A Stanford Business School professor offers a treasure trove of tips on how to be a better public speaker.
If you’re a shaky public speaker, your next big presentation offers so many things to be worried about. There’s conceiving of and planning your speech, practicing it, keeping your nerves in check, actually presenting it, and dealing with audience questions, as well as any memory lapses that might trip you up.
With this minefield, no wonder your nerves are on edge. Thankfully, there’s plenty of advice out there on each of these aspects of giving a truly compelling presentation. And while they’re usually spread across the internet, Insights by Stanford Business recently did less-than-supremely-confident speakers a favor, gathering up a mountain of presenting wisdom on public speaking from professor Matt Abrahams.
Abrahams’ comprehensive article covers everything from how to structure your speech to what to eat the night before, from how to deal with hostile audience questions to identifying and correcting your annoying verbal tics. Here’s a sample of the wisdom on offer.
1. How can I be of service?
Most of us focus on ourselves and our performance before giving a big speech or presentation. But that’s the wrong location for your attention, according to Abrahams. To calm your nerves and boost the usefulness of your presentation, instead think of yourself as serving the audience and focus on their needs.
“The most useful way I know to focus on your audience is to start by asking yourself the simple question: “What does my audience need to hear from me?” This not only helps you tailor your message to your audience, but it also reminds you that they are the ones in the spotlight. Make this question your mantra as you prepare and practice your presentations,” he advises.
2. Hook them with emotion
No matter how data-driven or arcane your subject, you still need to try to inject a little emotion into your speaking. Why? “Emotion sticks,” writes Abrahams. “People remember emotionally charged messages much more readily than fact-based ones. In fact, modern scientists are finding that our emotional responses have a fast track to our long-term memory. So when possible, try to bring some emotion into your presentation, whether in the form of your delivery or the content itself.”
And no excuses that your speech on algae concentrations in local ponds just can’t be made emotional. If it’s worth talking about, there has to be a reason why, and that why is always at least a little emotional. “Even the most technical talks can have some emotional aspect, especially if you focus on the benefits or implications of the science or technology,” says Abrahams. “Benefits are inherently emotional–saving time, saving money, saving trees, saving lives–these are things people care about.”
3. Practice right
“Many presenters don’t practice properly,” according to Abrahams. “They simply mentally rehearse or flip through a slide deck, passive approaches that don’t really simulate the conditions of a presentation. To practice effectively, you also need to stand and deliver–even if you are presenting virtually, you need to physically stand up to project effectively. Rather than only thinking through a presentation, standing up and practicing your speech helps you remember it.”
Specifically, he recommends breaking down your presentation into bite-size bits and mastering them one by one. “One very useful technique called focused practice involves taking one aspect of your presentation–say, the introduction–and delivering it repeatedly until you become highly familiar and comfortable with it.”
4. Eat right for success
Food might not be the first thing on your mind when you’re about to give a big speech, but according to Abrahams, eating right before a presentation can significantly improve your performance.
“Like a long-distance runner carbo-loading for a marathon, you will find it helpful to eat certain foods–in this case, to facilitate memory formation and retention–ahead of your presentation,” says Abrahams. “Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and foods that contain flavanols (such as grapes, berries, apples, and cocoa) are good choices. Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness and mental haziness.” And when it comes to coffee, Abrahams adds, “Plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity, but it also invites jitters, dry mouth, and flighty memory. It may make some sense to go for the triple mocha latte when you’re preparing a speech, but it’s not a good idea the day of.”
5. Beat “up-talking” with breathing
What’s up-talking? That annoying habit of raising the pitch of your voice at the end of your sentences, making everything you say sound like a question. “Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like ‘our profits are expanding,’ yet it sounds like ‘our profits are expanding?'” insists Abrahams.
To beat up-talking, Abrahams suggests you focus on your breathing. “If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because you feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term ‘landing your sentences and phrases.’ Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought.”