Don’t sweat! Tips on how to be a better public speaker

What can make your palms sweat, your mouth dry out and your knees knock? (And I don’t mean that good-looking new employee on the third floor.) If you’re like millions of Americans, the dreaded culprit is public speaking. In fact, it ranks first on the list of things Americans fear most (death is sixth), according to the Book of Lists. Most of us would happily avoid the whole situation if we could, except for one unfortunate detail: public speaking is considered a "must have" skill if you intend to move up in your organization.

Here are some quick tips that will make you more credible and comfortable the next time you give a presentation.

Before you speak
I know a lot of smart, competent people who lose sleep for days before a speech. They worry about sounding stupid or forgetting a point. One of the most calming things they can ask themselves is, "Why am I the best person to be speaking to this group about this topic?" The answer to that question is at the heart of your credibility. If possible, write your own introduction and include the answer to that question. Your introducer will be relieved that he or she doesn’t have to create an introduction and your credibility will be established before you say a word.

Another great way to quiet your wicked inner voice is to find out as much as you can about your audience. Find out the answers to questions such as:

§      "What does the audience need from me the most?"

§      "What does the audience fear the most?"

§      "How will the audience benefit from what I have to say?"

§      "What would I like the audience to think, feel or do when I’m finished?"

During your speech
If you get nervous as you’re being introduced (and who doesn’t), calm yourself by grabbing the bottom of your chair and pull yourself into the chair as hard as you can for 30 seconds. No one will notice and it will channel the energy from your flight or fight response. If your mouth goes so dry your teeth stick to your lips, try biting your tongue. It will get the juices flowing again.

Open with a personal story or other compelling way to hook the audience. Don’t start with an apology ("Speaking makes me nervous" or "You probably can’t see my slides, but…") or the phrase, "My name is Jane Doe and I’m here to talk about X."

Early in your presentation, focus on what’s in it for your audience. What do they have to gain? How can you save them from pain? Without this, your audience will lose interest.

Give your audience a preview of where you’re going. State your goal or purpose in the first few minutes and briefly touch on the key areas on which you will be speaking.

Get your audience involved early and often. Ask rhetorical questions, "Have you ever wondered…" Ask them to share their experiences about your key point. Invite them to share an experience with a person sitting next to them. Take a vote to gauge opinions on your topic. Give them a pop quiz to test their knowledge on your subject. Adults like to be actively engaged and involved. Audiences, accustomed to sophisticated entertainment and interactive computers, have little tolerance for monologues and lectures.

Your close should be strong and rehearsed. It is one of the most important parts of your speech and will leave the most lasting message.

Question and answer session
When you ask the question, "Are there any questions?" can you hear a pin drop? People don’t like to single themselves out by asking questions. One way to remove that barrier is to ask audience members to gather into small groups and come up with one question per group. This is a particularly useful technique when presenting a change that requires audience understanding and buy in.

Repeat all questions in your own words so you can reframe it in a general way for the audience. Take any opportunity to emphasize points. If someone asks a complicated or personal question, offer to answer it after the presentation. Refuse to react defensively, no matter what an audience member says. If you take the bait and go toe to toe with an audience member you will lose, even if the audience member is a jerk

Public speaking doesn’t have to be a painful experience. If you do it often enough, the only time your palms will get sweaty is when you bump into that person on the third floor.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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