Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
In a decent movie from early turn of the century – 8 Mile, Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith, played by Eminem, goes through hardship of giving a presentation to a rather rowdy crowd. While some may balk at comparing a rap battle with some PowerPoint slides in a climate controlled room, the goals are strikingly similar. Reputation, respect, persuasiveness – changing minds, hammering out a deal, making an impression. Whenever we speak in public, and even before that, we engage in an act of persuasion through communication.
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down,
The whole crowd goes so loud
I moderated conferences and panel discussions, learned a lot from hard job interviews, and I worked ballrooms with ties and sparkly necklaces. Quite clearly I lost most verbal spats with my girlfriends. In the process I became both national and World Champion in competitive debating. I also had the pleasure to teach public speaking, auto-presentation and debating to every group from children up to execs of a Fortune 500 company.
It is scary and difficult – even with years of experience. Exposing ourselves to scrutiny is always hard, and nowhere is it more piercing, as when you are alone at a podium or a stage. You feel the mood in the room change with your every sentence, you see every frown and every smile. You gallop to conclusions about your performance and your self worth.
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out,
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
Here are some lessons to choke less and recover faster. And remember – first rule of speaking is to always do what works for you. There are no magic bullets.
1. Be stressed and afraid
Does speaking in public stress you? Do you fear it, just a bit? Your answer should be yes. And the advice is super simple – do not lie to yourself, do not lie to the audience.
Trying to put a brave, hard-nosed, and believable face for purpose of a speech is very difficult. Humans are evolutionarily predisposed to hunt for discrepancies in incoming messages, we do not like people whose image is not in sync with what they say and how they act. Most of that analysis happens on a subconscious level, without a deep dive into the actual contents of the message. It is hard to lie about who you are to an audience, which is giving you their attention and careful scrutiny.
Accepting your fear and stress to me is essentially understanding who you are as a speaker and taking control. Usually asked about good public speaking, our minds gravitate to examples of the happy-go-lucky stage dynamism of self-styled coaching gurus. But this is not the only way to persuade! This style is incredibly awkward and even borderline pathetic in huge majority of situations. Style is a tool that enhances persuasiveness when the message is not enough. Your goal should be to believable first, as the feeling of trust is a primary ingredient of persuasion.
Other than that, my best advice would be to plan your speech precisely. Following a list, following your notes gives you structure, and structure is your refuge from fear. It is known to you, and on the contrary, flowing freely can lead you to problematic sentences that cannot be taken back. Prepare lists of different density – start with 4-5 key points of the entire speech. If you need to handle your flow tighter – go for a deeper list leading you through baby steps.
2. Love grey areas
Do you know who I trust the least? Fanatics. Fanatics of any kind.
On the face of it, it’s a paradox. Why would you distrust a person who is so deeply convinced of something? Unshakeable faith and conviction are a sign of a mind that has stopped questioning itself – probably not your preferred business partner. The harshest truth is that truth exists in many forms.
Many speakers shun nuance in order to pack in certainty and absolutes. They think, that admitting some flaws in one’s argument is a death knell to it. I tend to have a different opinion, and I think it is Bee Talents philosophy in general. Persuasion at all costs is just manipulation. What you want is for your audience to be very much aware of your position deficiencies, but choose to believe you anyway!
There is a body of evidence to counter my claim, too: people prize confidence a lot – so the best combination would be to confidently disprove valid concerns anyone may have about your case.
3. Own the room and know where your money is
Years ago, I was a very aggressive speaker – forceful, loud, relentless. Until in an important debate tournament semifinal, scissors met rock. I gave a great speech, but as I understand now, I did not entice anybody with my arguments, I forced everybody to listen to them. That is not a state of receptiveness that we want. The next speaker was a Slovenian named Aljosa.
He countered me in a textbook manner – he just literally started to whisper. The change in the audience was immediately noticeable – while I was speaking, they reclined back in their seats, as to move away from the source of energy way too high for the occasion. When Aljosa whispered the first words, they came closer to him! Their heads tilted in interest, and all that has changed the tone of the entire conversation – to an invitation.
The takeaway here is to always gauge the room and try to hit the energy “habitable zone”. Use tools like pace and power of your voice to guide the audience to an emotional state, where they will feel in a desired way. And how exactly they should feel? Decide before your speech what emotion should your targets be engulfed in and try to lead them there. When you want to say something important – say it more quietly and make the audience work a bit for that piece of information!
Second part is where to direct this energy.
The truth is, you always should know who exactly are you trying to convince. Is it the whole audience, as you are building general branding? Is it members of the board or any single decision maker in the room? Directing your speech at a target is tricky, as you never want others to feel discouraged or to think that you do not speak to them at all. Focusing entirely on one person would also make this individual feel very, very awkward. That is why you need to balance it out – both keep most of your gaze, energy and attention at the most important targets, and also remember to try to share your energy with everybody else.
4. Have a single goal
In a perfect speech, there is nothing to remove. Why? Because every strand, every pause to take a breath serves a purpose, which is your overarching goal for the speech. When designing our speeches, the question on our mind should always be how much does this element help my purpose? Am I selling, am I persuading, am I here to hammer in this single point, and does it all come together in the end? This is why to make speech planning easier, before going into specifics, write down (always – write – down!) your major goal for the presentation.
In debating we call this your burden of proof, the most basic things you need to prove in a debate. Everything else (like anecdotes) is just means to that end. So end your preparation with an analysis of how much your speech has realized the burden of proof. If you would not be convinced – the audience probably won’t be either.
5. Feed audiences with a tiny spoon, and let them chew for a second
No matter how long your speech is, anything over a minute is almost impossible for a vast majority of human beings to track accurately with high alertness and focus. Our attention fluctuates wildly during speeches, we tune in and tune out all the time whether we want or not. Focus is hard work! That does not mean there is anything wrong with your public speaking skills. Remember two things:
- You usually understand your topic better than the audience, and agreeing with what we are talking about can be a pitfall. We are prone to jump over logical steps, as we have those steps mastered and accepted as truisms in our heads. Never skip even small parts of your explanation, as things obvious to you may be very much news to others. This is why paradoxically it is easier to debate against your personally held position – you are more careful to explain everything, as you are not yourself convinced yet.
- Since the attention of your audience fluctuates, you need to wake them up from time to time. This is done by clearly pointing where your argument ends and giving every part of your speech a short summary before jumping to another. Finally, clearly name and introduce an upcoming point so that new material provides a small jolt of interest to everybody.
6. Fall in love with failure, fall in love with the silence
NEWS FLASH! people care less and remember less than you think. A speech is extremely important to you. You remember the duress, the details, you will analyze the speech many times in your head. Your audience will not. That awkward silence you brought to the room when you forgot a key point for a second? You will remember it much more vividly than any of the listeners. Most of them would not be able to remember it after the speech at all. Speaking requires you to be able to quickly reset your mind when you encounter an obstacle, which requires practice. And this is where I think Jimmy “B-Rabbit” was wrong. He rapped that:
you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime you better (…)
That is usually false – you’ll get your second chance if you fight for it. But even if that’s not the case – prepare yourself for your big opportunity by repeatedly failing before. So go out there, and fail hard – this is the only way to succeed.