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6 nuggets for improved public speaking

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Everyone loves a good speech and most people absolutely adore a good public speaker. There is no denying that comfortably addressing a gathering is a vital skill, yet only few can comfortably pull this off.  

Over the years, I’ve had people approach me, asking: How do you do it? How do you stand in front of many people and talk without flinching? How can you deliver a 15-minute speech impromptu?

In most of these cases, I had no ready answer – only an awkward laugh or a reply of the Nigerian colloquial ‘na God o’.

Lately, I took out time to think deeply about public speaking: Why can I address crowds effectively, and why do many people consider public speaking a great challenge?

To answer this, I embarked on research, delving into published works on the subject, and ruminating on my own past and path to becoming a good public speaker.  

In this write-up, I use the words ‘presentation’ and ‘speech’ loosely. So don’t quickly think of PowerPoint slides when you see ‘presentation’ (though it could mean that too!)

Before the end of this article, you’d unpack what I call ‘The 6 nuggets for improved public speaking’. Hopefully, with this tidbit of information, you will be able to glean resources with which to map out a strategy for speaking in public less arduously.

Alright! Let’s get into it.

1. The 5 Ps

As Stephen Keague so aptly aphorized, ‘Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance’. Here’s my own version ‘Proper Practice Prevents Poor Performance’. This is one of the best hacks I learned as a fledgling public speaker.

Proper practice involves making yourself one with your presentation.

It involves consistent and repetitive goal-oriented practice. When using presentation slides, I familiarize myself with my presentation slides to the point that I know the contents of the next slide even before clicking ‘next’.

This is very helpful when you need to skip some content, and it gives you and your audience increased confidence in your presentation. Your audience will be more attentive, knowing they are not ‘wasting’ their time.

One caveat to consistent and repetitive practice is the tendency to memorize words, and try to say them the same way every time. Resist this, as it sets you up for failure. The goal is to familiarize, and not memorize.

Proper planning also involves what I call ‘preparing for the impromptu speech’. This entails familiarizing yourself with a topic of interest such that you are always ready to deliver your opinion when called upon.

2. Respect your audience

One of the reasons why I can address crowds effectively is the courteous act of respect. Some say ‘know your audience’, but I say respect your audience.

Be careful though that you do not fear your audience.

When you approach your presentation from the point of respect for your audience, you will respect their time by keeping your message concise and within the stipulated time limit.

Also, you will respect their life achievements by using the right titles when you need to. More importantly, you will respect their mood by tailoring your delivery alike.

Finally, you will respect their expectations by giving it your all.

3. Record yourself!

This is the best and most reliable way of obtaining feedback for me. I have a preference for video recording against audio-only.

While preparing for presentations, I often record myself and analyze the footage in order to improve on points of weakness.

Before stepping up for the presentation proper also, I often ask a friend to record me while I speak and afterwards, I replay the recording, taking note of improvement opportunities.

As a fledgling public speaker, this helped me improve my gait, use of inflections, and overall gesticulations.

4. Adjust your voice for public speaking scenarios

This one is rather strange right? Someone’s thinking ‘so he’s saying that I should change my voice when addressing people?’ 

Yes, that’s what he’s saying, based on his personal experience. You see, I have a quiet voice (I sing tenor in the choir) which is often only slightly audible at normal pitch.

Having this in mind, I consciously speak louder when addressing a gathering, maintaining a balance between talking loudly and shouting. To achieve this, I speak just loud enough for the last person in the room to hear without straining.

If your voice is husky, walk up there with a bottle of water. If you’re using a microphone, make sure it’s level with your mouth and speak directly into it. Do not play with or fumble with the microphone, it’s not a toy.

It helps to speak cautiously, emphasizing adequate words or expressions with pauses and inflections.

If your voice might be a problem, feel free to admit that to your audience at the beginning of your speech. The audience is your friend!

5. It’s not that bad!

My dear reader-friend, it’s really not that bad. When you freeze up and your brain fails you; when you blunder and trip on your words, it’s not that bad. When you stammer and sweat and shiver, it’s not that bad!

In fact, sometimes, it’s a good thing for your public speaking experience because then, you get to know what triggers such responses from you.

So, the next time you get a brain freeze while on center stage, hold your head up high, puff out your chest and look your audience in the eye because you’re amazing.

Consider this personal experience of mine.

Once, while debating in university some years ago, I got too excited in the heat of my argument and jumbled up a few words before I regained my composure. The audience was unforgiving, and laughter erupted in several quarters.

But guess what? I carried on like nothing happened and even returned for the rebuttal and closing argument.

After the debate, I replayed the recording and for that part, it actually sounded like I was speaking Chinese!

6. Keep Speaking

This is the surest way to get better. Keep addressing your family, your friends; engage in those petty arguments and if you can’t convince them, confuse them 🙂

At every opportunity, stand and address your colleagues – at work, or in school!

Keep making mistakes and the next time, when you consciously avoid repeating that mistake, you’ll enjoy a thrill that money can’t buy!

Conclusion

Note that there are myriads of resources and tips available out there, but what I have given here are nuggets which I have found to be helpful in my experience.

  • Always remember that proper practice prevents poor performance. Familiarize but don’t memorize!
  • Prepare for and deliver your presentation with respect for your audience at heart.
  • It is hugely beneficial to record your practice sessions, and your main delivery, so as to pin point those areas that require improvement, and those areas which you’ve improved upon!
  • Addressing a group is different from one-on-one conversations, so adjust your voice accordingly.
  • When you think you’ve had a bad day on stage, remember that it’s really not that bad!
  • Continue to put your self out there. Irrespective of how difficult it is, keep speaking.

Understand that public speaking is a life-long learning process. One can hardly become a master, knowing all, but can only get better, one speech at a time.

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