Public speaking: 7 tips from a pro

Nov 15, 2021 - updated Dec 06, 2021

8 mins

Public speaking: 7 tips from a pro

Your legs are shaky, your heart is racing and your voice is weak. Many of us are all too familiar with the signs of anxiousness that bubble up to the surface when we have to speak in front of others, even if it’s just five of our colleagues. Good communication skills are a key factor in professional success, however. Being adept at public speaking and knowing how to build a relationship with your audience is important whether in a job interview, at a press conference or managing staff. Let’s take a look at the mechanisms at work in public speaking with soft skills coach Bertrand Vinson of Ifoyaka, a PR and communications company.

We are much too human

The need for recognition

Having a fear of public speaking is not unusual. This fear comes from the ego, according to Vinson. It’s linked to our need for recognition and the desire to be heard, understood and accepted. Our reaction is to create the fear of not getting those things. While this fear exists because there’s an audience gazing at you, Vinson says their attitude is not a key factor in triggering the fear. The proof? You may still tremble or stammer in front of a very supportive audience.

Personal stakes

Making a presentation in a situation where there’s a lot at stake for you personally can greatly affect how you feel about it. Levels of fear vary depending on what you have to lose or gain. Representing your company at an international conference in front of the firm’s top brass just when you’re aiming to get a promotion will create more anxiety than doing the same presentation after you’ve resigned and are about to leave the company. “When our future or our credibility is at stake, when we force ourselves to succeed, that’s when fear comes in,” says Vinson.

Fighting your negative reflexes

Figuring out your automatic reflexes

Like all fears, the fear of not succeeding“is managed by our brain, which triggers automatic defense mechanisms: our reflexes,” says Vinson. He identifies three types of reflexes:

  • Running away
  • Turning inward
  • Opening up to others

Training in public speaking consists above all of becoming aware of your bad reflexes, such as the tendency to turn inward, breaking them down and getting new ones. You have to take a step back from your fear, what you plan to say and what’s at stake for you in the situation so that you can create a relationship and have a conversation with your audience.

The pitfall: making the text your priority

A common mistake speakers make is to rush through the text, focusing on what they want to say before even making contact with the audience, according to Vinson. This is what he calls “turning inward” or “withdrawing into our thoughts” or “withdrawing into our heads”. He says, “When we are fearful in a public speaking situation, our brain often causes us to focus excessively on what needs to be said, to rush through the text and to hide behind the words.” And that’s a pitfall to avoid. “Typically, in a social situation, what we experience with other people is the moment itself and that’s what reinforces relationships. The core of the moment is the relationship itself, not what was said,” he adds. So talking and chatting becomes a natural, low-stakes act, he says, during which “not being able to answer a question, saying no, disagreeing: none of this is a problem.”

When you make “speaking” a priority, your brain inevitably looks for what it’s going to say next. “It’s worried about running out of ‘stock’ and starts looking for information in advance,” he says. That’s when you lose your nerve. You desperately search for information in your notes or on your laptop. You stutter and your breathing is affected as you start to take shallow breaths rather than breathing steadily and deeply. Vinson says poor breathing causes most of the undesirable effects experienced by those with a fear of public speaking: muscle tension, shaky hands or legs, feeling hot or cold, feeling flushed, sweating, erratic speech or memory lapses.

The false crutch: your notes

Can your notes help you in this situation? Very little, though you might not think so as so many people tend to rely on them. Showing up with a stack of papers or an overloaded Powerpoint is a recipe for disaster. You’ll feel safe using the text. You’ll look for the answers there and read them out. Then your voice will become monotonous as you forget to look at what’s out there in front of you. Vinson says, “We take pleasure in listening to someone because something is happening within that interaction.”

At the same time, preparation is important and necessary. You should structure what you want to say around key ideas and questions that the audience might ask. Once you’ve put together what you plan to say, rehearsed and absorbed it, why not allow yourself a memo. Just a note card with the key figures, the structure and that anecdote you don’t want to forget will be plenty.

The solution? Teach yourself to focus on the relationship

1. Create a rapport

To stop yourself from falling into the trap of giving priority to the text, you have to learn to use the right reflexes. Vinson identifies three determining factors in this routine: the other person, the rhythm and the space. It’s about “making the other person the partner they should continue to be.” When you are focused on the other person, they listen to you. “The relationship is with the other person. You’ll get it just right if you don’t confuse talking with communicating.” The content is secondary. Your presentation plays out primarily through your interaction with the audience in the attention you give them, the way you look at them and the way you take the time to establish a quality rapport with them, according to Vinson.

To make the relationship easier, get rid of the “I” from your pitch. The audience wants to be heard, understood and to feel involved. This is the perspective to keep in mind when structuring what you’ll say: answer the audience’s questions, create a connection between your presentation and why it exists, pull from their reading of it, speak their language. Use the word “you” more than “I”, and work towards using “us” in order to create a shared way of thinking and to lessen the distance between you and the audience.

2. Start by saying nothing

Before speaking in public, it’s normal to feel a nagging fear. Wanting to get rid of it is pointless. High-level athletes and artists will all tell you: the pressure you feel and the stage fright never disappear entirely. But if handled well, they can prove to be precious assets that help you to feel fully involved, to stay centered and to give a good performance.

It may seem counterintuitive but “the first thing you should do when speaking in public is to be quiet,” Vinson says. This simply means taking a few seconds to feel the atmosphere, to tap into your own feelings, to notice that the audience is listening, and to glance or smile at two or three people in the audience.

3. Set your pace

Once you’ve silently established your first contact with the audience, you now have to set the pace. Vinson says, “The rhythm at which you speak and those moments of silence, that’s your actual pace.” To be in control of your pace and of your breathing, you should “find the calm in the first few instants you start speaking, begin with three or four very short sentences and breathe between each of them, if possible breathing from your diaphragm (your belly).” The secret to setting your pace? Imagine your audience is hard of hearing and that they all have to read your lips. So you’re going to have to speak to them slowly, to articulate well and not say too much at once so as to not lose them. “Don’t be scared of taking your time. If you do this, you will focus not on what you say, but on your audience and how comfortable they are in listening to you.” By shifting your focus, you forget yourself, only the audience matters and the fear fades away, according to Vinson.

4. Be expressive

The third key for managing the relationship? Space. The space that separates you from the audience. “Your responsibility as a speaker is to make that space as small as possible, to bring the audience towards you,” says Vinson. The audience may struggle to focus for more than 90 seconds, but they want to be comfortable and to enjoy listening to you. The speaker’s role is to create the conditions to make the audience comfortable by paying close attention to them and adjusting what you do accordingly.

Vinson outlines three approaches you can adopt and work into your gestures, according to what you observe in your audience. You can grab their attention, support them or keep them open to what you’re saying. So how do you speak with your hands and arms?

  • To “grab” their attention, make open-handed gestures towards your audience as you speak. These are the types of gestures we make spontaneously when we want to get someone’s attention and say “but listen!”

  • To “sustain” their flagging attention, imagine that you’re lifting an object up with your two hands from your belly button to your breastbone. You will literally raise their level of attention and listening. At the same time, make sure to match your actions with a rising intonation to get the full effect.

If you’re facing someone who looks uncomfortable or very closed off, you should “open” your hands from your breastbone outwards. That’s what you naturally do when you tell someone, “C’mon, it’s not so bad, relax!” Vinson defines these gestures as “intentions, conscious efforts to help others follow what you’re saying and to pay attention to you for longer.”

5. Work on your posture and breathing

Your posture and breathing are also key elements. It’s physiological: the straighter you stand, the more oxygen can circulate. If you want your voice to resonate, you have to hold your back straight, control your abdominal muscles and avoid sticking your chin out. Vinson compares it to acting “not like a fishing pole, but like a magnet.”

And how do you place your voice? You have to remember to breathe from your diaphragm. “Most of the time, if your voice doesn’t come out, it is because you’re not breathing,” Vinson says. When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes shallow, you speak from the wrong place and your voice won’t carry. So you have to learn to breathe from your belly.

6. Speak to one person at a time

Vinson, who has experience of public speaking in a variety of contexts, says there is one key lesson that should not be neglected: “None of this is possible if you speak to the whole audience, to a group of 10, 100, 1,000 people, all at the same time.” Not only will that give you anxiety, but you run the risk of getting lost. The key to putting intention into what you’re saying is to talk to one person at a time. “Each sentence, or part of a sentence, between two breaths must be addressed to a clearly identified person in the crowd,” he says. There is nothing to stop you from changing who you look at with each breath. You can look to the left, the center, or the right, but you must always look at one person at a time.

7. But embrace all of your audience

Talk to just one person at a time, but make sure like any good goalie to keep glancing around so as to take in all of the audience. Some people advocate moving around to occupy the space, but Vinson warns against doing this: “Seeing someone move all the time is exhausting; a presentation can actually be very lively from a fixed point.”

For Vinson, public speaking is more about what you do than what you say. “People with little education and eloquence still manage to create moments of grace,” he says. If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: the magic happens in the quality of the relationship. You have to create an atmosphere of listening and empathy for your audience if you want to be able to talk to them, to captivate them and, above all, to communicate well with them.

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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