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Public Speaking

Many leaders find public speaking difficult and feelings of fear and dread abound, whereas in general meetings and discussions they are confident when speaking. Why is this and how can you overcome your fears?



My subject today is public speaking. It's a funny thing, that many, many leaders that I coached over the years find public speaking a really difficult thing to do. In fact, it fills some of them with absolute dread, despite the fact that they are very confident people, despite the fact they know exactly what they're talking about - in a one-to-one situation they would be lucid, effective, clear, but when they've got to stand up in front of an audience, whether that's physically in a meeting room or a seminar or on a zoom call, it’s fair to say that they freeze at the prospect of it.

A couple of people that I've coached say that they've lost sleep for days beforehand because they've been so frightened, so absolutely petrified by the concept of being in front of people and just telling them what they know, but it has really made them pretty frightened.

The thing about public speaking is frankly, try not to worry too much about the public, all your fears are pretty unfounded. There could be people in the audience that don't agree with you. There could even be hecklers in the audience. There could be people in the audience who think it's funny to say things that disrupt progress, but they are pretty minor and fairly rare.

If you really know what you're talking about, it's irrelevant because you'll make the argument that counters what they've got to say. The truth is you get your confidence in terms of public speaking from two or three fairly core starting points...

The first is to know your audience. Why are they there? Why are they giving you your time at that time? What do they want from this presentation? Tailor what you're going to say to meet that need. So, the start point isn't ‘I know all this and I'm going to tell everybody’, it's what do they need to know that I can help them with?

The second core element is to be doing it in a way, which they can relate to and take on board. So, if you're using PowerPoint as an example, having endless bullet points, PowerPoint slides or even reading the PowerPoint slide to them is really counterproductive. Use the PowerPoint slides as memory joggers for you to highlight the key things, the really important points you want them to take home. You are therefore going to build your conversation around those bullet points around those slides. Not simply be verbatim around the slides.

The third thing is your demeanour. It is your physical position. One lady I coached was absolutely frightened of standing on a stage, but, when she used the lectern, she felt protected. She felt safe. It transformed the level of confidence with which she was able to make her presentations.

Personally, I like the reverse; if I'm giving a talk to people generally in a seminar environment, I like walking around across the stage. I like being animated a lot, being able to express my emotions. So actually, being at the lectern would make me feel constrained. Find the style and the involvement in your presentation that you feel comfortable with.

Coming back to content is really, really important in all communications. That you are focused on the recipient of the information. Clearly, you want them to do something with it. Clearly, you're doing it for a reason. Clearly, you want them to go away and be different from the end of the conversation than they were at the beginning of the conversation. Now, that could be a sales pitch. That could be a training session. It could be anything, but the truth is you want them to have gained something through that process. They're only going to do that if you thought about it from that perspective.

Whilst you can have an audience that is made up of quite a lot of different people, there will be a commonality that will be a seam of continuity of what everybody really needs to take away from that meeting. It's your job to focus on providing exactly that in a way which they can.

There are a number of golden rules that a lot of public speakers use - the first is to make sure they keep it as interactive as they possibly can; take questions either at the end or as you're going through. Some like to involve people by asking them to vote on aspects of the conversation. Some people like to involve the audience by being provocative or comical to raise emotion, raise the temperature, and they work - If you're good at it.

It's not unusual for really, really good public speakers to be able to do a speech, to do a talk completely unaided. They don't need a cue. They don't need a speech. They don't even read anything. They can just let it go. I'd encourage you - if you can - to get word perfect. The level of confidence that that gives you is enormous. You walk onto the stage, you turn up in the zone, and you know what you're going to do. You're not busking, you know what you're going to do, and you therefore can talk to your audience about what you know.

Many of the really, really good public speakers that I've seen have really honed their skills. They start by being very clear about what they’re going to say; they give you an introduction and then they tell you, and then they tell you again at the end. So, it's a bit like the BBC news - they give you the headlines, then they give you the details and they summarise or give you the headlines again. So, you are taken on a journey. You're told where you're going to go to, then you'll take it there and then it's summarised for you. It reinforces everything that the conversation has meant.

For a number of people that I've coached the absolute dread, the fear of being in front of an audience has quite literally prevented them from showing the world how talented they are. It's seriously debilitating in terms of their ability to manage, to lead, to guide, and indeed to develop their career.

The ability to speak publicly, the ability to stand up and be seen, and to be understood as an expert in your field, or an inspiring leader, is a critical skill. I would urge everybody to overcome that dread, overcome their fear and focus on becoming a really, really good motivational speaker. Even if it's only about providing data and information to people who then go on to use it for everybody's benefit.


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