How To Not Suck As A Speaker: 15 Ideas

By Maren Hogan

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In eighth grade, I gave the commencement speech at our “graduation”. I practiced hard, wrote and rewrote, selected my outfit and gave a powerhouse speech. Everyone from the teachers to my peers thought I’d surely pursue some sort of public speaking in my life.

But as the years wore on, I gravitated more toward writing. First, creative writing, then journalism and finally, marketing and advertising. Banging out 1000 words on anything? That I can do. But put a mic in my hand (or on my lapel) and I find myself sweaty, tongue-tied and more than a little envious of my eighth-grade self.

I have been trying to understand public speaking for a long time now. It’s really hard, harder than I thought it would be when I first decided I wanted to speak on employer brand, recruitment marketing and hell, just plain marketing.

So what’s the deal? If I KNOW the stuff, why can’t I SAY the stuff in a compelling way? Well, I don’t really know the answer to that question BUT, I am getting better.

Here are the things I have done to see a little improvement in how I speak:

Write it out. I always write out the entire speech a la “four score and seven years ago…” A presentation can always go awry, if you write it, you have less to worry about when it comes to technical difficulties. Plus, the presentation looks a lot better with a concept first.

Start with a story. I don’t know why this was such a blinding revelation for me. I have been starting stories for years now. I must have 27 first chapters of never-to-be-finished novels.

Give your team (or yourself) design direction. Just because Powerpoints can go sideways doesn’t mean you should ignore great design. I go through my speech with design ideas for the team and highlight phrases I want to be spelled out on the slides. This accomplishes two things: First, it ensures I am not using every stinking word on the slides, as bad speakers are prone to do. Second, it allows me to envision myself up on the stage with the visual behind me.

Listen to yourself. Some people practice with notes. That never works for me. If I miss a word, it jacks up my whole flow. I record myself to listen to over and over in my ears until I am sick of my own dude voice. This helps me with both speech memorization and cadence.

Watch yourself. I swear on this green earth that there is nothing more humbling than watching yourself attempt a speech. I have thousands of minutes of video on my phone that show me attempting not to sound (and look) like a moron. Most of the time I do this right before I go on, which means in many of these videos I’m frantically putting on eyeliner and curling my hair.

Snap! Are you an UMMER? Grab a rubber band and snap yourself every time you utter the dreaded UMMMMMM. Your wrists will be red but your presentation will be awesome.

Don’t try to be something you’re not. I really want to stay behind the podium for many reasons. I love reading notes and podiums hide notes really well. I am pretty clumsy and love high heels so stages are inherently dangerous places for me. However, I cannot for the life of me stay still during anything and the stage is no exception.

Find a buddy or two. I always find the people I am gonna creep out for the hour right up front. It can be hard to talk to hundreds or thousands of people, but it’s pretty easy to talk to 4-5. When I find that my mind has blanked or I’m getting a little nervous or speaking too quickly, I will look at one of my “buddies” (they can be anyone in the audience, you don’t have to know them).

KNOW. A. JOKE. ZOMG, this is so important. Trust and believe that the lights WILL go out, the presentation WILL go down, your mic WILL get jacked up, the next speaker WILL be late. If you know a couple of great jokes, then you can work the crowd until things settle down.

Shock and awe. Okay, maybe not shock and awe but if you know a startling fact, an interesting anecdote or have space in your presentation to call someone in the audience out, do so. It instantly wakes people up and gets them back into the groove (no easy feat in this smartphone life we’re just living in.) I have a presentation where I say “and this is where people’s eyes usually glaze over…ARE YOUR EYES GLAZING OVER?”), wakes them up every time.

Sounds of silence. Don’t be afraid of NOT talking. Sometimes, it’s okay to pause. For effect, for a drink of water, for a thought to sink in, to let people take pics of a specific slide. You are human, I guarantee your audience knows this.

KISS. Keep it simple stupid. I know this is standard advice but it took me forever to understand that my role on the stage is NOT to teach people everything I’ve learned in 20 years, it’s to inspire them to want to learn more and give them a few tools to point them in the right direction. If every presentation could distill 20 years of knowledge into 45 minutes, college would not be a thing.

Practice in front of the young. The young will eat you alive. They’ve not yet been socialized which means that high school and college students will be rude, refuse to make eye contact, ask questions you might not have the answers to and more. They will also laugh when you trip or swear accidentally, so that lightens the mood.

Establish who you are. You have a reason to be speaking at this time, at this place, on this subject. What is it? And further, what do you want them to know about you as a person? It’s easy to dismiss a speaker, harder to dismiss a mother of three who dropped out of high school and runs a multi-million dollar business.

Take it personally but don’t take it personally. I get feedback after nearly every event I do now. Some of it is awful. In fact, a lot of it is awful. I know I was exceptionally bad when my friends compliment me too much. I need to take comments that come up time and again to heart. Those are real criticisms and failings that transcend subject and geography (meaning the problem is yours truly). However, when people criticize my hair, clothes, tattoos or piercings….Iiiiiii don’t think I care. You shouldn’t either.

This article originally published on the Red Branch Media Blog.

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