The first speech I remember
I don't remember giving a speech before sixth grade. I'm sure I did, you know, as part of some class exercise. But I don't remember it.
In fact, I don't really remember the speech I did in sixth grade, but I know it was that year because of the person I was watching. Tom was only in class with me in sixth grade and I remember when he gave his speech.
Or rather, I remember that time when he didn't give it.
See if this rings a bell.
He walked to the front of the class with a piece of paper. Presumably it had his speech on it. When he got to the front, it was clear, already, that he was nervous. He was sweating profusely. He was shaking – and I don't mean a little shake.
His body was shaking so much that the paper in his hands was making noise like the US flag does on top of a pole on a windy day. The snaps and crackles coming from his paper were loud, sharp, and a clear message on its own.
As he started, he said the words I've heard from tons of other folks, “I don't really like speaking in public.”
But that's not how it came out. I mean, in his head, maybe it did. But what we heard was, “I-I-I-I-do-do-don't-really-really-really-really-li-li-li-li-li-like speaking in pub-pub-pub-public.”
Ever seen a nervous presenter?
Now, maybe you aren't like Tom. Let's assume you're not like Tom.
But you've likely seen a “Tom” before, right?
And as they stand up there, as they shake, as they sweat, and as they stutter, let me ask you this question.
How does it make you feel?
Most of us start feeling bad. We feel anxiety for the presenter – wondering if they're going to be ok. And we feel a bit stressed, don't we? Because we don't know how this will end, do we?
In Tom's case, he stood at the front of the class shaking, after he announced his fear of public speaking, and he couldn't get the first word out. He shook for 5 minutes but it felt like hours. And eventually he sat down.
It was the first presentation I remember. It was the first presentation I can remember where the actual talk never happened because of a fear that almost everyone shares.
And while they're on stage telling us how nervous they are, while they stutter, shake and sweat, we all get stressed.
And that's the major mistake a nervous presenter makes
Let me be clear.
- I'm not saying stuttering is the mistake.
- I'm not saying shaking is either.
- I'm not calling sweat a mistake.
No, I'm focused on audience stress.
There is no way you can communicate effectively if your audience is stressed. No way. The message won't stick.
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In fact, I'd probably go as far as to say, if you have already done all the work needed to distill your message into a single main point, then there is only one more important thing to do.
Keep your audience relaxed and able to hear you.
So what does that mean, in practical terms?
1. Don't let the first words on stage be any of these.
- “I don't really like giving speeches.”
- “I'm terrified up here but let's see how this goes.”
- “This is my first time presenting on this topic…”
- “I don't have prepared remarks…I'm just going to talk…”
Some people just can't help it. But the moment you say it, you're creating some internal stress in your audience. And that will cause a part of their brain to turn off, or to be distracted by how you're doing, instead of what you're saying.
2. How you start a presentation is critical to getting your audience to relax.
That's why I start with a story. People love stories and it easily captures attention and so people stop worrying about me, or looking at me, and they just focus in on the story and where it's going.
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3. Help your audience laugh.
I'm not saying you have to be a stand up comic. But when people laugh, their levels of cortisol, epinephrine and dopamine all decrease. Those are stress hormones. And laughing cuts down on stress.
So if you can, in the first few minutes, get folks laughing (even at yourself), you can help them get prepped to hear what you have to share.
Notice what I didn't say?
I never said, stop being nervous.
I've been speaking to groups of people since I was in high school – and that was a long time ago. I still get nervous. But I use that nervousness to give me the energy to jump on stage and power thru the first minutes of my talk.
As long as I don't appear nervous (which is different than being or not being nervous), my audience can relax and my message can stick.