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“The human brain starts working the moment you’re born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”
When Sir George Jesse uttered these words, he touched on not only on a great truth, but also on why so many people, even at partner level, fear public speaking.
So what should you do to get the brain working again? Here are some useful pointers.
Nerves are good. Without nerves, you have no chance of performing really well. Yet, as we all know, uncontrolled nerves can make the difference between polished fluency and scratchy inadequacy.
The key lies in control. Nerves need to be replaced by confidence – confidence you may not feel. Therefore, control and confidence need to be manufactured. Just as great athletes imagine victory before pursuing it, so you can motivate yourself by visualising yourself as a great performer.
Avoid any fiddling or face touching. Stand solid on both feet and avoid shuffling. If you smile, you will give the impression you are confident and pleased to be talking to that particular group of people. Look at your listeners. Eye contact engages the audience and helps it to concentrate. They will feel you are talking to them directly, provided you look at them for two or three seconds.
Your choice of words can be crucial in achieving the objective of every talk – persuasion. Remember to select words that are used and recognised by your audience.
Two of the most powerful words at your disposal are ‘you’ and ‘we’. Peppering your presentation with them is inclusive and empathic.
Fast delivery is often a sign of weakness. Slow down and you will sound more authoritative and less nervous. Powerful speakers pause regularly and hold the audience’s attention. Women’s voices become squeaky under stress and men become monotonous. So if you are female, lower your tone for greater impact; and men, get more expression in your voice by varying your facial expression. Nerves can seem to paralyse small muscles around the eyes and mouth, giving the impression of an emotionless zombie. Put a twinkle in your eyes and remember to smile.
Without adequate preparation and rehearsal, you will find it difficult to develop confidence. Your starting point for all presentations should be the members of the audience. Why are they there and what do they want? What is their level of knowledge and their expectations? Next, identify your objective. What do you want to achieve? Having a goal or destination will enable you to highlight the key points along the route. A clear structure will help the audience accompany you on the journey. Remember, less is more, so do not overwhelm your listeners with facts and figures in an effort to impress them with your knowledge. The skill is in selecting relevant material for the audience. Illustrate with examples, case histories and personal anecdotes.
Visual aids should do just that: help the audience visually. They are there to reinforce your message, provide cues for your presentation and in some instances make points with greater impact than words could achieve. What they must not do is take over.
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” If that was true for Mark Twain, we should note the lesson. The more time you spend on preparation, practice and proper training, the more likely you are to give visual impact and vocal impression their due.
Clare Willis is a senior consultant at training consultancy Speak First