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So You Want to Be a Public Speaker

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Public speaking is a curiosity. Most people either love it or are absolutely terrified of it. Some people are physically ill just saying their name in front of a group while others will wrestle you to the ground to rip a microphone from your hand.

Over the years I have done somewhere over three thousand presentations nationally and internationally (including corporate stuff, educational stuff, sporting teams, schools, and fitness industry stuff). At least five of those talks were good. All right, three.

I get emails every day asking me how I got to do what I do and what advice I might have to offer the would-be public speaker. Rather than rewriting the same reply nineteen thousand times over the next ten years, I thought I might make my life easier and formalise my thoughts on the matter with a post.

Okay, pens poised (or printers turned on), here we go – Public Speaking 101:

1. Decide what kind of speaker you want to be. Find your public speaking niche. What are you good at? What are you suited to? What are you passionate about? Who do you want your audience to be? What is your key message and your mission? Do you want to do it professionally?

Are you an educator? (“Okay class, let’s take a look at the physiological benefits of progressive resistance training for the elderly.”) Are you a motivator? (“I’m not interested in your comfort or enjoyment, I’m interested in results. Now stop whining, stop bleeding, and get up off the floor!!” Mmm, maybe that’s a masochist!) Are you an entertainer? (Hey guys, a funny thing happened on the way here tonight…”)

2. Have a U.S.P. In business we want something that separates us from our competitors. We call this a Unique Selling Proposition. If you want a successful career as a speaker then you need to give people a reason to want to utilise your services. People always have options, so we want to be the best option (eventually) or a better option at least.

3. Spend significant time writing, preparing, and committing your presentations to memory. You need to have great content (fresh, interesting, challenging, stimulating, confronting, funny, and relevant) and know your stuff inside-out. The better you know your material, the more relaxed you will be in front of your group. Looking at notes repeatedly while you speak is not cool.

4. Practice often. In the car, in front of the mirror, to your dog, cat, rabbit or plants! Recruit an audience – your family perhaps.

5. Get feedback. When you do any presentation (even if it’s a dry run in front of friends or family) ask for constructive feedback. Don’t be precious, and consciously work on your weaknesses.

6. Film your presentation. Want some real perspective? Watch yourself on film. The first time I saw myself on video (it was the 80’s) I was totally weirded out by all of my little public speaking idiosyncrasies and habits. I repeated myself, I spoke too fast, I spoke with my back to the audience (as I wrote on a board), I kept rolling up my sleeves in this kind of unconscious nervous little ritual thingy (embarrassing), and my finish was about as exciting and empowering as porridge. I hated watching myself.

What it did was let me see what everyone else sees. Not a particularly comfortable process, but a valuable one. I instantly became a better presenter after that. I didn’t want to put anyone through that pain again.

7. Do freebies. Every public speaker has done hundreds of freebies along the way. You can only develop a skill by practising that skill. Reading about, talking about, and thinking about public speaking doesn’t improve your actual skills. Only public speaking will improve your public speaking skills.

8. Be able to present on different topics or at least variations of the same topic. If you can speak competently on a broad range of subject matter, you are more likely to be in demand.

9. Study other speakers. Next time you watch a quality public speaker, take a look at the process through the eyes of a student public speaker. You will learn a bunch. Watch how they engage their audience. Note their timing, their use of appropriate humour, how they dress, how they incorporate their audio-visual stuff, how they start, and how they conclude.

10. Create opportunities:
“So Sam, tell me a bit about yourself.”
“Well I actually do a bit of public speaking in the health and fitness area.”
“Hey that’s fantastic. How would you like to talk to my team of fat sales execs?”

11. Join a public speaking organisation. There are some great organisations (like Toastmasters) who get like-minded people together and help them develop their public speaking skills and careers.

12. Don’t be impatient. If public speaking is something you might want to do long term, don’t be impatient. Spend adequate time learning, watching, researching, practising, and developing before you rent your first ten thousand-seat auditorium. Be ambitious, realistic, and patient.

13. Know your audience. Research the company, organisation, or group that you’re speaking to. What kind of group are they? Will there be thirty or three hundred in the audience? Are they corporates, truck drivers, predominantly male or female, kids, or students? Have they been presented to before? Talk to the organiser (the person who gave you the gig) to get some insight into your audience.

14. Use audio-visual aids when appropriate and relevant. The occasional well-placed video or slide can be a valuable addition to a presentation and can provide you with a nice opportunity to re-group, collect your thoughts, and take a look at your crowd. This concept is not to be confused with the mindlessly-boring presenter who feels compelled to base his entire presentation around a series of slides, photographs, charts, and statistical tables – all highlighted with his laser pointer gizmo.

If I see you doing that, I’ll hurt you.

15. Don’t rush your material. Don’t talk too fast. Don’t try and present too much information and don’t have too many slides (if you are doing a power-point presentation). Not too long ago I sat in a presentation where the speaker had over forty slides for a forty-minute presentation. It was a disaster and it hurt my brain.

16. Have a great finish. Leave them inspired, challenged, excited, curious, and impressed.

There you have it: Craig’s mini-seminar on public speaking. I hope you found it interesting and valuable.

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About Craig Harper

  • Mike

    Good stuff Craig, I found it very helpfull and informative.