Years ago I hired a public speaking coach to help me improve my on-stage presence.
Yikes that sentence is lifeless. Let’s try it again, mmkay?
Years ago I hired a public speaking coach to help me keep my heart rate in a normal range instead of flitting close to a cardiac episode every time I stepped on stage.
Nerves are part of public speaking. The trick, I learned, is to use them to your advantage.
Your heart rate increases and your breathing comes more quickly because you care so very, very much.
So that near-cardio episode isn’t because you’re terrified; it’s because you’re fired up and raring to go.
Viewing your perceived weaknesses as strengths. The reframing helped me enormously.
That alone was worth the big fat check I wrote the coach.
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There were other lessons, too.
I found my scribbled notes of them in my office this week—under that growing pile of papers that seemed to be reproducing like the garden rabbits. (Bun’s kids and grandkids and great-greats! I’ve lost track of the generations.)
These lessons are ostensibly public-speaking performance lessons. But they can moonlight for other situations, too: Any time you’re called on to do a presentation to your team. A pitch to a client. A TED-style talk. A virtual breakout session. A workshop. An Instagram Story. A LinkedIn Live.
They’re also a good refresher for How to Speak In Person as the world opens back up again.
So here we go.
Public Speaking Lessons for the Introverts, the Inexperienced, the Pathologically Shy, and the Rusty in Need of a Refresh
Create interplay. Learn the first names of a few people in your audience. Use those names on stage. Ask questions of your audience. Poll the people in the room.
Seek team support. Plant someone supportive in the back of the room. Draft an encouraging friend, an empathetic colleague. Direct them to nod like a Mookie Betts bobblehead throughout your talk.
>> This tactic worked beautifully for me when I was first starting out. Modern audiences tend to be glued to their devices, even if they’re loving your talk. That can be unnerving for new speakers.
Pause. Force yourself to pause a second or two between sentences. Don’t rush through your points. Don’t clip your own sentences so you can start your next point. That puts you (and your audience) on edge.
>> That second or two of silence will fill the room with calming oxygen, like a CO2 bar in Vegas.
Flit your eyes to and from 5-6 people seated in different parts of the room. Unlike your Planted Friend above, these are people you don’t know. But identifying them once you’re on stage helps remind you to speak in turn to the entire room, not just the people in front.
>> You’ll need to do this intentionally at first. But it’ll quickly become second nature.
Keep your slides simple. Don’t allow your PowerPoint to steal the show.
Practice your talk with a loving spouse or compliant child, or before the loving gaze of your pandemic puppy. I suggest family here because you need someone who isn’t too close to the material—a colleague isn’t the best choice. Actually, neither is the dog. Too much love is sometimes too much.
>> Ten years ago, I practiced my first solo talk on my then 14-year-old daughter, Caroline. After I finished, she said: “I’m excited to go create some content!” Find yourself a Caroline.
“Please hold questions to the end” is a big fat Triple-Scoop Nopecone. What your audience will hear: “What I have to say is more important than what you want to know.”
You don’t need to have all the answers. It’s preferable to say, “I don’t know. I will get back to you on that” vs. BS-ing an answer to a question that has that telltale slick veneer of absolute horse poop.
Remember that questions are about dialogue. Buy yourself time to answer a question by asking, “What do you mean by…” Sometimes you need a minute or two to consider an answer. (There’s nothing worse than suffering esprit de l’escalier.)
Try this Q&A power move. Cap your answer to a question by addressing the asker again: “Did I answer that question for you?” You’re signaling that you’re okay with their saying, “Not really.” It’s a confident move.
Everyone has to start somewhere. If I’ve learned to speak comfortably on stage, you can, too. This was my ridiculously stressful first time.
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I asked my newsletter readers to share their own public speaking for introverts advice. Here’s a selection of their suggestions, lightly edited for space.
“Instead of being afraid, just remember that your audience is in your corner – they are rooting for you.” — Suzy Kedzierski
“Connect with your content. Believe you have a message to share with the audience, and know what that message is inside and out. Then share it as a gift to them. A gift that you selected carefully and hope they appreciate, but no strings attached.” — Denise Zdunczyk
“If you need notes to help you stay on track, use a keyword outline instead of writing out, verbatim, what you want to say. It will help you avoid ‘reading’ your presentation.
“If you are really nervous, share that information with your audience. Most people have some level of anxiety attached to public speaking. Admitting your anxiety can engender a sympathetic audience that is more inclined to overlook any minor blunders in your presentation.” —Donna Forbis
“The audience is there to have a good time (or to learn something, depending on your talk)—not to judge you. You are merely something that enables them to achieve their goals. Focus on their objectives, and those butterflies quickly dissipate.” —Anne Janzer
“Pause to listen. Listening is the single most valuable task in public speaking. The sound of an audience is subtle, but a deep window into their level of interest. And to listen, I have to remember to pause.
“Another thing I try to do is figure out what my range of motion is when I start (size of stage, length of mic cord, risk of pterodactyls, etc.). And then I make sure to move right to those limits as soon as possible. If I wait, there’s this weird psychological contraction where eventually I feel like I can’t even shift my feet. But if I move early, it’s like I’ve ‘unlocked’ all that real estate to use whenever I want.” —Jamie Gower
“After I ask ‘Are there any questions‘ I deliberately scan the audience and lock eyes long enough to see the eye color of five people: Front left. 1 (green), Front middle. 2 (light blue), Front right 3 (brown), Back Middle 4 (hazel), Back left 5 (dark blue). It‘s essentially counting to five after you ask if there are any questions. Usually on the 4th second, someone is more uncomfortable with the silence than taking the risk of asking their burning question.” —Gary Galloway
“When you are giving your speech, focus on what you are doing, not on how well you are doing it. Keep your mind focused on your speech and delivery. .. Instead of thinking, ‘I am nervous,’ think, ‘I am excited.'” —Shannon GaNun
“Familiarize, don’t memorize. Be familiar with the ideas you want to convey but don’t get caught up in the specific wording of those ideas. Too often, students would get caught up in memorizing their speech. The time would come to present it to the class and they’d stumble over the particular order of the words, panic, and the whole speech would derail. If they instead focused on the general idea they were trying to get across, the order of the words didn’t matter so much and it greatly reduced their anxiety. (Plus, it’s a speech, not a stage play.) —Michelle Hals
“The audience wants you to do a good job. It’s not like they’re waiting for you to screw up, like how some people watch car races, hoping for a crash.” —Ruth B. Carter, Esq.