From fear to fab: 5 public speaking tips

In any game of ‘Would you rather’, most of us would pick almost anything over standing up in front of a crowd (even a small one). Those of us who do put our hands up aren’t immune to nerves! There’s good reason for that thumping feeling in your chest – our brains are hardwired to fear being watched. In ancient times, the eyes on you were often hungry, so our brains interpret public speaking as an attack.

Last week, we pitched Powrsuit to potential customers, investors and the startup community. Our fellow founders were surprised to see us so nervous – we’re always on stage. Turns out, the nerves never go away, but you can learn to manage them. So, while it’s top of mind, here are our top tips for confidently speaking in public.

1/ The audience is on your team. They want you to succeed

Ever been to stand up and felt nervous on behalf of the comedian? That’s because you’re empathetic. The good news is, other people are too. The audience wants you to succeed. They want to hear your unique insights and funny stories, and they want to connect with you. 

Blank faces? Don’t be put off. Our focus frowns look similar to our grumpy ones – it means your audience is engaged. Take your eyes off the ground and get out from behind the lectern! Removing barriers and maintaining eye contact can help with those nerves. And remember the power of positivity? Practise it in the days, hours and minutes before you present – you got this. 

2/ Keep your slides simple

Using slides? They are an accoutrement, not the main dish. Connecting with your audience is much harder if they’re trying to read and listen. The human eye can read 200-300 words per minute, and the average Powerpoint slide has 40. That’s 15 seconds of distraction – and the easiest way to overwhelm your audience.

Slides are also an opportunity to get creative. Your slides can add humour, visual interest and reinforce your message. Before you think ‘I’m not a designer’, banish that negative self-talk – slides should be simple. Pick one stat, quote, graph or picture that best summarises each point. Nat likes to trawl stock images for cheesy photos, and we both love Canva for simple, beautiful templates. 

Don’t get too caught up in rules around how many slides you should have. The right amount is the number of slides you need to convey the meaningful points in your presentation. Need inspo? Watch Steve Jobs launch the iPhone in 2007

3/ Use your nervous energy

When Martin Luther King, Jr said, “I have a Dream”, the whole world listened. What you may be less familiar with is the written transcript. Have a read. It’s still a brilliant speech, but you can’t help but notice it loses some of its magic – the oratory delivery made it so powerful. He used pauses and varied his voice pitch and speed for impact.

We were lucky to have an hour with Kit Hindin as part of the Ministry Of Awesome Accelerator. Our biggest takeaway? Use your nervous energy. Think about the level you need one-on-one, then multiply that by the people in the room. Release those nerves with some movement and hand gestures to deliver your message with pizazz. 

If you get into a pickle, we’ve all been there. Pause, take a breath, and then start again. When you lose your place? Well, that puts you in good company. Ed Sheeran got a fan on stage during his Wellington, NZ concert after he forgot an entire song. Today, tech generally means you can have notes in front of you – or you can pop them in your pocket or on the lectern. Grab them, then start the section again. Remember, the audience is in your corner (and so are we!).

4/ Practice makes proficient

The pinnacle of public speaking is talking ‘off the cuff’. Ok, so here’s the thing. The people who do it well have put in hours of prep. Those who don’t? They’ve winged it.

Practice, practice, practice. You don’t need to memorise your words, but you should nail down the key points and keep them tight – it’s amazing how easy it is to get lost in tangents. Kristen likes to record herself and listen as she walks her dog. We both practice in the shower, in front of our (long-suffering) partners and sometimes even bust out our talks when we have friends over. Feedback is your friend, so ask for it.

Before the big event, write one word on your hand for each key point, just in case you need a quick reminder.

5/ The rule of three

Yes, we see the irony of the ‘rule of three’ appearing in a list of five. Humans love lists, and they say if you want to make something stick, put it in a sequence of three. When speaking, stick to three parts or points: three features, lessons, or sections. Again we can look to Steve Jobs for inspiration. He was the master of simple, clear messaging.

Raise your hand!

You’re not alone in your nerves; people who love public speaking find it scary. But you have knowledge and insights to share, unique to you, so do it anyway. Start small; put up your hand to present at a team meeting or company update. Deliver a client pitch, ask to talk about your career at a local school, or be bold and organise a Powerpoint night with some friends.

30 second action:

Sharing an update or idea in a meeting this week? Test out the rule of three. Consider delivering your message with ‘what, why and how’, ‘the problem, the solution, the impact’, or ‘where we’ve been, where we’ve got to and where we’re going’.

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