oiled machine. You will be able to talk on any given topic and transit with ease between different ideas. Your audience will love your capacity to be versatile.

Join a Public Speaking Group

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Every person has their studying preferences. While some prefer to immerse themselves in a topic on their own, others blossom in a more dynamic setting. Regardless of your learning style or preferences, you should consider the benefits of joining a public speaking group.

  • Toastmasters

Toastmasters is an international non-profit educational organization that focuses on helping its members develop and improve their communication and public speaking skills. They operate worldwide and have helped countless people become confident public speakers and influential leaders.

There are many benefits to joining a group such as Toastmasters.

First of all, it’s a practice space. It’s the equivalent of practicing in your garage with the band. It also gives you the tools you need to improve your skills. Pair all these elements with expert guidelines, a supportive environment, and constructive feedback, and you’ll understand why Toastmasters provides an excellent framework for amateur public speakers.

Another great benefit of Toastmasters is that it gives you the ability to watch and learn from other speakers. That is especially important in the early stages of public speaking when you don’t know what you’re supposed to do.

Joining Toastmasters can help you improve other skills as well, such as leadership, analytical thinking, and so on. It can also help you expand your network.

  • Join an Improv Group

Public speaking is not a solitary act. It depends on your audience and their reaction to how you’ve approached a certain topic. It also requires you the ability to improvise when the unexpected happens.

If you are looking for a way to take your public speaking skills to the next level, you should consider an improv course.

Situational improv classes can teach you how to deal with a new and unexpected situation. You never know what can happen during a speech. The audience might throw you a curveball, technology might fail you, or you might complicate matters for yourself by fumbling or forgetting some of your key points. An improv class can teach you how to embrace these problems and turn them into an opportunity to engage with your audience. For instance, you can learn how to use humor to loosen up a tense situation.

If you learn how to improvise, you will be able to work with anything that might come your way during your speech. Whether it’s an unexpected question, a lack of interest, or an embarrassing situation, you can make it work for you.

Conclusion

If there’s one valuable lesson you should learn from this guide it’s to stop obsessing about the “how.” It’s an ancient truism that the best way to learn something is by doing.

The first thing you need to do if you want to become a great public speaker is to speak. Sure, you should study voice and gestures and the rest, but don’t waste most of your energy on these things. Once you start speaking, you can improve yourself by receiving feedback recording yourself, from others or from groups like Toast Masters or improve.

A great way to practice this is to do a daily video blog on sites like YouTube. You’ll notice after one year of consistently doing this, you’ll become a better public speaker.

Practice is the best teacher. So, close your books, research papers, and notes and speak. Apply the principles you have gathered from your experience and observations to improve. And, most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

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