We don’t learn how to perform after attending a single workshop. We don’t learn how to do that even after ten workshops. People who perform well, learn for a longer period of time. However, the good news is that you can learn this skill every day, for free. I will show you how to do so in this article.
Just like no one expects to master ballet or martial arts after a weekend, there also are no shortcuts when it comes to performing in front of a crowd. It requires experience, either in form of a raised hand in a packed hall, sensing your heart beating faster when merely asking a question. In time, we tend to get used to all of this and the effect of stage fright diminishes. How often do you decide to expose yourself by giving a speech at a family dinner? The simple act of standing up and sharing an experience can be a great start. It is however true that some people find this easier than others. They seem to have better predispositions or a superior genetic background. Nevertheless, according to my experience, it is the practice that makes all the difference. The more I practice, the better I get. The best part of this is that I can start at any time.
In the beginning, I don’t even need an audience. I can begin observing my speech while having coffee with a friend. I can check whether I use too many fillers, pauses or accents. I can pay attention to how well my sentences are structured? Are they short and clear, or do I drift away and constantly jump from one topic to another? Am I able to get my partner excited about a film that I watched last week? How do introduce a new topic? I’m also interested in body language. Do I stand with crossed legs? What should I do when I’m not interested in the topic? How do people close to me “act” around me? Who am I happy to listen to and who not and what does that person use?
Observing others and yourself is the first step. Taking notes of conclusions is the second one. Once I gather good information, (e.g., I immediately gain interest in a topic if someone tells me what they gained from it) I can attempt to prepare my speech. If I liked the trailer for a film my partner showed me, I can insert a video in relation to my subject. This is how I put things together and do research. I can perform in front of my neighbour, aunt, housemate, cousin or a friend. I gather feedbacke from their impressions and make progress in delivery of my performance.
Learning public performance can therefore be free of charge. Observation and taking notes are two main keys to successful learning.
At one of the conferences that I attended most recently, I listened to a speech which included at least 20 important starting points. The speaker gave his advice every minute. From how important it is to set goals, how to motivate ourselves, maintain discipline, to how to be honest with yourself, account for our mistakes … I could go on and on. He told us everything he deemed significant. He wasn’t the only example either.
When preparing our speech, we tend to prepare too much. We want people to acknowledge our effort, experience and we want to show them that we know a lot. It is here that we can get trapped if we’re not careful. If we decide to share all of our ideas and messages, listeners won’t take any of those with them. How so? Simple. There are also other speakers at a conference, speaking before and after you. All of them have their own message (or more main messages). Think about it and ask yourself – are listeners able to remember everything? Is it better to overwhelm them with information, or present fewer key points but present those in an intriguing fashion in order for people to remember them?
People tend to memorise content that comes with solid supporting evidence. Whatever is said on stage the audience usually hears for the first time and it therefore suits them if someone repeats their idea several times. Every thought of yours requires time. Repeat it multiple times in various ways. Use stories, examples and statistics. Decide which part presents the main “takeaway” and construct your speech around it with supporting evidence. Less is more.
How often do you pay attention to introductions of public performers? Which topic do they usually choose to begin with? According to my analysis, most speakers start their performance with sentences such as:
– “I stand here in front of you today because…”
– “I’ve given a lot of thought on how to begin my speech today …”
Of course, these sentences come right after: “A kind welcome on my behalf and thank you for your invitation.”
What do these introductions have in common? They focus on the speaker. The speaker places himself/herself in the center of the speech which can be risky. Participants attending presentations or conferences can easily lose interest and turn their attention to their mobile phones since the speaker has so far failed to gain their attention or respect. They are not sure whether the speaker is worth listening to since he/she hasn’t shown them their credibility. They haven’t told them anything substantial enough they could relate to or find interesting. As mentioned, in this case, the speech was purposely or inadvertently started by focusing on themselves.
Start things differently and immediately grab hold of listener’s attention. Confide with them the unusual facts with respect to the topic you’re covering. Tell a joke, or share an interesting story. Trigger interaction with a daring statement.
It’s now time to introduce one unexpected fact. Why can talking about yourself sometimes be a good idea? It is good to implement personal experience and share it with listeners which is also relevant for our topic. For example, this could be a personal experience with details that additionally support your claim. By doing so, we emotionally and intellectually form a connection with participants and who then perceive us as being equal to them and sincere. And yes, even an imaginary personal story can sometimes serve as a great introduction.
The difference between talking about ourselves and a good personal story is that we tell personal stories in order to support and explain the contents of speech with additional examples that our audience can relate to. If, however, we fail to prepare for our performance and begin talking about ourselves without any particular reason, we can come across as self-centered and lacking credibility. The participants can lose interest in us and our topic much sooner than we’d like. It could happen at the very beginning.
Presentation seems credible if it includes some kind of a statistic. By implementing it, we show we have done our homework and know what we are talking about. Most presenters have no trouble with it but forget that at the same time too much information, numbers and statistics can have the opposite effect. They also fail to consider the fact that people find large numbers hard to perceive and understand the quantities they present.
Imagine being at a presentation and finding out that 4.76 billion users check their phone 96 times per day, which is once every 15 minutes, which means that every 9th person is addicted to devices (there are approximately 24 trillions devices in the world). If I was to add another number and an hour later ask you which of the numbers you managed to remember, you’d most likely forget all but one.
So, what exactly is our advice? Use those statistics, information or numbers which are most relevant for your story or presentation. In order to get a real “wow effect”, compare that number with something. If, for instance, you have an amount of 5,162,250 eur, translate it to an equivalent number of cars you could buy with it. If you’re mentioning 7,349,000 people, you’re better of describing how many times you could fill a local stadium to allow everyone to see a concert.
Therefore, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story but if used in a relevant context can make it easier for listeners to follow us and thus, ensure greater motivation.
Although mostly unaware, people are very good at reading body language. While most people would correctly detect a speaker dealing with stage fright, when asked what makes them think so, you’d have a hard time getting an answer.
Stage fright can be evident right from the start. Does a speaker confidently wait for a few seconds, do they take a deep breath, look at the audience before they start speaking? Or do they start speaking before the applause ends and while some members of the audience are still chatting? By doing so, the speaker is letting everyone know that whatever it is that they are sharing, isn’t important enough to require attention.
However, stage fright also becomes evident at the conclusion. As most performers bow their heads upon receiving applause and quickly make their way back to their seats. Almost like they’re glad to the ordeal is over and done with. Others, confidently wait for applause, nod with a grin on their face as they continue to thank the audience. They embrace the applause and show they are confident in what they’ve prepared. A good example are actors in stage plays who keep coming back on stage for as long as the audience keeps applauding.
During the speech, stage fright can be noticed in form of low volume speech that fails to make an impression and with self-soothing gestures. When under stress, it is our natural habit to “stroke” particular body parts to warm them up and comfort them. Much like comforting a crying baby. This can be done by squeezing lips, rubbing palms, or face.
Managing stage fright requires a lot of continuous practice. So we get used to the excitement a public performance brings. Focusing on arms, getting on and off stage can only make matters worse. We should improve things one at a time.
How do we know the book is coming to an end? A school year? When we start summarising and reviewing all that we have achieved and conquered. Similarly, when it comes to speech, it is best that our conclusion:
- starts with a summary of everything we presented. E.g., Today, I took you on a short journey through the latest research in xy, because … We also had a look at a good practice example and … We also include a key message – E.g., I hope you remember xy, since it’s crucial for … The message should be short and concise. Don’t get caught in repeated explanation and elaboration.
By repeating key points, we also make sure listeners memorise our speech better. Since they have heard some information twice and not just once. Imagine if you ever had to take the exam after reading a book once and if you had to do it repeatedly.
- We continue with action and future. What should listeners do as their next step? Could you recommend a book worth reading, or are there courses available on this topic? Can they attend the next event? Can they use their skill from speech in some other context? Direct them towards further development so that speech itself won’t present its own purpose.
- Thank them. Your closing words should be a simple: Thank you. This way, you will let audience clearly know that you have concluded your speech and that they can start applauding. You’ll avoid the awkwardness of standing on stage and staring at them. You will seem prepared and as if everything went as planned and was under your control the entire time.
P.S.: Pictured is an idea for a PowerPoint slide presenting our business card at the conclusion of our performance. This way, anyone with potential enquiries can obtain our details and reach us, while we simultaneously take care of brand awareness.
It’s great to establish a connection with an audience through questions. This way we show them that we care. That we’re there because of them and that we’re interested in their premises. Similar occurs in pairs, at networking events. If we’re approached by someone who immediately begins speaking about themselves (or even worse – of their services and business), we don’t get a good first impression. Most of them would much rather ask a question and return a question. Same “unwritten law” also applies on stage.
The question we ask could be rhetorical, while we could also wait for an answer. When asking questions, it is crucial to explain to the audience how they’re supposed to answer. An example: “Can all of you who are familiar with Dober stik raise their arm?” The audience was given clear instructions and will gladly respond. If, however, I was to use a different approach: “Who is familiar with Dober stik?” listeners would look at me, some would nod, others would raise their arms. Others would out loud respond: “Me”. Due to unclear instructions, your interaction could be unsuccessful. You might get the impression that you’re not doing well. When the only real issue was failing to provide instructions on how they should respond. You could also ask them to nod, stand up, or clap.
Interaction brings many benefits. When used it “wakes” the audience as you invite them to respond. Engaged users therefore find it easier to keep track and most of all, tend to learn easier. If listeners are left sitting passively, they won’t even remember half of information they normally would.
The questions however are useful for the speaker too. In case everyone raises their arms, I invite them to share their experiences with me. If needed, I then complete their answers. If I discover that audience is not yet familiar with a topic, I start with basics and from the scratch. In the end, it is the presenter’s ability to adapt that is most significant.
You should therefore ask your audience about what you want to know. Show genuine interest. Establishing a good connection brings great results. It offers a sense of audience’s understanding and makes it easier for you to adapt. At the same time, it helps you leave an impression of an exceptional speaker who didn’t speak just about themselves.