The Myths of Public Speaking and Presenting
By Anthony Garvey, Toastmasters International
Have you asked colleagues and friends for advice on public speaking and presenting? I have and some have been useful but much of advice has been not so great. You may have had the same experience!
In this article we’ll look at the ‘not so great advice’, debunking twelve myths and pointing out some pitfalls you can avoid when you have a speech or presentation to give.
Nervousness often isn’t visible to others because it’s internal. And even if people realise you’re nervous, they’ll sympathise with you. Most audience members are on your side and want you to do well. Don’t start your presentation with the announcement: “I’m not very good at public speaking.” Keep it to yourself! Nor should you hold a single sheet of paper in your hands. If your hand shakes, then and only then, the audience will see signs of nerves.
How often have you seen a speaker spill their cue cards all over the floor and spend the rest of the speech trying to reorder them? Almost as bad is the speaker who reads word for word from their notes and doesn’t even look up to see the audience reaction. If you must carry notes, write single words to prompt you to speak on a particular topic. Once you start speaking on that topic, put the card down and consult it only when you need to.
A well-meaning gentlemen once gave me some advice: “Next time you speak, plant your feet on a sheet of A4 paper and don’t move for the duration of your talk!” Myth! Unless you are delivering a reading at a religious service, I believe you should move when you talk.
I had a professor at college, who paced up and down during lectures, as if he were sponsored by FitBit. Don’t meander all over the stage, like he did, but you shouldn’t have to stand rigidly behind a lectern, like a tortoise inside a shell either. Move, but move with purpose. Watch some of the world’s best speakers, like Les Brown, Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, to see how movement helps them connect.
There is nothing worse than struggling with a new suit that doesn’t quite fit while you are presenting. It is of course important to dress appropriately, but it is more important to feel comfortable. Presenting is stressful enough without having to deal with shoes that pinch your feet every step you take. If you have to wear a hire suit at a wedding for example, spend a little extra time making sure you are comfortable in it before you leave the store.
What happens when your boss asks for an update on the project you are working on at a meeting? What happens when you present ideas in front of other staff?
Many business and personal conversations are presentations, and the more care and attention you give to those conversations, the more professional they will be.
This idea was made popular by a book ‘I can see you naked’, a fearless guide to making great presentations and also featured in an episode of the Brady Bunch in 1974. But unless you are delivering a presentation for Ann Summers, imagining the audience in their underwear is a fruitless exercise. A better use of your brain power would be to search the audience for friendly faces to focus on, who will encourage and support you while you’re presenting.
It is much better to speak from the heart, rather than deliver a rehearsed speech. Learning a speech word-by-word is dangerous, because if you forget a word or a sentence, it can throw the whole speech off course. You still need to practice, but you will be using your time in a much more effective way, refining and improving, rather than memorising it.
Depending on your audience, a little humour in a speech or presentation can work well. But in my experience, starting with a joke is a gamble which seldom pays off. Too often a joke at the start of a speech or presentation falls flat, especially as people are still taking their seats or arriving at the venue and may not have heard it properly. If you feel humour is appropriate, by all means use it, but my advice would be to save it for later in the presentation.
The trick is to appear not to have put in any effort, but every presenter worth their salt, practices, practices and practices some more. As Oscar winner, Sir Michael Caine said: “Rehearsal is the work; performance is the relaxation.” The polished performers and presenters you have seen, are on top of their game because they have practiced. The more you practice, the better you get!
Speakers as still as statues, deliver their presentations with all the poise, charisma and presence of a store mannequin. Dynamic expressive speakers use their hands, so make good use of yours! Open palms, not pointing or clenched fists, are the key.
Watch and learn from the masterful body language of the Toastmasters’ World Champions of Public Speaking, to guide you on your path.
Replace the word’ YEARS’ in the sentence above with the word ‘PRACTICE’ and you’ll turn a myth into a truth. Take every opportunity you can to speak in public – ace speaker, Darren La Croix calls this “stage time” – whether it’s volunteering to chair meetings at your local charity, presenting at work, or offering to say a few words at a local function. Drop into your local Toastmaster club, where you’ll have the opportunity to speak in front of audience in a positive, encouraging environment. As above the more you practice, the better the speaker you’ll become.
We’ve all been to weddings where one of the speakers has had too much to drink. The temptation when you have one, is to have one too many! Swaying gently in the breeze and slurring your words frequently results in the audience laughing at, rather than with, you. With the prevalence of mobile phones and social media, your faux-pas might reach a wider audience than you anticipated. Try and stay away from high energy drinks and coffee too, which will over-animate you before you begin.
Now the twelve myths are debunked it’s over to you. The best of luck with your next speech or presentation!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Garvey is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org