The way we speak is often the first cue we give others that they can count on us to provide meaningful information, that we are credible and trustworthy. However, one of the trickiest things about public speaking instead of writing- whether in front of a big audience or a small group- is that it’s happening in real time. We don’t get the extra few minutes to review and polish like we do when writing an email. Public speaking is hard. Sometimes our minds race much faster than our ability to form words which causes us to look nervous or pepper our presentation with fillers. And while some can improv, many of us need to practice or even memorize lines before we can talk comfortably in front of a crowd. For anyone with an eye toward leadership, public speaking is a crucial skill. Doing it well assures listeners that we will be dependable when leading, supporting or managing whatever task is at hand and gives us an opportunity to draw them into our causes and interests. In this month’s newsletter, we’d like to provide some strategies to help you do it better.
Eliminate filler words
Filler words often creep into our vernacular without us noticing. It’s okay to let that happen sometimes, but if you find yourself saying “like…”, “um…”, or “you know what I mean…” a lot, be aware that you might be deflating the power of your message. Fillers often operate like a brain break, a second to catch up, a mental breath. Our brains do need breaks, but it’s better to stay silent than fill the space with nothing words. A recent article in Mental Floss explained that great speakers often take pauses- sometimes even as long as two or three seconds. Taking a break when speaking might seem long to you but, to others, it comes across as being thoughtful and organized.
Here are some strategies for cutting filler words:
- Take a moment before speaking to mentally focus. You can use mindfulness tricks or visualization strategies. Inhale deeply and imagine each breath scrubbing your brain of excess worry and unrelated topics.
- Create pauses when you speak. Remember that a good public speaker pauses when they need a quick second to plan their next sentence or even transition ideas. In fact, well-placed pauses can add suspense and excitement to your delivery.
- Break the habit with practice. Tape yourself or enlist a mentor or colleague to target the filler words you are most prone to overusing and then attack them. For example, if you tend to say, “she was like” practice replacing like with said. Then make a list of substitution words such as “explained”, “complained”, “expressed”, “enthused” …Your goal is two-part: ditch the “likes” and replace them with more interesting language. Practice, practice, practice.
Non-verbal speaking cues
Not to pile on, but what you do with your hands and the rest of your body matters too. Get yourself into the habit of making eye contact by starting with your family, roommate, or even yourself in a mirror. It can be awkward to look people in the eye but looking at your notes or focusing on the back door dilutes your credibility. So maybe the next time you ask your neighbor if the recycling truck is coming this week, notice the color of their eyes when they answer. It sounds incredibly awkward but taking that step will force you to linger just long enough to show your interest in sincerity in their answer.
Mind your posture too because standing up straight exudes energy, confidence and poise. Here’s a checklist to make sure you are standing up straight:
- Brace your core
- Hold your elbows out to the side, lace your fingers in front of you
- Feet pointed straight ahead
- Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears
- Hold chin high
Fold practice in your daily routine
When you have something coming up that involves speaking in front of others, fold practice into your daily routine. Maybe you are being interviewed by a late-night talk show host on your commute or serving as an expert witness in a courtroom while fixing dinner. When it’s just you, talking to yourself doing the things you normally do, you tend to be more experimental. Try out an anecdote or explaining a complex idea. Ask a hard question or predict which ones might be thrown your way. Formulate an outline and fill it in with details in these moments where the stakes are low. If you find something that works, write it all down so that the next time you practice…you will have a script.
Ask a mentor:
Your mentor has likely had many opportunities to speak in front of a group, ask them for tips and strategies to do it better:
What do you think the most confident speakers do in front of a crowd? How do you prepare for a presentation, big or small?
Have you ever signed up for Toastmasters or any other public speaking training?
Are you willing to observe me giving a presentation and then give me feedback?