For most people, making a speech strikes terror in the heart. Rare is the person who is comfortable stepping up to a microphone and giving voice to ideas, even if he or she is an expert on the subject at hand. There is a mystique about public speaking, that you have to step outside of yourself to speak just because a bunch of people are listening. That's probably why many speeches sound as wooden or nervous as the speaker, which in turn makes the audience bored or nervous, too.
There are a number of reasons for this fear of speechmaking, including shyness and a fear of being judged. But I believe that one of the biggest obstacles to success as a speaker isn't jitters but a lack of preparation.
It's no different than getting ready for an athletic contest, a business meeting or writing a column. You need to be organized, so the performance flows and seems spontaneous, not forced. That spontaneity is the result of knowing exactly what you are going to do once you get up there.
Part of being prepared is studying how successful speakers work. Watch their body language, how they relate to the audience, how they phrase their comments. See which remarks get a response from the listeners. Do they have a script or do they speak without notes? Do they make eye contact with everyone in the room? What is it that makes them so appealing to the audience?
Once it is you up there you have to be yourself, but you have to learn how to project that to a large audience. Practice speaking in front of a friend or family member. Find out how your voice sounds. Speak loudly enough so people can understand what you are talking about. Too many speakers, with or without amplification, don't speak loudly enough. Be forthright, passionate and, above all, enthusiastic, even if you are talking about something that on paper might be less than scintillating.
In fact, I should step back a moment and say that whatever you are going to say has to be of interest to your audience. Many speakers start off with something humorous to get the audience to identify with them, but make sure the story really is funny. I've seen speakers start off with a corny story and immediately lose their audience because the audience doesn't think the rest of their remarks are going to be any better.
You must match the style and content of your talk to the audience. If the group is a technical one, you can use tech-speak, but make sure to spice it up. People love to be entertained, no matter what time of day it is.
On the other hand, if your content is technical but the audience is a bunch of generalists, you need to rethink how you communicate the information. Good speakers can make any topic thought-provoking and interesting, but that requires hard work and preparation. It's like any other art; good speakers not only know what they are going to say, but they rehearse over and over the comments they wish to make so they don't embarrass themselves or their audience.
If you have prepared text, don't just stand there reading. There is no greater insult to an audience than to read to them from a prepared text. It's boring and rude. If you don't look at your audience, how will they ever identify with you?
I have always found that the greatest teaching tool for speakers is the video camera. You get to witness your own performance without embarrassing yourself in front of an audience first. You get to see how you look while speaking, how your voice sounds and how the content comes across. For some this is a difficult experience, as you see yourself making mistakes or appearing stiff and uninteresting. It's a great learning tool, however. You'll see things you never dreamed you would do when in front of an audience, but these mistakes often are correctable.
Your own video image isn't the only way to learn. Television is a good place to see all kinds of speeches. See how ministers communicate and reach out to the audience. Watch politicians at work on C-SPAN or other cable stations. These are professional speakers and they can teach you some tricks of the trade.
Dress appropriately. No matter whom you are talking to, you should have enough respect for them to wear serious clothing. You have been invited to speak to them, after all, so act like a guest. Look smart, act smart and be well-groomed. If you don't take yourself seriously, nobody else will.
Finally, brevity is important. Don't overestimate your audience's patience. Speak clearly, concisely and with conviction, and then get off the stage. I have never heard anyone say, "I wish he or she had spoken longer."
Practice all of these things, and then get out there and start speaking. It will help raise your profile within your industry and especially within your company. It's a great way to get noticed for your knowledge and your skills. If you want to advance in your career quickly, public speaking should be an important part of your resume. Conversely, avoiding speaking can impair your career. If you consistently turn down speaking engagements, people notice and wonder why.
So once you have prepared and rehearsed and have your information at your fingertips, it's time to bite the bullet and step onto the stage. As someone once said, "Be brave. Even if you're not, pretend to be. No one can tell the difference."
Don't be shy,
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles. For more information, go to www.chucklauer.com