Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken at more than 1,000 events. While I don’t consider myself a five-star speaker, I do pretty well. In fact, during a recent interview, the Financial Women’s Association asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring public speakers — in 100 words or less. My response ended up far exceeding the word count, but the question got me thinking about all that I’ve learned over the years. With that in mind, here are my top tips for becoming a great public speaker:
- Focus on the privilege, not the “pain.” Is it intimidating to speak in front of a group? Yes, but you also get to share a message you are passionate about with others, which is pretty cool. That shift in mindset will do wonders to calm your nerves — and boost your confidence.
- Before you start preparing, probe. Talk to your host about who will be in the audience; what key messages they’re looking for; the conference’s theme (if you’re speaking at one session); the format of the session (ex. lecture vs. fireside chat); the timing for your presentation; how the Q&A portion will be handled (if at all); and the set-up of the room, including AV capabilities, podium, microphones, etc. The more you know, the more effective you will be in terms of delivering a relevant message. For example, you don’t want to show up with a PowerPoint presentation only to find the room set up for a fireside chat with no AV support.
- Prepare, practice, and then prepare and practice some more. Showing up prepared is the number-one way I calm my nerves. I don’t just prepare what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, I also think about potential questions from the audience and how I’m going to respond to them. When practicing, my goal isn’t to memorize the words, but ensure I have the storyline, flow, and key message for each section of the story committed to memory. Above all, remember that less is more when it comes to public speaking — I believe the average listening attention span is around 20 minutes.
- Polish up. As soon as I “book” a public speaking opportunity, I examine where it falls relative to pre-planned hair, nail and other “beauty maintenance” appointments. If necessary, I shift those appointments so I present a confident, well-groomed image. I also plan my outfit well in advance so it’s ready to wear on the big day.
- Be present in the moment. I always arrive to a public speaking event 30-45 minutes early. I walk the room to confirm the set-up and spend a few moments mingling with the audience, learning about why they’ve come to the program and what they are hoping to take away. Inevitably, they are excited, which boosts my energy and excitement. Making these personal connections enables me to speak with the audience rather than at or to them — you achieve a much deeper level of engagement. Then I spend 10 minutes alone to check my appearance, take a few deep breaths, and clear my mind of all distractions so I can focus on the job at hand.
- Embrace the pause. Regulating my breath and pausing to gather my thoughts help me manage my nerves and pace my delivery. This also helps keep the audience’s attention.
- Forget perfection and expect the unexpected. No matter how much you prepare, you will inevitably lose your train of thought from time to time or skip over a few facts or stats as you move through your presentation. What’s more important is keeping your composure and confidence. For instance, you may believe you are going to speak to a group of mid-career female executives only to arrive and find an audience of retirees, mostly men, with an average age of 75 years young (true story). Or you may find that the host’s definition of a “private room” is a cordoned-off area in the middle of a wine bar’s retail shop (also true). You’ve got to smile, brush it off and go with the flow. What helps me pivot is having a contingency plan in place. As part of my preparation, I think about the various what-ifs that could throw me off base and have a game plan for how to handle.
Oh, and how did I handle that memorable audience “switch”? I started my presentation by saying, “I know what you are thinking: ‘What can this spring chicken tell us about our money?’ Well, this spring chicken has packed in a lot of life in her 21 years and hopefully you can handle what she is about to say.”
The audience had a hearty laugh, and I had their attention. I stuck to my core messages, but illustrated key points with anecdotes that were more relevant to their life stage. At the end of the meeting, audience members were taking photos with me and giving me a thumbs-up.
This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Linda Descano is the Managing Director and Global Head of Content & Social at Citi.
Image: A journalists requests to ask question as European Central Bank (ECB). REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.