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This is part 1 of a multi-post series on public speaking

I do not consider myself an expert on the topic of public speaking. However, over the years I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that have helped me, and by sharing them in a series of blog posts on public speaking, I hope they’ll help you.

Also, I don’t believe a workshop, a presentation, let alone a blog post (or series of them) will make you a better speaker. Just like playing the guitar, the only way you’ll get better at it, is by practicing. Albeit if it’s any consolation, it’s much easier than learning to play the guitar!

Dealing with nerves

We all get nervous when giving talks. It’s normal. In fact some, including myself, would say it’s a sign of caring about what you’re doing. The objective is to try and handle the nerves and bring them under control.

The following series of pointers that may help you.

Don’t tell people you’re nervous

People can already tell if you’re nervous. Unless you can hide your nerves very well (which also probably means this blog post is useless to you), people can see it. They can tell by your appearance, they can tell by your voice.

Telling people you’re nervous generally doesn’t help you be less nervous. About the only reason you’d do it is to find compassion. And you may get some, but you’d probably get it anyway without explicitly asking for it.

In addition, it really doesn’t look all that professional standing on stage and telling people you’re really worried about being there.

Know your topic and set expectations

There are many things that make people nervous about speaking - they may forget the words they were going to say, lose their pace, there may be a technical fault. But by and large one of the things that probably contributes the most to being nervous is not being sure of the subject you’re presenting. That feeling of “getting caught out” or feeling like an impostor can really dawn on you.

Knowing your topic well really helps reduce this variable that influences things dramatically when giving a talk. But what’s more important is setting expectations. If you’re talking about a topic you’re not an expert in, tell people, come clean. Tell them you’re a beginner, tell them you’ve just only started learning this and are sharing your experience. On the other hand, if you’re an expert, well, good for you, but no need to boast about it either. Just keep it to yourself. You’ll know that while many things may go wrong, you’re good on the knowledge front.

Be passionate about your topic

Be passionate about the topic you’re speaking about and convey this passion. Imagine you’re talking amongst a group of friends about something you feel strongly about. Your nervousness can be projected as positive emotions. It will display a sense of confidence.

Get to know members of your audience

Often times when I used to give talks, I’d stand by the door and watch people walk into the room. I’d greet them, say hello, get a smile from them. I would also walk up to people in the front row before the talk and chat with them. This allowed me to “get to know” a few people, which in turn would convert a room full of strangers, into a room with one or two friendly faces which I could then use as acknowledgement during my talk. I no longer felt alone. I felt like I knew a few people.

Not feeling like a stranger can very much help cope with your nerves. In general feeding off of the audience is an extremely valuable tool for having a successful talk, but we’ll cover that in another post.

Tell a joke

Breaking the ice with a joke is a wonderful way to allow your nerves to settle in. But it’s not that easy, because if your joke goes wrong, it can just end badly. You’re now not only a nervous wreck, but a nervous wreck who just flopped on a bad joke. At this point you have two options: run away or …..well just run away.

In all seriousness though, if a joke goes bad, you can just accept it and move on or push it a bit further to try and get the audience to laugh, mostly by laughing at yourself and your sucky jokes. But once again, this isn’t always easy and you’ll only get better at this over time.

In summary, jokes are a great way to break the ice, but have a good one ready. And a second one just in case. However, if you’re not comfortable with humour, best avoid them all together.

Ask a question.

Asking questions can also be a good way to engage with the audience and disrupt that overwhelming feeling of being stared upon by 300 eyes waiting and watching your every move to see where you’re going to fail!

Similar to jokes however, questions can backfire in several ways

  1. The audience doesn’t answer questions. Yes. Believe it or not, different cultures respond differently. Even to simple yes or no questions, many times audiences remain silent. Personally I just push them to get an answer and usually it works. Sometimes it does fail though and when it does, I usually make a joke out of it. But then that takes you back to telling jokes…

  2. The answer isn’t what you expected and can make you more nervous. For instance, you’re giving a talk on “Intro to XYZ”, and based on a series of questions you realise the majority of the audience are experts on the topic. What do you do? Do you adjust your talk? Do you stick to the original plan? Are you going to bore people if so? These are all important questions that we’ll answer in another post, but the point in this case is that it can make you more nervous by challenging your plans.

Share a story or start with an anecdote

Stories are great, especially ones the audience can relate to, or are somehow related to the topic you’re speaking on. Don’t make them too long though. I’ve been at talks where the speaker has spent a good 10% of the talk telling a story, that while amusing had nothing to do with the actual topic.

Anecdotes are also good and much easier than stories. For instance you’re traveling to a location to give a talk, share an anecdote of your travel or a local encounter. But please, avoid cliches.

Nerves or excitement?

Recently I tweeted about being nervous when giving talks, which has now led to these series of blog posts.

One of the replies pointed to a talk by Simon Sinek about how he channels his nerves and perceives them as excitement. To be honest I’ve never thought about it that way, but I also admit that I’m pretty much always excited about giving a talk so maybe it does make some sense.

However you think of nerves, just know that you’re not alone. We all suffer from being nervous, and it’s a good thing.

Until next time.