Wednesday, June 14, 2017

5 Tips To Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Ahhh public speaking. Top phobia and bane-of-existence for people all over the world.

Public speaking is one of those things that can bring brave men to their knees, that successful women struggle with above all else, and that ruins grade school classes for children year-after-year.

Of course, it's also something that sooner or later we all must attend to. Whether professionally or socially, we've all had our 5 minutes of fame behind a podium or at the head of a boardroom table speaking to groups large and small.

Public speaking is something I used to be HORRIBLE at. I mean, it just terrified me. but through the years I've worked hard and overcome my anxiety and now I can speak quite comfortably in front of any group of people at length. In fact, I kind of love the rush!

A few weeks ago, my boss asked me to help lead a workshop for the juniors at the company to help improve their public speaking skills, and help them with their presence when giving presentation.

Today I want to share with you the talk I gave (albeit slightly nicer since I wrote this down), highlighting some of the lessons I've learned over the years about public speaking and how to be charismatic in front of an audience.

My hope is that, if you struggle with public speaking, this post will help you improve, and overcome some of your fears.

So without further ado... 

5 Tips To Improve Your Public Speaking Skills And Exude Charismatic Stage Presence

Part 1: Embarrassment, mermaids, the tale of a seventh grade Laura

When I was 12, I had to give a 3-5 minute speech in my grade-7 class, on any topic, as part of our public speaking curriculum. 

5 minutes may not seem like a long time now, but at 12 it was an eternity. So I decided to talk about something WORTH talking about – Mermaids.

I did some research, I memorized my presentation, I had a captivating dance break between the second and third parts… which ultimately ended up being my downfall. I was trying so hard to be entertaining that somewhere between singing "Under the Sea" and my sensational fish moves, I forgot the rest of my speech. 

I blanked. TOTAL PANIC. Which, at 12, is the end of the world.

It turned out to be a defining moment. In my embarrassment, I decided I would never, EVER again speak that poorly in front of a group.

The next year for the grade-8 version of the same project, I studied my topic like crazy. I used cue cards and prompts, I asked my teacher if I could go FIRST so I wouldn’t psych myself out or compare myself to others... and I ended up coming in 3rd in my class. Talk about an underdog story; I was VICTORIOUS.

I had learned two important things about stage presence at 13 that I still think about to this day. 

(And I say stage presence because, any time you’re up in front of an audience, it’s akin to being on stage.)

The first thing I learned was, to quote School House Rock, "knowledge is power". There is no substitute when speaking to really knowing your topic. You don’t need to be an expert, or dazzle anyone with facts they never knew, but the more you know your stuff the more confident you will be, and that will come across to your audience.

The second thing I learned is that showmanship is not the same thing as being captivating (unless you’re a circus barker). Think about some great orators and the way they address people. For example President Obama; he managed to be captivating every time he opened his mouth, without singing Disney songs or, often, without even cracking a smile.

Part 2: My love of theater and Improv changes my life

So after my victory I became a bit of a stage junky. I enrolled in a musical theater class, took a lot of dance lessons, and in my final year of high school joined our school’s Improv team

Improv is a unique beast. First, it’s a team event so you’re never alone, and second (and most importantly), you have no idea what’s about to happen. 

This means you have 8 equally clueless people on stage, trying to be entertaining for 4 whole minutes, often with only a one word theme with which to create magic.

I learned more about stage presence than ever before in this year. I learned how to use my tones to create stress or excitement in our invisible scenario, and how to tell a great story.

I learned when I needed to step up to the plate, and when it was ok to fade into the background (sometimes literally becoming the plate for someone else to step up to), and how to work in sync with my team to achieve the best possible results.

But one of the most important things I learned was about posture and confidence, or more accurately, posture and PERCEIVED confidence. 

Here’s the truth about getting up on stage: It’s scary. Putting yourself out there always leads to a rush of anxiety. Whether it's one-on-one or, as was sometimes the case when I was performing, one-on-500. With practice this diminishes, but there are still times when I get that anxious rush getting up in front of a crowd.

Here’s the thing though: no one but you knows that this struggle is happeningThe only thing your audience knows is your body and your voice. 

The trick to improving BOTH of these things is posture. Standing or sitting up straight, shoulders back, feet planted, breathing in through your nose, out through your mouth with your head high. 

This position is POWERFUL. Much like smiling is shown to improve your mood, good posture can improve your confidence. Not only will you feel physically more capable, but other things will start to fall into place: 

  • your breathing will be more smooth which will help keep you calm, 
  • you’ll find your diction is more clipped, and 
  • your voice will be clearer

The final thing I learned from Improv was that having presence is being PRESENT. If you’re not listening to your team or your audience, if you’re not respecting that presentation is a two way street, you won’t go far. 

In the workplace, your default shouldn't be to play on your phone when it’s not your turn to talk in a meeting. You need to be present even in your silence. 

Part 3: Back to embarrassment, but this time with more success!

The last time I did any real stage acting was in my final year of university. Let’s just say I participated in a particularly famous, women’s-only play where you monologue about the female anatomy.

I’m lucky to be from an incredibly supportive family, and this performance in their eyes was no different from any other… but when opening night rolled around and I got up on stage to give my monologue ("My Angry Vagina"), I have to admit that seeing my father sitting at the front table brought about a whole whack of anxiety.

But, at this point I had years of stage experience behind me. So I took a deep breath, got into my posture, and presented to the back of the room. I was lucky to have one of the funnier monologues, and let me tell you that NOTHING gives you confidence quite like making a room full of people laugh.

So what’s the lesson from this story? Don’t worry about getting caught off guard. Embarrassment, uncertainty, your father sitting front row while you talk about something that you’d rather him not be in the room for never mind his chosen seat, things will THROW you.

Things aren’t always going to go your way in presentation. Surprises will happen. Be confident in your knowledge and strike your power pose, and you’ll do fine.

So to recap, on my lessons:
  1.  Knowledge is power
  2. Showmanship isn’t the same thing as being captivating
  3. Posture posture posture
  4. Having presence is being present
  5. Don’t worry about getting caught off guard

Here’s what I recommend.

The first thing is to remember that you already have stage presence. You do. I promise that at some point in the past you have exuded confidence and knowledge in the perfect posture and captivated your audience. Whether it was with friends, or family, or in a job interview, you’ve got the goods you just need to learn how to tap into them.

A great way to learn presence in public speaking is to watch the masters. One thing that I like to do is watch Ted Talks. Just go to the Ted website and watch their top rated talks to see people with a variety of public speaking styles, but all of whom have presence. 

Watch some of the great speeches of history and appreciate that even the BEST OF THE BEST occasionally say “um” take long pauses, or need to drink water. I mean, Kennedy once announced that he was a jelly doughnut!

Watch great stand-up comedians and how they roll with the punches as things get off track.

Finally, Like anything, the best way to learn is by doing. The next time you know you’re on a professional call, listen to some pump up music beforehand, give yourself a pep talk, take some deep breaths and get into your best posture. Practice with friends (without telling them) when you’re recounting a story, practice on strangers, practice in the mirror! Just practice.

Thanks for reading my presentation! I hope you learned a few things about public speaking that you can apply in interviews, at work, or when meeting new people!

If you have any questions about public speaking, or would like to chat about more tips and tricks please email me at! I'd love to talk about your upcoming presentation with you and help you with your stage anxiety.

PS: If you liked this post, check out these posts!