Public speaking: for many, it’s a phobia that outranks the fear of death itself. And while some people are born relatively comfortable talking to audiences, there are always ways to improve the craft.
As a business development strategist, artist, and organic farming expert, Eli Sheiman of Santa Barbara, California, has used his public speaking skills fairly regularly. In fact, while working with a non-profit called The Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, he participated in “the farmer in the classroom program” that entailed delivering presentations about leading healthy lifestyles at inner-city schools.
But learning public speaking skills is not just for those that want to speak to audiences more comfortably. It can improve interpersonal relationships and open up business opportunities, particularly in leadership roles. Talking to a crowd may not feel natural — it’s normal to be nervous, even when the speaker is experienced — but there are approaches to becoming a more effective communicator.
Practice and Prepare
Much of curbing anxiety before delivering an address comes down to preparedness, explains Eli Sheiman. While some may be good at improv, speaking en masse will likely go down a lot easier if you know your audience and gear the content towards them. That means doing some research about the target demographic and their level of knowledge on the topic — are they looking for light, anecdotal information, or are they experts in the industry looking for heavily researched information?
In any case, writing out the speech in the right format is important. The general “angle” of the content should be relevant to the audience and you shouldn’t put them to sleep in the first 30 seconds. Open with something that makes the audience think (or even laugh), reeling them in like an effective lead on a news story.
Practice delivering the speech to yourself in front of a mirror or to friends a few days before the event and be willing to take some constructive criticism.
Take a Breath
For many people who are inexperienced at public speaking, they forget to pause and take a breath on stage. The result is that a speech may come off as monotone, without looking up at the audience to gauge response. One way to avoid this is to only bring an outline of the speech for reference so you can work more from memory and maintain eye contact.
Looking at audience members regularly makes them feel more involved and you can more easily determine if someone has a question or an objection through their own body language. It also gives you a chance to pause, take in a breath, and let your previous points sink in.
However, while a speaker may be well-informed on a topic, they shouldn’t be afraid to let their personality shine through. That could mean using similar gestures when trying to get a point across to a friend or using jokes to soften the mood if appropriate. Consider giving personal examples of how the points in the speech have affected you personally for a deeper human connection, suggests Eli Sheiman.
Speech Quality Can Boost Engagement
The way a speech is delivered can change the way the information is received, so practicing your public speaking skills is important to get your ideas across effectively, explains Eli Sheiman. If you have more confidence at the podium (or in one-to-one conversations), people are more likely to take your words seriously.
It’s not about not being nervous — anxiety (often associated with public speaking) can actually make you sharper and more motivated, among other benefits. It’s more about knowing the crowd (and the topic), sharing the information with confidence, and avoiding using language that paints you as a novice in an area (example: “I’m not 100 percent sure, but…”).
Try to speak from the diaphragm, which will become easier as you learn to take deep breaths periodically. This type of breathing has also been shown to slow your pulse a bit, which can be racing during a speech. It can also help you naturally sound more authoritative by avoiding talking too softly.
The bottom line is that if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, neither will those listening. It may feel difficult at first, but with repeated practice, you can train yourself to be an effective public speaker, even if you’re feeling a tad insecure inside, says Eli Sheiman.