Public Presentation and Speaking - how to be the best at it

13 mins read

“If you believe you will fail, there is no hope for you. You will”’. Dale Carnegie

I have a confession to make! 

For many years I have had the good fortune of speaking in public. As a teenager, I represented Mayflower School at Literary day competitions, wrote essays and even dabbled into stage plays and poetry. I revelled in every opportunity I got to face an audience. I got my juice running by just holding a microphone. But every time I am about to step on stage, I still get the butterflies and on many occasions I still hear every beat my heart makes. Beats racing so hard that I get a blinding headache moments before stepping right into the spotlight.

Perhaps it’s my way of staying true to myself or humble as I face scores of peering eyes waiting for every single word I care to speak. But having stage fright isn’t entirely unusual- even if you have been speaking for many years, the problem here is, how you handle this disruptive feeling right before you take the plunge into the stage.

I have obviously lost count of the number of times I have embraced the public glare, given speeches to kids or a presentation to the management or even managed a formal event. But the mastery of the art of public speaking is hinged on some very fundamental truths which I am hoping to provide clarity in this article. 

For many of my friends who privately reached out to me for insights in the past, your secret is safe with me. Put to practise some of the highlights and you will be just fine.

Dale Carnegie in his book, The Art of Public Speaking, mentions that one way to get air out of a glass cup is to pour in water. 

Read it again. The statement is quite profound! 

And this is where we will start, getting all the wrongly conceived ideas out and replacing these with the truths about speaking in public.

Be absolutely knowledgeable about the Presentation you want to make

One of the cardinal pedestals on which self-confidence is built prior to heading to the podium or stage is to have good information about the subject of discourse. A good speaker must be well prepared and well grounded in the subject he is to present on. He must have the right credentials and authority to speak confidently and knowledgeably on the subject. 

A speaker who is ill-prepared will stutter and struggle to connect with the audience. But armed with a really good content and valuable information, half the job is done.

I recollect one time I was making a presentation to an audience that included the executive management and the entire workforce and I had picked up the microphone, started the pleasantries while waiting for the powerpoint slide to come up on the projector. When I looked back at the projector moments later I realised that it wasn’t up yet, I went on with the presentation as though there was no glaring glitch. I must have spoken for about 4minutes before the slides thankfully came up. But I had kept the audience fully engaged and enthralled on the subject. I spoke with a clear understanding on the subject and simply caught on seamlessly with the slide on the back of an applause from the audience.

It is so important that you are not reading from the presentation or slide for the first time or as though the words must be read off the slide while you are presenting. Infact, good public speakers never read verbatim the words on the slides. But this can only happen when you have mastered the content of the slide. 

So when you find speakers who are reading the slides and literally fixing their gaze on the screen, then be rest assured that they have quite a bit of work to do.

To engage the audience, you must show absolutely understanding of the subject of discourse, so that even when there are technical glitches you wouldn’t even flinch. 

Speak from the Deep

Do you ever wonder why speakers struggle with the microphone in the first few seconds or minutes of starting a presentation?

Well, I will tell you!

Many times, the presenter is struggling to hear his voice over the speakers. He starts by saying a few words and then struggles to hear the echo. Depending on the aesthetics of the stage, the response from the speakers may vary. This becomes very obvious when the stage is outdoors where there could easily be an echo, or the voice of the speaker would sound faint, withdrawn and distant, therefore distracting the Presenter. 

I am sure you may have experienced some speakers who will opt to bellow their voice through the audience, turning down the offer of the microphone, just to get the right tone and depth across the void to the audience.

Speaking is an art. It isn’t a time to try new accents or get so excited with the spot light that you start to try new speech intonation. The most important part of speaking in public is the message being passed across and every speaker must be concerned about getting the message and information across as much as possible. Being natural has its benefits and speaking in public needs you to be absolutely natural allowing your personality to shine through.

This may therefore sound a bit strange, but when I speak on stage, I speak from the depth of my lungs. I let my body reverberate the words and sentences, as against my mouth only uttering the words. For some interesting and strange reasons, doing this calms my frayed nerves in the first few minutes. 

Speaking from the deep helps to overcome the distraction from the sound of the speakers and allows you to come into the spirit. Its like leaning your entire body into the act.

When you speak, speak from deep within, not from the shallow confines of your mouth alone.

Dress Appropriately

Many speakers often dress to kill when they have a public presentation. Some wear bright colors and all sorts of flowery and distracting accessories. I tend to imagine that these speakers get a huge dose of confidence from looking super dapper on stage.

I do not have any problem with dressing up sharp and looking the part, after all, all eyes would be on every detail of clothing you wear. But the truth is, dressing flashy in bright colors and all worth not, will likely distract the audience from the message.

Every public speaker must be concerned first and foremost with the message he intends to convey, not himself or his attire, lest the ultimate aim of the presentation is lost to our ego-centric personalities.

To make your presentation, you should wear the most comfortable attire in your wardrobe. One that is good to the eye, elegant or formal depending on the nature of the occasion and the audience. Nothing outlandish, dangling or blinking. Well, except you are acting the roleplay of a clown.

Once you are properly dressed, you will not be distracted by a loose button here or an open zipper there. It will leave your audience with nothing but your message to listen to and to learn.

Do not be overly confident

It’s a thin line between overconfidence and being self-assured. Sometimes many speakers get excited by the presentation and information at their disposal that they sometimes get carried away with their own ego. Self-consciousness is undue consciousness of self, and, for the purpose of delivery, self is secondary to your subject, not only in the opinion of the audience,but, if you are wise, in your own. 

Dale Carnegie says that “it is sheer egotism to fill your mind with thoughts of self when a greater thing is there -TRUTH. Say this to yourself sternly, and shame your-self consciousness into quiescence”

He goes on to say that “nothing advertises itself so thoroughly as conceit. One may be so full of self as to be empty. We must conceal self-love and overconfidence”

Dale finally caps it by saying “there are things in this world bigger than self, and in working for them, self will be forgotten, or – what is better- remembered only so as to help us win towards higher things.

Any speaker that exudes too much confidence may come across to the audience as egoistic and this may distract them from the message. 

One interesting guide to close this part with;

“a presenter should endeavour to teach a man as though he has forgot the things you are passing across. If you come with this mindset, you will not appear overconfident” 

You must have an amazing Opening and closing statement.

It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, but conscious efforts must be made by a good presenter in the opening and closing “act” of the presentation. I can write a whole chapter on this but alone.

I always lay a lot of emphasis on this. When I listen to presenters doing their thing, I often tell those who care to listen that it takes only a few seconds to know if this would be an interesting presentation.

True, some speakers start slow and build momentum as they go, but you must pique the interest of the audience from the moment you step on the stage and this can not be decided randomly.

There are many ways you can spin this, but it largely depends on the context or the kind of audience you are engaging with. Some speakers start with a story, some with a question, others with a profound statement, some with a joke. Some even start with a mental exercise or a touching life story. Some start with a riddle while some start simply with the pleasantries. Whichever you choose to flow with is informed by the kind of audience you have, the alloted time for the presentation, the subject being discussed and the overall objective of the presentation. 

There are no hard and fast rules but you simply shouldn’t start a presentation by diving straight into its content as though in a hurry to leave the stage/podium.

I favour the abrupt closing, where the audience would be literally stunned for a moment by the time I am done. You can consider it dramatic, but I always like the element of surprise. A good speaker would ensure that you leave the audience with something to remember. And selecting a good closing statement, advice, charge or story is often a good way to seal all the knowledge learnt at the presentation.

Some speakers may choose to ask the audience questions to validate their learning. Others may choose to be asked questions at the end.

The bottom line is that, it must be consciously decided.

Remember that public speaking is an art!

Who do you look at during a Presentation?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions when I meet with young brilliant chaps who are keen on making a good impression.

I can tell you for free that looking into the sea of eyes will get you lost. That is aside the possibility of someone in the audience making passes at you..lol

The truth is you do not look any one person in the face. You look at cluster of persons. In your eyes, while you are up there on the stage before you start speaking, look quickly at the audience. Get a sense of the extent of the hall, or the auditorium and a sense of where everyone is seated- as a cluster. This would give you the impression of owning the stage and the audience. There would therefore be no need to look at just one person or particular persons.

The audience is a different kettle of fish. Some would make faces, some would sleep off, some will show a lack of interest, some will nod repeatedly, some will encourage you, while others may even roll their eyes at you. This is certainly not the time to pick the wrong person.

Do not stare at one person while you are speaking, let your gaze float across the hall and across the audience slowly and assuredly. Do not skip eye contact or make the mistake of getting your comfort in the eyes of one person in the audience. You will lose the others by doing so.

Sometimes the seating arrangement may be so haphazard that you are torn between talking to different sections of the hall. In this scenario, simply ask the audience politely to sit together in a good cluster. 

Mind your Body language

I will share an article dedicated to understanding body languages in the future. I believe that I have learnt a lot from research and studies on the subject through the last decade and some. And I practice a lot of this deliberately almost every day, whilst enjoying the reaction from people around me, especially when I deliberately choose to be aloof.

Every public speaker is a moving target. The audience will 90% of the time be fixated on everything the speaker does- or doesn’t do. How he walks, his intonation and emphasis, how he gesticulates, what he wears, whether his shoulders are drooping, if he has a limp, whether he is hesitant, avoiding eye contact, speaking too fast, or slow, frowning or smiling, lifeless or vibrant, talkative or reserved and a whole lot more.

Our body communicates far more than our mouth does. And it communicates far more than we would love it to. And those who are adept at discerning the body language of a speaker will get telltale insights into what they are about. The entire life of a speaker can easily be discerned from the first few moments on the stage.

It is therefore important that as a good speaker, you must be conscious of every vibe you throw off. Your movement, gesticulations must be well timed, well synchronized, yet flexible enough to switch to the temperament of the audience.

To know what language and information your body throws off while on stage, look out for the next article on this.  In the interim, mind your body language.

 Stage Fright- How do we banish this?

Let’s take excerpts from Dale Carnegie’s book again;

Do not make haste to begin—haste shows lack of control.

Do not apologize. It ought not to be necessary;and if it is, it will not help. Go straight ahead.

Take a deep breath, relax, and begin in a quiet conversational tone as though you were speaking to one large friend. You will not find it half so bad as you imagined; really, it is like taking a cold plunge: after you are in, the water is fine. In fact, having spoken a few times you will even anticipate the plunge with exhilaration. To stand before an audience and make them think your thoughts after you is one of the greatest pleasures you can ever know. Instead of fearing it, you ought to be as anxious as the fox hounds straining at their leashes, or the race horses tugging at their reins.

So cast out fear, for fear is cowardly—when it is not mastered. The bravest know fear, but they do not yield to it. Face your audience pluckily—if your knees quake, MAKE them stop. In your audience lies some victory for you and the cause you represent. Go win it. Suppose Charles Martell had been afraid to hammer the Saracen at Tours; suppose Columbus had feared to venture out into the unknown West; suppose our forefathers had been too timid to oppose the tyranny of George the Third; suppose that any man who ever did anything worthwhile had been a coward! The world owes its progress to the men who have dared, and you must dare to speak the effective word that is in your heart to speak—for often it

requires courage to utter a single sentence. But remember that men erect no monuments and weave no laurels for those who fear to do what they can.

Is all this unsympathetic, do you say?

Man, what you need is not sympathy, but a push. No one doubts that temperament and nerves and illness and even praiseworthy modesty may, singly or combined, cause the speaker’s cheek to blanch before an audience, but neither can any one doubt that coddling will magnify this weakness. The victory lies in a fearless frame of mind. Prof. Walter Dill Scott says: “Success or failure in business is caused more by the mental attitude even than by mental capacity.” Banish the fear-attitude; acquire the confident attitude. And remember that the only way to acquire it is—to acquire it.

Need I say more?

Akin is a life coach and an astute speaker who enjoys teaching young people about the virtues of leadership, personal development, innovation and sharing motivating life experiences.

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