The first time I spoke in public I totally bombed! It was bad. The audience was laughing yet my topic was serious. I was talking about the Vietnam War. They were laughing at me. It was so bad that in the weeks’ that followed people still laughed at me when they saw me. I was 14 years old.
What happened? I was in the public speaking and debate club at school and it wasn’t long before it was my turn to stand up the front and present a speech about something I felt strongly about. I thought it was an easy task, being the rebellious teen that I was; I always had something to say about the atrocities of the world. Mandela must be set free. End apartheid. End war. End poverty and hunger. What I didn’t think to do was to prepare. I ended up drawing upon the lyrics from Paul Hardcastle’s song ‘19’ because I got so nervous standing in front of all those people, their eyes peering at me.
What did I learn? Passion alone is not enough. I needed to research my topic and prepare my talk. Speak with passion about the topic. Speak with conviction and belief. Be conversational, tell a story – talk to the audience rather than read to them. For that I had to rehearse. And rehearse again.
Though I remained a member of the public speaking and debate club, I did not present another talk. Fast forward almost 10 years later, I was an account manager at Lowe and Partners (formerly Lintas), working on the Unilever account. We had just completed a campaign for a washing powder for the Zambian market. I had to present the campaign idea, the roll out plan and how it was going to help deliver to the Unilever sales team and the retailer’s representatives. I stood in front of these strangers all looking at me, eyes peering. My heart was pounding and hands were clammy. This time I was prepared. I had slides, a script and l had practiced. Everything was going well till the equipment failed. I had to ad lib while they figured out what was happening with the tech. I had not prepared for equipment failure so the ad-lib was off the cuff.
What did I learn? No matter how much you prepare, you can still get a curve ball and that’s ok too.
It’s been nearly 20 years since then (I can see you calculating my age) and in that time I have launched campaigns, products and brands. I have pitched for new business and presented ideas to clients and colleagues. I have presented papers at university and spoken at church.
I’d completely forgotten how far I’d come until my daughter who is 15 said she has to talk to the school in assembly about why she chose her subjects for GCSE. She was nervous and thinking about all those people and their peering eyes. For inspiration I drew upon the wisdom of Simon Sinek, one of the most viewed TED talk speakers, who is naturally shy and introverted. He says:
Don’t talk right away
When we talk right away, it’s out of nerves. This communicates insecurity and fear. Take a deep breath and find your place. It shows the audience that you’re totally confident and in charge of the situation.
Show up to give and not to take
The audience are used to people wanting to get them to sign up to something, buy something, follow them on social media. They are used to speakers who want to take from them. We’re social beings, even at a distance; we can tell if you’re a giver or a taker. People are more likely to trust a giver – a speaker who gives them value, who teaches them something new, who inspires them, than a taker.
Make eye contact with the audience one by one
Panning and scanning the room disconnects you from your audiences. It’s much easier to be effective if you directly look at specific audience members throughout your speech. Give each person that you are looking at an entire sentence without breaking your gaze. When you finish the sentence move on to another person and keep connecting with individual people until you’re done speaking. It’s like you are having a conversation with your audience. You’re not speaking at them, you’re speaking with them.
Speak unusually slowly
When we are nervous, it’s not just your heart beat them quickens, your words tend to speed up too. Luckily audiences are more patient and forgiving than we know. They want you to succeed up there, but the more you rush, the more you turn them off. If you just go quiet for a moment and take a long, deep breath, they’ll wait for you. It’s kind of amazing.
Dismiss the furrowing brow, crossing arms and heads shaking “no”. Focus only on your supporters – the people who are visibly engaged, enjoying your presentation and nodding “yes”. If you find audience members who are positively interacting with you, you’ll be much more confident and relaxed than if you try to convince the naysayers.
Turn nervousness into excitement
I noticed that when reporters were interviewing Olympic athletes before and after competing, they were all asking the same question “were you nervous?” All the athletes gave the same answer, “No, I was excited.” These competitors were taking the body’s signs of nervousness – clammy hands, pounding heart and tenseness – and reinterpreting them as side effects of excitement and exhilaration. When you are up on stage say to yourself, “I’m excited, I’m not nervous. I’m excited!” When you do that it really has a miraculous impact in helping you change your attitude to what you’re about to do.
Say thank you when you’re done
Applause is a gift and when you receive a gift, it’s only right to express how grateful you are for it. They gave you their time, and they’re giving you their applause. That’s a gift and you have to be grateful.