There are a few things that people say to me when we start digging into their public speaking. I think of it as that thing you do when you feel like you are about to be stretched. You get a bit defensive.
In my case, when I am being stretched (or taking on feedback), I find myself saying things in a high voice like “I have got better at <insert criticised area>” or “You should have seen me 6 months ago…!” And the air is filled with my awkward laughter.
When I am the one getting people ready to improve their speaking skills, I hear this one a lot from my clients: “I am OK once I get started”… In fact, one of them openly admitted recently “I just find it so hard to start the damn thing”.
Starting a talk rarely feels comfortable.
It’s like when you go to introduce yourself to someone, cold. It’s hard. It feels awkward. There is a bump in the road you have to get over, but it feels like a wall you’ll crash in to.
Same when starting a talk. So here are some of the tools I use with my clients to help them through that bit.
- Start in the middle (or at least as far in as you can)
When I teach storytelling I get the class to start with the problem or the mistake that has happened – we often think this is the middle of the story. It’s not. It’s actually where the story begins.
The trick in all good talks is to start further in than you think. We worry too much about the setup and the context. For example:
“There’s a moment when you lose something, that your heart sinks, time stops and you think – nothing is going to be the same again”
Is a better start than “Yesterday I was the park, the birds were singing, and the sun was beaming down. I had this really great back-pack, that I bought the day before, and I thought that I had everything with me but I didn’t”
Dawdling in the detail lands you in the depths of dreary.
The same applies to when you are prepping. A client said to me recently that when they were writing they weren’t sure how to begin. Thinking we have to have a grand beginning can hold everything back. The trick is to just get going, the order can come later. As can the killer first line.
And more often than not once the story is written a great headline pings out at you.
2. Never settle for bog-standard
The adage “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you have said” has been taken so literally that I keep coming across people starting their presentations with the line: “I am here to talk to you about…”
The best first line I ever heard was:
“This talk will start when there is an earthquake” …
It was followed by a stretch of silence about 2 minutes long (which on stage is a lifetime). I was in.
The speaker, it turned out, is a dancer who had implants put in her feet to sense the seismic activity of the earth. There are earthquakes all the time as the earth moves beneath us, so when the plates move, her feet vibrate. She was fascinating and captivating.
Imagine she had started with “Today I want to talk to you about some implants I have in my feet”
It’s just not that interesting.
3. Cliches are cliches for a reason
The problem with trying to land a great first line is that you stray into sounding cliched. And in a bid to not sound cliched you then start avoiding the cliche. And then you just come back round to “Today I am here to talk to you about…” #yawn
Cliches are cliches because they work:
“At the end of the day…”
“The bottom line is…”
“Only time will tell…”
Just because StoneHenge / Disney World is popular doesn’t mean you don’t go.
Some people feel that cliches mean that you sound like everyone else, and yes this can be true. But, I see cliches as a town you have to go through to get to the destination of “you”, and if you don’t go through it, you won’t find the right you.
So use cliches, because people will hear the familiarity in them, and then move through them to find your own way of saying it.
As an aside, beware: introducing yourself is underrated. While you don’t need to introduce yourself if you have been introduced, if you do – speak slowly and clearly.
Many people I work with rattle out their name and where they are from as quickly as possible because it’s boring or it feels weird.
Introducing yourself is a chance for people to tune into you – especially if you are speaking in a place where you’re the one with a strong accent. It also allows them to get to know you, and it indicates how important what you have to say is. Plus what’s the point of you standing there and saying something revolutionary, if the audience can’t attribute it to you because you said
“Hellomnameisclaregrndand I am a cnsmerbehvier specialist”
Your opening line is the opportunity for your audience to go “OK I am going to invest into listening to this!”. Take the time to make it a good one.
Commercial Radio Presenters have always known the pressure of being allowed to talk, for only a certain time. Over the years it has been my job to get the most out of a presenter that has to talk for only 2 minutes. Or 30 seconds. Or 10 seconds. Or 3 seconds.
In that time it’s a radio presenter’s job to get you to listen for 15 minutes more (this is to do with how audience figures are collated). It’s not easy.
Now many presenters struggled, complaining that they couldn’t get the story in in-that time. I spent many hours and days explaining that in that short time they should be thinking “what CAN I do?” Rather than “What can’t I get done?” There is nothing like a time limit to make you self edit – but self-editing is hard.
Then one day a presenter who had been resistant, bounded up to me and with a real glint in his eye said: “Kate! I listened to my Friday show and I tell you what, this shorter link thing is amazing. When you hear my voice it’s like, boom!”
He clapped his hands together “Impact!”
Making every word count is not a new concept, Mark Twain said: “I’m sorry this letter is long, but I didn’t have the time to make it short”. And the Twitter age has had us working out how to edit our complex emotions down to 140/250 characters for some time now.
It’s still not easy. So here are some tips to self edit your content.
- Remove all mitigating language
Too many words get in the way of your message.
When you look at a painting the warmer colours (yellows, oranges, reds) attract the eye first. So if you want the eye drawn to a certain part of the canvas you paint some red in that spot. But if you paint the whole canvas red, it’s just red – and nothing else stands out.
Words are the same. Too many words, and too much detail is an ineffective way of getting someone to hear your point. You are saying everything and nothing.
The first thing to do is to get rid of any wasted words:
I was thinking that
Does that make sense?
Not only do they fill in space that needs to be cleared, but they also undermine your point.
- Rehearse and hear it back
Nothing beats rehearsal and listening back to spot where an edit is required.
Record yourself on your phone, and listen back. Film yourself on your phone, and watch it back. Even practising in front of another human gets you to hear yourself back.
Trust me – you will hear your edit immediately. I usually find myself yelling “oh shush will you” at myself. And then I just hammer out the words.
- Get to the point as quickly as you can
Helen Zaltzman-Austwick is the Queen Of Podcasters. I saw her speak at a live event a couple of years ago and she advised the audience of eager podcast makers: “Start as late in the story as possible”.
The biggest mistake people make is to over explain the set up and give too much context. The story doesn’t start with the set up, it starts with the problem. The set up literally gives your audience the reason to keep listening to you.
It’s the same with any point you wish to make. Never make your boss wait 45 minutes before you deliver the point of your presentation. Get into your point as soon as you can.
Use these three tips to be heard, and create an impact in these noisy times.
“Be bigger with your arms” I said as my client was trying out her performance.
She moved her hands up with her elbows almost stuck to her sides.
“No bigger” hoping that she would open up her arms wide
She moved her hands out to the side and kept her elbows glued to her sides.
“Ha! Bigger than that – hold your arms to the side”
She started laughing, feeling the vulnerability, but she raised her arms and spoke her line and that was when she became the leader she should be.
Whether you are on stage, on screen or on air – the performance space shrinks you.
I always tell my clients that in the performance space you need to be vintage you plus 10% or more if you’ve got it.
That means you need to be a tiny bit bigger, louder, more vibrant than you are on a Friday night. And keeping that energy up throughout your performance is tough.
As a presenter you are like the ringmaster – your energy can change the room, and people always remember how you make them feel.
Here are my 5 tips to keeping up your energy:
- Use Your Body
Just like your brain can send messages to your body, your body can do the same to your brain, and most importantly your mouth!
I was working with a presenter who, when I said “what can you do to build your energy here?” said “well I could stand up…”.
Sit forward or stand up – your body will tell your brain to be more urgent and active, and in turn, you will have greater charisma and energy. Even if you are on the radio, be expressive with your arms and your face as this will increase your “follow the leader” vibe (eg your audience will want to come with you).
It might be that before you start speaking you do your Wonder Woman Pose, or get big, or even get your heart rate up by jumping up and down. You’ll be surprised how your vocal tone follows.
2.Use Your Voice
Your voice will give your energy away. I used to hear Mr C on the radio in the early days and I could hear when he was tired!
I think we can agree that low and monotonous vocal tone sounds very boring and will lose your audience. When you are tired your mouth also stops pronouncing your words – as if your lips get lazy!
Asking presenters to put more energy into their work means they can stumble on the following trip-ups. The first is talking too fast. More energy means more energy – not to talk like a Duracell Bunny! So remember to stay well paced. The second is that you end up just shouting. And probably monotonously.
The best for vocal tone is to remember your voice has a lot of pitches or tones within it and you can use them all in your presentation. Initially try starting sentences with emphasis and high pitched and then working “down the stairs” as you finish the sentence.
3. It Should Feel Corny
Whenever I ask presenters to be “grander” in their presentation, they find themselves feeling like they are using “obvious” language, and they feel really corny in their delivery.
I want you to consider 2 things.
Firstly – the obvious is there for a reason. Opening your best man’s speech with a well delivered “Ladies and Gentlemen” is a well trodden path for a reason: it works.
Secondly – getting comfortable with cliche is the first step to finding your own voice. Sometimes you have to open the door to the the cringe, to find what’s the other side. If you refuse to be cliche or a bit cringe from time to time, you are unlikely to find your own true voice. Treat it as part of the process.
4. You Don’t Know There Till You Go There
Rehearsal is the space where you discover your style. Use rehearsal time to try new things, and the things you are afraid of.
If you are terrified of moving your arms from your waist then try rehearsing with your hands above your head. If you are feeling shy, rehearse your talk by acting out “being really confident”, you’ll be surprised what you find.
These are my favourite moments of any of my presentation courses – the moment where a client finds their power and their energy. It’s a truly amazing moment when they let out the giggle of vulnerability, and then go for it. It’s like they light up! This moment never happens in an unprepared performance. It only happens when you push through some of your worries in your rehearsal time.
5. Prepare and Protect Your Energy
Performing can be tiring for some people. I know that when I am booked to do a talk, or when I am recording my podcast, not only do I ensure that I am eating and exercising well in the build up, I also make sure I book in some down time afterwards.
I learned this from one of the presenters I worked with at the BBC. I noticed they were deliberately booking in their rest time after any performance. They were one of the most consistent presenters I have worked with.
Another radio presenter I work with acknowledged that the quick drink after work on a Friday was affecting their Saturday performance and they were frustrated by that. They got sick of walking out of the studio feeling like they’d not been entirely on their game. They felt like they let their listener down
Your audience needs you on your A-Game. In fact they need for you to generate the energy they are lacking, through your energetic performance! Make caring for your energy levels a habit.
Ever had that feeling that your point is just not being heard?
Once a week Mr.C, the kids and I go for “Family Breakfast”. This week my son needed to do his maths homework while we were waiting for food to arrive. His head was in maths when my husband said: “Mate, we have got to sort out your handwriting”.
(For context – his teachers over the last year or so have said this is something he could do with working on)
The 11-year-old immediately went on the defensive and the usual bickering then ensued.
The outcome? Our son won’t be changing his handwriting any time soon. My husband is frustrated that yet again he’s not been heard. And in a few weeks time, the same thing will happen again. In short – no one benefits and nothing changes.
Getting someone to buy into your point is something we have to do every day, whether you are on air, on screen, on stage, in a meeting, or just trying to get the other half to empty the bins.
And this one technique never fails: start by acknowledging your audience’s reality.
You know yourself that no one is going to change your mind about anything if they start talking to you while your head is in something else. And if you’re anything like me, my head is constantly in something.
Acknowledging the reality of the person you’re talking to allows their brain to come to you before you start getting into what it is you want to ask of them.
So if my husband had taken this tack:
“Is that your maths homework? How are you getting on with it?”
He would have engaged our son immediately. And after listening he may have been able to weave the conversation to something like:
“You know your teachers were talking about you improving your handwriting? Have you been working on it at all?”
“It’s just I can’t help but notice that you’re still struggling to get it neat – is there anything we can do to help it get better?”
Yes, it takes a little longer, but it has great results.
I had a builder that wasn’t answering my calls once, we had discovered a leak as a result of some work he had done, and I needed it fixing. He wasn’t returning my calls, and then I left this message:
“Hi. I know you’re likely to be super busy and the last thing you want is this old work to come back to haunt you, so if you could give me a call we can get it off your plate and out your hair as soon as possible”
He called me before the end of the day.
On stage you often see comedians start their sets by commenting on the location, whether that be the room itself or whether that be the town.
You can do the same in your presentation with something called a “Yes Set”. This is a simple technique that encourages the audience to agree with you too.
“I know you want to get home on time today”
Audience brain: “yes”
“And that you have seen a lot of people today”
Audience brain: “yes”
“So let me get straight to the point…”
Audience brain “yes”
The challenge is that you can’t see what your audience is doing, so really you are guessing as to their reality at the moment they are listening!
Sometimes it’s safe to assume. Often acknowledging your listeners’ reality is in capturing the time of day and the sense of the day. Saying hello and letting them know where they are, also acknowledges that that is their reality (eg “this is station FM / the pod podcast”).
Taking the time to introduce a topic with the listener experience is a clear way to ensure you are acknowledging their reality.
Rather than saying “There is a survey this morning that says meat is bad for you, so we have an expert here to talk about the challenge of getting people to stop eating it”
You might say “Imagine you are happily tucking into your favorite food, for someone to tell you that it’s significantly worse for you – would that stop you from eating it?”
Here’s the thing: people can tell when you are reading.
I should caveat that with: people can tell when you are reading unless you have done the work to be sure you don’t sound like you are reading.
My personal preference is that you should go without a script where you can, but the reality is that you will be reading a script at some point.
So if you are going to read from a script – how do you sound like you are talking rather than reading??
- Check the Words
This is key to it sounding like you aren’t reading. The aim for all presenting is that you sound like you’re talking to your audience as if you were in the pub plus 10%. The language you use to write is significantly different to the spoken word.
When we write we use lots of words we don’t need. When we speak we get to the point quicker. We also write in the first person (I / we went to the pub) or the third person (she went to the pub). We we speak we use the first and second person (you).
When you write you tend to put descriptions up front and the subject last. When speaking the subject goes up front and then you may add some description after.
Written: However, this week the dynamic and hairy lead singer of the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl, did go to the post office
Spoken: “Dave Grohl, the lead singer of the Foo Fighters, went to the post office this week – which was surprising…”
It is worth going through your script and checking that it reads in a way that you would actually talk.
2. Read, Read, and Read Again
Chris Anderson says in his book “TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking” that most TED speakers write then memorise their talks. The rehearsal process of repetition makes it sound like you are speaking. And this is the case for those that purely rehearse rather than script too.
You will need to read a script at least 5 or 6 times before it sounds like it has become part of your spoken word.
3. Work Out Your Emphasis and Intonation
With reading written word, ironically, you need to put the natural emphasis and intonation back in. When I played the flute in orchestras we were regularly making notes all over our music, and for reading the written word, you need to do the same.
There is a fantastic technique called The Hudson Voice Technique, developed by the BBC voice over artist Steve Hudson. His technique includes two elements you can use really easily.
Firstly, pause at the end of your sentences (and even more so at the end of your points) and energise the beginning of the next sentence (point).
Secondly, mentally break the script up beyond the punctuation. In a sentence you are likely to find a bit of a natural lull every 3 to 4 words, then get your pencil and draw a line in hose breaks. This will help you slow up your reading so you are not racing ahead, and it will get you to think about where the emphasis is in a sentence.
Mostly, you need to find your natural voice rather than your natural voice, and to do that you can watch my video about finding your authentic voice here: https://youtu.be/ltnQy744B9g
In summary the pros of scripting is that you can remember what you are going to say, you can shorten your prep, and you can even delegate the writing part.
I wanted to leave you with this. I used to think that no script for speaking in public was the thing to aim for. Then I saw this great performance from Richard Huntington at Next Radio in 2016 https://youtu.be/8UIVpD5V0Xs and his energy made me wonder if you could do great presenting with a script in your hand.