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Fear of public speaking?

A recent survey asked the question: “What do you fear most?” The top two answers were death and public speaking. And public speaking came in first.

Every person will be asked to give a talk or to make a presentation, at some stage in their careers. It may be to a friend receiving an honour, an acceptance speech at a golf club upon winning a prize, or it may be to a customer, a bank, a group, a committee and it can be at a business or a social function.

If it is a business presentation, this will give you the opportunity, at little or no cost, to be the best public relations person your business can possibly have. Most clubs like Rotary or Lions or the SFA are always interested in free speakers, particularly if they have something interesting to say. Your speech can tell who you are, how you got started in your business and what your business does. Then you can leave some leaflets and some gift certificates that the audience can redeem, within the next week or two. This will help them to remember you and your company.

Ever wonder why some people are natural and gifted presenters and others struggle hopelessly to make an impression? Have you ever cringed while some poor unfortunate dies right in front of your eyes and you think, “Thank God that it is not me”?

This need never happen. You can be a professional and polished presenter, if you observe a few rules and remember a few do’s and don’t s.

Work within your limits

The most important is to work within your limits. If you are not the most articulate, the most charming or the most experienced – do not try to be what you are not – work with what you’ve got. The first time is always the worst. But, remember the first time you did anything? You remember your apprehension? Practice makes perfect and you do have to start somewhere.

Confidence has a lot to do with it. Where does confidence come from? Confidence comes from knowledge, which comes from learning. Every professional presenter, that I have ever known, lacks a certain amount of confidence – it is what makes them so good. Ask any comedian or singer how they feel before they go on-stage. They will all tell you that they are nervous – some are actually terrified! How do they build their confidence? Having worked with several of them, I have observed that they read and reread their material until they almost know it “off by heart”. One of them I knew used to stand in front of a mirror and repeat the script using their body actions and hand movements until they were happy with the result. Here are some basic rules and I go on to include 10 do’s and don’t s at the end of this article.

Rule 1
Look good. When you look good – you feel good.

Rule 2
Prepare – prepare – prepare. Write and rewrite – read and reread until you are satisfied that you know your material intimately. Then rehearse – rehearse – rehearse. Always keep your notes close to you and do not mislay them. Consider the panic, if they go astray. When you arrive at your venue make sure that the equipment or props, that you will be using, are all working. Leave nothing to chance.

Rule 3
Use your own style. Do not try to be what you are not.

Rule 4
Don’t give the audience too much to remember. (The average listener remembers less than 8% of what you tell them.) A well used cliché in the advertising business is – “Say what you are going to say – say it – say what you said”. This is based on the premise that repetition is the key to getting people to remember what they read, saw or heard. When you make an important statement, – repeat it. (Example: “We have always delivered value” – “We have always delivered value!”) When you make an important point, the audience will know that it is important and remember it.

Rule 5
Use the “Power of three”. We are conditioned to remember things in three’s, i.e. “Stop, look and listen” “Work, rest and play” “Blood, sweat and tears”. So, make your points in threes.

In your delivery, you should consider – the beginning, the middle and the end of your speech (again the power of three) and emphasize each one. Relate your talk in the beginning to who the audience are and what they do. That way you start on a responsive note with them. (Please do not do what so many guest speakers do – talk all about themselves and their companies, to the realms of boredom. They drone on and on obviously oblivious to the feelings of their audience.)

However, be it your remit to speak about your success and that of your company, try to relate it to the audience and give them points that they can relate to and take advice and encouragement from. Make points like, “this worked for me” and “I made this mistake, but learned from it”. Always research your audience when speaking to an organisation. If it is a group or an organisation, get their handbook or other relevant material, prior to your speech to them and research their aims and objectives. Direct your talk to them and you will have their attention.

Beginning and end

Have a powerful beginning and a powerful finish and you are almost guaranteed a great talk. At the beginning poke fun at yourself. Irish audiences do not like pompous people and they will be on your side if you make a joke at your own expense. Always be enthusiastic and animated. Audiences love people who are exciting and appear to be charged with electricity. They will see the excitement and interest that you have in your message to them and it will energize them. Many speakers open with a great joke. Fine, if you are a good joke teller and it is part of your personality. If not, tell a story. This will grab their attention.

A motional speaker that I once knew had an innovative opening to one of his talks to aspiring young sales people. Opening his speech, he asked them to reach under their chairs. There they found a €5 taped to the underside of their chairs, to which he boomed – “And that’s the last €5 you will ever make sitting on your arse!” A powerful opening and one long remembered. You should keep your speech reasonably short and to the point. You can gauge from an audience if they are getting bored. If you see this, quickly move to something interesting and then move to a conclusion. The end or summary is vital as this is your opportunity to remind them of the important points that you have made and to emphasize the ideas that you want to leave them with. You should always leave your audience looking for more.

Speaker style

There are many styles of speakers. Some read all their material from notes and rarely raise their heads as they read. Others have memorized parts of their speech and can look up to the audience and emphasize their points while looking directly at them. Others like the support of slides or other audio-visual material. These can be powerful tools – if used properly. However, it is a mistake to stand reading to the audience exactly what is on the screen. They will have done this already.

You need to make points relating to the headings on your slides and then discuss and elaborate on them. Do not overdo the visuals. Many speakers like to use 5”X3” cards on which they write headings for their talk. There was a speaker that wrote their notes on the palms of their hands and in the heat of the auditorium and their nervousness the notes smudged. Imagine their horror when they discovered what had happened. Making points in the form of a question can keep your audience’s attention. Looking at them, you can say directly to them – “How many times have you made that mistake?” or, “Do you agree that that is not the way to keep a customer?”

A young man once approached George Bernard Shaw and said that he wanted to be a writer and what was Shaw’s advice. Said Shaw, “Write.” A young man once approached a renowned public speaker called Ken McFarland and asked him, “I want to do what you do more than anything else in the World. How do I start?” And McFarlane said, “Speak.” If you want to become a good speaker and presenter – practice! I began by giving career-guidance talks at schools. You will always be in demand there and it is a good place to start. Always thank the audience for their interest and attention.
Good luck in your speaking career.

Ten Do’ s of Presentations:

  1. Do prepare-read-rehearse
  2. Do look your best
  3. Do be yourself
  4. Do research your audience
  5. Do tailor your speech to what the audience wants to hear
  6. Do make a good start
  7. Do remember the “power of three”
  8. Do emphasize the beginning the middle and the end
  9. Do summarize
  10. Do thank the audience

Ten Don’t s of Presentations:

  1. Don’t drone on monotonously
  2. Don’t tell jokes if you are not a joke-teller
  3. Don’t overdo the humour
  4. Don’t give them too much to remember
  5. Don’t just read your script
  6. Don’t overuse the audio-visuals
  7. Don’t vary away from the topic
  8. Don’t lose your notes and materials
  9. Don’t “oversell” yourself or your business
  10. Don’t overstay your welcome


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