Historically, I’ve always been absolutely terrified of public speaking. Even if it was as minuscule as getting up in front of a dozen peers in school to showcase a project. I would make any excuse possible, or outright leave, in order to avoid having to do so. Most of us have heard the statistic about most people sharing that same fear, but my situation always seemed much more heightened. I’ve always been a quiet and reserved person, mostly due to a battle of social anxiety throughout the years, but I can now proudly say I’ve overcome a lot of my fears.
The goal of this post is to give a bit of encouragement to anyone thinking about public speaking that has avoided it due to fear, and to share some tips that I’ve learned that I think have helped me become a better speaker.
The first time I spoke in the Internet Marketing industry was at SMX Local/Mobile 2008. I spoke on a Mobile & Local SEO panel at the very last session of the conference. I was pretty nervous about doing so but I had practiced so much that I felt quite comfortable with what I had to say. However, when it came within an hour of my session, I started having a pretty heavy anxiety attack. My initial thought was to just leave early and skip it since my flight left in a few hours anyway. However, I knew that this was a great opportunity and that I needed to take full advantage of it and overcome my fears.
Good thing I was prepared… I picked up a Coke from the refreshment table, drank half, and filled the rest with cheap vodka. It’s nothing that I’m proud of but this is how I self-medicated before speaking and it is the only way I got through it. Cindy Krum stuck around to watch me speak even though she had to leave. She told me I did great and seemed sincere so at that point I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I had idolized Cindy since I saw her speak at SMX Local/Mobile the year prior and was honored that I had received a compliment by her.
After that, it slowly got easier. I got more and more comfortable as each time passed. The size of the audience never mattered much and surprisingly, I almost felt more comfortable speaking in front of a large crowd. Nonetheless, I’ve spoken about a dozen times over the past couple of years and finally, after about the tenth time, I was able to do so without self-medicating. Pure confidence, adrenalin, and preparation were the various aspects that helped me suppress my anxiety.
I came to realize that the more I practiced the less nervous I was. Therefore, I would literally practice over and over at home before I left to the conference, I would practice to my self on the plane, I would practice the night before, and I would even leave the conference to go practice again before my actual session. A bit overboard? I don’t think so. At least not in my case. Even if you feel comfortable, that’s fine, but I still feel practice is very important as an obligatory duty to the attendees. They pay a lot of money for these Internet Marketing conferences so speakers should give them their best.
There was a class I took in my Master’s program on public speaking that I took right before I did a presentation. I had a chance to present to the class and be critiqued thereafter. This helped a lot. Some of the stuff I was taught didn’t transpire over to what traditionally goes on at conferences, but some did. The rest, however, has just been learned from experience.
- Be prepared
- Practice, Practice, Practice
- Know Your Environment
- Know Your Audience
- React to the Audience
- Pace Yourself
- Make Eye Contact
- Have a Great Slide Deck
- Open and Close with a Bang
- Have a Good Time
I can’t emphasize this one enough. Have all your materials ready, including additional items you might need. Create a checklist of things you may need such as glasses (if you wear them) in order to see the audience’s reactions, tissues in case you sneeze, water in case you cough or your through gets dry, etc. Be sure to have your presentation in several places. Put a copy on your laptop, keep a copy on a thumb drive, and send a copy to yourself via e-mail. This way you’ll never lose it or have an issue.
Practice until you think you have it down solid. Memorizing line by line exactly what you’re going to say is good, but be prepared enough that you can talk about it without having to know exactly you’re going to say next. This is important because often times interruptions occur. Such interruptions could alter your train of thought and in turn, keep you from remembering your rehearsed lines. So don’t rely on creating a script for yourself. Also, if you are scripting part of it, don’t sound like a machine-operated robot or like you’re reading from your slides. Speak to the audience not at them.
Timing is also a critical aspect. Every presentation must beat a time deadline to leave time for Q&A. You don’t want to be too short either so time out your content and presentation to be spot-on.
Scope out the speaking room before hand. Not only will you already know you’re way to the room, so you’re not frantically trying to find it, but you’ll also be more familiarized and comfortable with where you are.
Attend a few sessions before yours and get a feel for who is in the audience. Listen to their questions during Q&A to try to determine their positions in companies, the businesses they represent, technical knowledge, familiarity with the material, etc. It’s good to poll the audience before hand to get a feel for their experience and knowledge. That way, you can tailor the way you speak to them and what exactly you present to them. Most major conferences can provide you great demographic data before hand though.
Listen to the body language of the crowd. If they’re getting bored then you’ll need to quickly adjust either the way you’re presenting or the vernacular of your content. If they’re leaving, note what you said right before that to later analyze what could have triggered them to leave.
This is a major problem I still have. I usually race through my presentations pretty quickly. Slow your pace to allow the audience to take notes and to reflect on and absorb the new information you’re providing them.
Be sure to make eye contact with almost everyone if you can. Constantly scan the room and make sure you are speaking to each section of the room equally. Don’t just stare forward and present or look at your slides the whole time. People are more in-tune with what you’re saying if they feel connected to you.
Part of connecting with people is making sure not all of their focus is on your PowerPoint slides. To do this keep the text in your slide decks brief, organized, and bulleted. Using pictures to represent and visualize data and concept is important since it’ll help convey your message while keeping them tuned in to what you’re saying. Keeping a general theme throughout your slides can be good if it’s relevant. Also, make sure the contrast of the colors you use for your text and background are readable not only on your computer monitor but on the projection screen since the screens tend to dull down the colors. Black text on white backgrounds can never steer you wrong.
Just like linkbait, you want to hook people’s attention at the very beginning and leave them loving your presentation. Brainstorm some clever ways to do this. Only use jokes if they’re relevant and not extremely cheesy.
The audience will feel how you feel. Period. If you’re happy and smiling, they will feel uplifted. So be personal, emotional, and most importantly…be yourself.
A Chance to Speak
Like our previous events, IM Spring Break and Scary SEO, Search & Social believes in providing an opportunity for new faces in the speaking scene. I encourage anyone interested in speaking to submit speaking pitches for the conference on May 3rd and 4th, 2010.