3 Ways to Dominate Your First Public Talk
October 20, 2015
Public speaking: the thought of it brings a shiver to the spines of many of us. The very notion of baring our soul in front of peers strikes fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned entrepreneurs.
Of course, it's no secret that public speaking is the #1 fear in the Western world and that we collectively carry the burden of group exposure regardless of our other public facing activities.
Yet public speaking is a path that many entrepreneurs understand and acknowledge as being an important part of their positioning; their expert status; their overall long-term success on a personal level.
I recently began my own journey into higher profile public speaking and since then, I have been asked on a very regular basis how I overcame the fear that, without a doubt, was there before I'd made that first speech.
My first thought and usually my first answer to this is to understand that the nerves that overtake you as you approach your first public speaking “gig” will never, ever go away.
Rather, we all learn to embrace them; to enjoy them; to leverage them in much the same way that an ageing rockstar learns to focus their nerves into putting heart and soul into every single stadium performance.
But then I stop myself: really, that's a clichéd answer.
It's not actionable, there's nothing that you can take from that other than “Hey, it gets better!” – and that, well that is just patronising.
I got lucky: I grew up performing on stages across the UK in various guises, whether it was during my early teenaged years as a jazz / brass trombonist, my later teenaged years as the bass player of a rock band or my mid-twenties as the singer in yet another 80s guitar fuelled ensemble.
I'm not a natural performer, I'm the Bruce Wayne Batman – all facts, logic and step-by-step process, as opposed to the acrobatic, performance driven and positively theatrical Dick Grayson version.
This does not come natural to me.
Pondering the initial question in more depth, “How did you overcome the fear of public speaking?”, I arrived at a very simple answer: I don't think I have.
Instead, I believe that my years performing songs that I'd written myself, opening up to the kind of criticism and feedback that we all fear has conditioned me to create a very specific routine that allows me to “reset” my frame of mind ready for the performance to come.
I'd like to share the 3 things that I believe will help anyone making the jump into public speaking, dominate that first talk.
1: Set Yourself Up
Your heart is racing, you hear your name being called and out you step – into the spotlight, into the lion's den.
Our first instinct is to immediately throw ourselves into the session we've so meticulously planned; to move straight into our practiced opening line and deliver it with so much confidence and gusto that the audience immediately falls in love with us.
Yet what typically happens is that we rush it
Not only is our heart racing, but so is our mind; so is our mouth.
This often leads to that well rehearsed, perfectly timed delivery ending up squeezed out, immediately throwing us off balance and sadly, creating an air of quiet disappointment in our own minds.
This is destructive and quickly puts us on the back foot, making us feel as if we're a step behind the whole way through the talk.
Worse, it can make us feel as if we've “lost” the audience from the outset.
In realism, this is rarely true, yet with the lights beating down upon us, our minds and hearts racing we barely stop to notice that the audience is right there with us, willing us to be the best and supporting us through it.
I recommend: create an on-stage routine and stick to it.
Much like a sprinter before a career-defining race, you can create a routine for yourself that you can rely on to settle you each and every time you step out on stage.
I used to do this when playing in the bands and I do it now when I step on stage to speak.
I take 15 seconds or so to acclimatise to the lights, to make sure my drink is in a suitable place, to make sure I have my notes to hand or my iPad is displaying the “presenter” display of Keynote.
I take a sip of water, take a deep breath and only then do I deliver my opening line – slowly, calmly and firmly.
Create an on-stage routine that works for you, incorporate it into your practice time and stick to it. It'll become your lightening rod, your focal point and once complete, you'll be in the saddle ready to have the time of your life, delivering the opening line with the confidence you desire.
15 seconds can feel like a lifetime on stage, but remember: it isn't to the audience.
They're with you, they'll wait.
2: Warm Up
I vividly remember driving to gigs whilst doing vocal exercises that, to say the least, made other drivers look at me like I was completely out of my mind.
And the first few times I did the exercises – I felt like I was out of my mind!
The truth is though, these warm ups became as important as the talk I was giving.
Without warming up, our voices can often feel unnatural. The pitch becomes higher, we stumble through our sentences feeling like a drunk just trying to keep his balance.
We wouldn't set off on a marathon without warming up but often, we take our tone and inflection for granted and assume our voice will be there to call upon at any time.
This is a mistake.
I recommend: find a short, high quality warm up routine and integrate this into your pre-talk practice and as a ritual before you take the stage.
I highly recommend the “Vocalize” vocal warm up album by Stevie Vann Lange, a complete guide to warming up your voice for any performance.
I use it regularly: it is easy and the results startling.
I also highly recommend episode 105 of the podcast where I talk to actor and entrepreneur Robin Kermode about this very thing.
3: Talk TO the Audience
Have you ever stared into the horizon, only to be blinded by the sun and unable to see more than 6 feet in front of you?
Sure, we all have.
Similarly, under the heat of the stage lights it can be very difficult to see the back of the audience you're addressing, making it very difficult to project that you're in the room with them.
Rather, it can come across as though we're simply “blanketing” the room, never quite fixing our gaze in one place. Perhaps this is even perpetuated by the nervous “walk” that many of us suffer from when addressing a crowd.
Although certainly not a show stopper, this can result in us becoming disjointed from the crowd and at times meaning that we lose the interaction and the “vibe” of the audience because we're simply “scanning” from one side to the next.
I recommend: pick real people in the audience and give them your attention.
By choosing to make eye contact with several people in the audience and giving them a sentence directly, we create the feeling of intimacy amongst the crowd.
The fear of alienating everyone else is soon waylaid by the feeling that you're a real person having a conversation with other real people.
Those who we can't directly address, perhaps thanks to the glare from the lights, will see this as a positive and understand that our attention can't be everywhere, leading to a connection with the whole audience by proxy.
By revealing ourselves as people who are there to talk to other people as opposed to at people is a surefire way to breakdown any barriers between speaker & audience, and results in a more impactful delivery and personal outcome all round.
Confidence comes from competence…
…and you are very, very competent, you are the expert.
By owning your pre-stage routine, your vocal warm-ups and creating intimacy with your speaking you can deliver a killer speech every single time, beginner or not.
Don't forget, the more you expect from yourself, the more you WILL excel!