A drink to calm your nerves? Don’t do it!

wedding-toastParticularly if they’re due to speak at a wedding or a dinner, a lot of my clients suggest a stiff drink is the way forward, to give them courage to deliver the speech. They’re not serious, they know it’s a bad idea, but they’re longing for some magic potion to take away the fear. I fully sympathise with this but I implore you not to pin your hopes on booze.

Alcohol makes the problem worse. If you’re nervous about making a speech, what exactly is it you’re afraid of? Forgetting what you wanted to say? Doing something silly, such as tripping over the microphone cable? Blurting out something unfortunate you didn’t mean to say? All these become far more likely if you’ve had a drink. Instead of dulling your senses, you need to be keeping all your wits about you.

A recent German study has shown that alcohol impairs performance of public speaking. But I think we all intuitively knew that anyway.

If you were asked to climb the sheer face of a mountain, would you have a drink to calm your nerves? Successfully scaling that height relies on physical and mental skills and techniques, not on numbing your fear. It’s the same with public speaking.

This is good news and here’s why:

Public speaking is scary only if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you stand up in front of 10 or 100 people and you don’t know what you’re going to say, that is objectively scary – so don’t put yourself through that! By preparing and practising thoroughly, you’ll be in control and know exactly what you’re doing, so there will be no reason to feel nervous. Driving a car is scary if you’ve never done it before, which is why people learn how to do it before they set out on the roads alone. Learning the techniques and then practising them soon dispels any fear. And it’s well known that alcohol doesn’t help you to drive better.

To find out how to prepare and deliver a great speech, there’s a lot of information and advice in the Public Speaking Skills section of my website. Put the work in beforehand and, on the day, you’ll be free to enjoy talking to the audience.

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Becoming a motivational speaker

As a public-speaking coach, I’m approached more and more by clients who want to build a career as a motivational speaker. It’s a growth industry and, on the whole, I think that’s great. People sharing their experience, expertise and wisdom for the benefit of others has got to be a good thing. I’ve learnt a huge amount from motivational speakers such as Jack Canfield and Brené Brown (unfortunately, only through downloads – I’d love to see them live one day!) and I’m encouraged by how accepted it is now to address psychological and emotional issues in public forums.

My only reservation is the part about for the benefit of others. For some speakers I’ve seen, this has clearly not been the priority. In the same way as a lot of stand-up comedians are not as funny as they think they are, a lot of people setting out as motivational speakers are not as wise or inspiring as they imagine. If you’re thinking of becoming a motivational speaker, do some soul-searching first to find out what, well, what your motivation is. If it’s about your desire to get on stage, I recommend you join a drama group or a storytelling circle or something, to meet that need. Then, if you still want to, see about becoming a motivational speaker after you’ve spent some time in the limelight.

As with all public speaking, a good motivational talk is designed entirely with the audience in mind. If you have experience or knowledge that people would find useful, do please stand up and share it – but don’t assume the public will be interested in hearing about your life just because you feel like talking about it.

motivational speakerIf you have got something important and useful to say, becoming a motivational speaker is an excellent way to spread your message. The power of oratory and rhetoric has been recognised for millennia and, despite all our modern technology, simply talking to people remains one of the most effective methods of stirring hearts and minds.

Apart from being approached for coaching, the reason this is upmost in my mind at the moment is that I have recently been persuaded to call myself a motivational speaker. The two talks I give on a regular basis (Life Lessons from Public Speaking and How to Be Perfect… in your own way) are, I suppose, motivational, though I still prefer the term stand-up psychology.

If you’re going to be a motivational speaker, be prepared to invest a lot of time and energy in creating and honing your talk. This isn’t some here-today-gone-tomorrow presentation, it’s the distillation of your knowledge and experience into pure, accessible, memorable form. And it’s a performance, which needs to be well judged and well paced, leading your listeners on a journey of discovery. It’s not a trivial undertaking: How to Be Perfect… took me about a year to get right.

You don’t need to be educated or erudite to be a fantastic motivational speaker. All you need is a solution to a problem and the passion to share it.

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When you do need to ad-lib

The secret to successful public speaking is thorough preparation. A genuinely impromptu speech or presentation is fraught with danger, as is deciding to embellish your talk in the heat of the moment. As I’ve said before on this blog, beware of ad-libbing – unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Distracted public speaker

If there’s a distraction, acknowledge it

Circumstances in which you may need to improvise include technical failure, external interruption (such as a pneumatic drill starting up outside your window), heckling and those nasty moments when you sabotage your own performance by tripping over a cable or dropping the microphone. However well prepared we are, we can never fully eliminate the unexpected and if it happens, on a big enough scale, we have to react to it. Falling off the stage and carrying on with your presentation without breaking your syntax is impressive at one level but, at a more important and realistic level, your audience will no longer be listening. Taking a moment to address what has happened gives everyone a chance to process it. There’s no point in going on until people are able to give you their attention again.

Sometimes life appears to be illustrating your talk and in these cases failing to make some comment to that effect is at the very least a wasted opportunity. If your fall off the stage occurs as you’re discussing health and safety, this irony cannot be ignored. At the Pint of Science festival, a speaker’s obliviousness to a similar irony made the difference between making a strong, memorable point and, as it turned out, just being a bit amateur about his public speaking.

The purpose of being really well prepared and rehearsed is precisely so you won’t be oblivious to what’s going on around you. Once you know your material so well that you don’t have to think about finding the right words, you’re free to connect with the audience. Contrary to what many speakers seem to think, public speaking is not about just getting your stuff said, whether anyone is listening or not. It’s about communicating a message. If circumstances are hindering communication, it’s your job as speaker to sort that out. If you find yourself in a parallel process, unexpectedly illustrating your message, calmly and briefly articulating that can turn a distraction to your advantage.


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What can public speakers learn from a department store?

Is there anything on this rack for me?

Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of the department-store chain Debenhams, was talking on the radio about why profits are down. He said one of the reasons is the shops have been offering too many items for customers to buy. A lot of choice may seem like a good thing but customers are overwhelmed by the amount of stock and struggle to sift through it all to find what they want. They prefer less stuff, clearly displayed.

When I heard this, I was immediately struck by the parallel with public speaking. To give our message the best chance of being heard, understood and remembered, here are three lessons we can learn from the retail industry:

  1. It is not the audience’s responsibility to rummage through a lot of waffle to discover the message that’s in there somewhere. It is the speaker’s responsibility to identify what is most interesting and relevant to this audience and to present it clearly. Be focused and concise: less is more!
  2. In order to perceive and appreciate what’s on offer, people need time, space and the right environment. Make sure conditions are right for your audience to be able to concentrate on what you’re saying (they can easily hear you, no distractions, etc), then speak slowly and pause between your points. If a shop is overstuffed with goods, customers can’t properly see what’s for sale and will soon get fed up. A tightly packed talk delivered at high speed will have the same effect.
  3. Present your message with confidence and enthusiasm. Look at the difference between a charity shop and a car-boot sale. Second-hand products are second-hand products, but the charity shop makes them seem so much more attractive. The purpose of your talk is not to off-load a pile of stuff you want to get rid of (although to listen to some speakers, one suspects this is indeed their primary aim) but to give your audience a positive experience and something worthwhile to take home with them.
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What public speakers can learn from comic books

When the purpose of your speech or presentation is to inform, or even to educate, as opposed to simply entertain, it’s particularly important to package your material in a way the audience can easily take in, understand and remember. The same applies to books.

In a recent study, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University discovered that students who received academic information in the form of a comic book scored more highly in the memory test afterwards than did students who had received the same information in straight text form. This is in keeping with Allan Paivio’s 1971 dual-coding theory, which suggests the human mind retains information in two different ways, verbally and visually. If we receive the same message both verbally and visually, we have twice the chance of remembering it.

visual-aid-or-hindranceFor public speakers, there are two lessons here:

Make sure every signal you’re sending is congruent. As far as your material is concerned, this means if you’re displaying a slide the message it conveys must accurately match what you’re saying. If your audience is seeing one thing and hearing another, this will confuse them and hinder their capacity to remember either one.

At the more subtle level, this means all the non-verbal cues you’re personally giving out must also back up what you’re saying. If you’re telling the audience a fact, the wrong intonation or a conspicuous lack of eye contact may result in them at least subconsciously questioning whether they believe you.

Bring your material to life. For me, another explanation for students learning better from comics than text books is that illustrations interpret the information and give it a living face. However dry the data you’ve been tasked with presenting, it’s your responsibility as the speaker to infuse it with interest. The right images can certainly help with this but mainly it’s about finding an emotional hook to get your audience to care about what you’re telling them.

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Public speaking: it doesn’t have to be funny to be entertaining


Football is many people’s idea of top entertainment

What do you do for fun? Whether it’s shopping, watching football, playing chess, listening to music, dancing, photography, hiking, gardening, painting or even gambling, how many of these activities make you laugh? While everyone enjoys a good laugh, it’s not the only way to have fun. Yet when it comes to making public speaking entertaining, few people seem to think past putting in a few jokes.

For a start, there is a big difference between telling jokes and making your talk funny. Humour can certainly enhance a speech or presentation but it needs to be organic, rather than shoehorned in: set-piece jokes are almost always a bad idea.

But the point I want to make today is that you can deliver an entertaining talk without any comedy at all. Entertaining is not all about laughs, it’s about drawing the audience in so that you have their full attention. In his advice about how to wow a crowd, internationally acclaimed public speaker Brian Tracy doesn’t even mention humour.

The reason so much is made of storytelling in public speaking is that a good story well told is a sure-fire way to engage the audience. People will keep listening if they care what happens next, if they have emotionally bought into your tale.

Humour is only one tool in the entertaining speaker’s toolbox. Human interest, drama and suspense can be equally effective – if not more so – and are often easier to pull off than trying to make people laugh. Next time you’re asked to give a talk, instead of googling “jokes for public speaking”, invest some time in finding the story you can tell that will bring your content to life.

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How long does it take to get good at public speaking?

getting good at public speakingThis is a question I’m asked a lot and people tend to be surprised by my response. For a start, there is no blithely definitive answer such as 10,000 hours; it’s not as straightforward as that. While it’s true that the more experienced you are, the easier you’ll find it to prepare and deliver a successful talk, that is by no means the whole story. There are two distinct phases to the process of getting good at public speaking. The first takes far less time than most people imagine and the second takes rather more.

The first phase is to learn the practical techniques and psychological strategies that underpin any successful speech or presentation. This means: get some coaching! Learning public speaking through trial and error is at best slow and inconsistent, at worst traumatic. The right coaching, on the other hand, is not only effective but efficient. The vast majority of my clients reach a liberating breakthrough in one or two sessions – that’s a maximum of three hours.

The second phase involves preparing a specific speech or presentation. This is the part that people usually underestimate, which is why I always recommend that you start working on your talk as soon as you’ve agreed to do it. If it’s ready with days – or even weeks – to spare, that’s great; you can put it in a drawer until nearer the day. But you don’t know how long you’re going to need to create and rehearse it, so don’t sabotage your success by not allowing enough time to prepare.

This second phase consists of two sub-phases: creating your talk and rehearsing it. You first need to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Then, when you’re happy with it, you need to rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Depending on the length of your talk, it can be several weeks’ work to beat the content into the right shape. Then you may need to rehearse it 30 or more times until the moment comes when you know you’ve nailed it.

If the stakes are high, you have somehow got to make sure you go through the full cycle of this process, however long it takes. The rewards are so well worth the time and effort.

For low-stakes talks, this is where experience supports you. If you haven’t got time to prepare thoroughly, or don’t feel the occasion warrants the effort, using the practical techniques and psychological strategies, you can still deliver a good-enough presentation. The more often you’ve done this, the better it will be.

However, by putting in the time and effort to complete the process, even a beginner can deliver a talk that will wow the audience.

To return to the original question, how long does it take to get good at public speaking?, the answer is you can learn the techniques in a few hours. If what you’re really asking is how long it may take you to prepare a good speech or presentation, we’re into how-long-is-a-piece-of-string territory. To avoid the stress of having only enough to tie a tiny, insecure knot with it, my advice is to allow time and space for a large ball of twine.

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