Some skills intersect with almost all professions. Writing, for instance. Concise, clear, useful writing can take a person far in almost any working environment. Another skill that can lead to either advancement or stasis in a multitude of professions: public speaking.
Whatever you do for a living, there's a professional conference tailored just for you. Speaking—and speaking well—at a conference can create more value for your employer and more value for you in the job market. And let's put internal group meetings, media interviews, client and investor pitches and meetings with boards of directors in the same public speaking bucket with professional conferences. If you're speaking in a room of any size that seems short on chairs, you're speaking in public.
Some of us—make that most of us—who've spoken at conferences and in boardrooms consider ourselves to be passable speakers at best. We might feel that being a strong, effective presence in front of an audience isn't in our genetic makeup or that we're essentially behind-the-scenes people. We are who we are, and we have to work with that.
Andy Gilman, president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group and one of the canniest media trainers you could hope to meet, won't argue that point. You can’t change your basic character and erase years of habits and phobias overnight, but you can create a mental toolkit that can slowly transform you from a tic-plagued live speaker into a true performer who’s always in sync with an audience.
A fully stocked public speaking toolkit can take years to compile. You have to start somewhere, though, so let’s start with the most important part of any public speech—the opening. If you can get the first one or two minutes of a speech or presentation right, you’re practically home free, unless you fall off a stage (and even then, things are salvageable).
Assume the audience is already on your side—they want to see you succeed. Nobody wants to squirm and cringe empathetically for a flailing public speaker. Your job in the first couple of minutes is to keep the audience on your side and give it little choice but to listen to you.
Here are some of Gilman’s tips, tools and recommendations you can add to your public speaking toolkit, to be used specifically for the first few minutes of any live presentation. These recommendations naturally play into each other—adopting one of them makes adopting the rest easier.
Smile! It seems so obvious, but often you’ll see public speakers grimly delivering their content, despite their intellectual and emotional closeness to it. “People are more likely to receive information from someone who’s happy to deliver it,” says Gilman. Think of something—anything—that makes you smile, even if it has nothing to do with the reason why you’ve found yourself in front of an audience. Draw a smiley face on your notes if you have to, just to remind yourself. When you smile your whole body relaxes. Your shoulders go down, your defensiveness fades, your breath slows and deepens. The audience will see this and feel it, and be grateful for it.
Pause. A rush of words drives audience members back to their work emails and social media feeds. If you build in pauses, you build in anticipation.
Use hand gestures when speaking. Resting both of your hands on a lectern or keeping them stiffly at your side communicates unease, and the audience may lose faith in your ability to tell them something that matters to them. Using hand gestures connects you to your own material. If you’re connected to your material, others will want to plug into that connection.
Instead of reading from notes, express your expertise with an anecdote, specific insight or ask for a show of hands, and make it relate to the audience, not to you. Notes have their important place, and in many cases you have to work from a script. It’s best to start your speech without reading from notes. Obviously you need to know your stuff if you're going to speak without looking at notes. Let’s assume that you do know your stuff. Showcase it by sharing a provocative anecdote that relates directly to the topic at hand. Don’t waste that first minute telling people your name or regurgitating the name of the session at hand. Grab them with a nugget of knowledge, or lead into that nugget of knowledge by doing a quick poll of the audience. Steal an insight from a fellow speaker if you have to—you can apologize later. Two things to keep in mind: Practice this seemingly off-the-cuff opener in front of a mirror, and don't become over-reliant on any one technique over a span of months and years.
Divide a room mentally into several sectors and make eye contact with one person in each sector. Figure on making eye contact with at least four people in the room. Those four people will feel special, as long as you don’t hold your gaze for too long. That’s just a side benefit, though. What you’ll gain is a true connection with the audience and with the moment.
Leave the jokes to the professional comedians. Gilman is unequivocal in this recommendation. Based on my own experience as a public speaker, I have to agree with him. If I could I would take back every joke I’ve ever uttered on a podium. Chances are your jokes will fall flat, and even the ones that land well are guaranteed to offend somebody in the room. Audiences expect both lame and offensive jokes when they’re paying to attend a comedy club. They’re happy to do without them in professional settings. If you want jokes in your panel discussion or boardroom meeting, bring a comedian with you.
Follow Steve: @SGoldsteinAI