THREE years ago, I hated the thought of speaking in public forums. But then I realised two things.
The first was the consoling realisation that I was not alone. The second was a wake-up call telling me that it is difficult to get far in life if your legs turn to jelly on stage.
Since then, I have chosen to overcome my fear of public speaking by intentionally creating opportunities to learn this skill.
I started teaching graduate students, enrolled for training workshops at work while using feedback to reflect on experiences and improve.
During my journey, there have been some “a-ha” moments, when life experience intersected with something I had read or heard before. In those moments, what was just an everyday thought suddenly got a life of its own with the stamp of validity that only experience can give.
Here are some of these moments that I refer to as the five principles of public speaking:
1. IT’S ABOUT THE AUDIENCE
The starting point of any speech is to realise that it is not about what you want to say. It is about what the audience wants to know.
So the first step of your preparation is to define the objective: “What would you want to know if you were in the audience?”
Once that is clear, you can work backwards to choose the appropriate content level and delivery style.
For example, if you are marketing a car, you might emphasise the look and feel of it for one group of buyers and stress on its technical specifications for another.
People look for different things and get impressed by different things — so know your audience and figure out what works best for them.
2. FIND YOUR OWN VOICE
Be comfortable with who you are. You are not a textbook. Your uniqueness is what brings a “personal touch” to the session.
People value the personal touch as it signals a willingness to open up to an audience and engage at a deeper level. Real people with real stories and limitations are much more engaging than perfect textbook cases.
For example, after doing a poor job delivering a few “ready-made” presentations prepared by someone else, I learnt that unless I wrestle with an issue for some time to find my own interpretation, I do a poor job of delivering it.
So I now stay away from delivering “canned” presentations and only pick topics where I have some personal perspective to add.
3. EVERYONE LIKES STORIES
People like stories and learn more effectively from them. Stories can add a human dimension that the audience can relate to.
A humdrum training session perks up when someone shares a real-life story to illustrate a point or refute it.
4. LEARN FROM PARTICIPANTS
What you share is only half the story. The “other half” is about learning from your participants.
Get involved with your audience as they enter the room. Make them feel comfortable, treat their questions with respect, create opportunities for them to share their own perspectives and, wherever possible, make it a discussion rather than a one-way communication.
For example, I make a point of arriving at least 30 minutes before a session starts and spend time with those who come early, getting to know them.
Usually, by the time the session starts, my participants and I have already built some degree of trust and rapport.
5. KEEP IMPROVING
Experience teaches us only when we choose to learn from it by seeking feedback, reflecting on past events and making an action plan to do better next time.
Keep in mind that progress should be measured against your past self rather than some real or imaginary external benchmark.
And capitalise on your strengths first before turning to the limitations of your performance.
It is also important to decide which limitations you want to address. For example, I am not comfortable with cracking jokes at large forums and since it is not a “must-have” for the kind of sessions I conduct currently, I stay away from it during this initial phase of building my public speaking skills.
Later on, I might want to work on using humour, but first I want to focus on perfecting my natural style.
We all experience failure at some point once we choose to get outside our comfort zones.
Relish the challenge you have set yourself to push your boundaries and master a very useful skill