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.
I truly believe that being a great communicator can change your world – and that includes the way you talk to yourself.
We all have the evil inner critic that is quick to be hard on ourselves. For some, it is louder than others. For me, it’s sometimes not even a voice, just a feeling that I can’t, or I shouldn’t, or I won’t be able to.
I come across negative self talk all the time from my clients. The radio presenter who thinks they will sound cheesy if they say something, the TV broadcaster who doesn’t think they can talk to their boss about the future because they won’t want to hear it, the business owner who doesn’t think they can stand on a stage and tell their story. Most of all, when you are putting yourself out there it is really easy to tell yourself that you aren’t good enough and that all you have to do is get through the presentation.
The result is exactly that – a mediocre, forgettable presentation.
Henry Ford once said “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t, is usually right”.
Here are the 3 tips I give to change the self-talk:
- “I love myself”
This is simple. In your quiet moments, get into the habit of repeating the words just say ‘I love myself, I love myself…” in my head. In Barry McDonagh’s book “The DARE Response” this is the advice he gives as the culmination of all the reading he has done. This is the one way that you can change your self-talk and the way you feel about yourself. (Read the book too – it’s excellent).
I have suggested this to friends and clients, some of them say that they don’t believe it, or that it sounds tinny and thin when they hear it.
It’s hard to convince yourself you are worthy of your own love when you have spent so much time bashing yourself. So just keep repeating it. The tinny and weak sounds become healthy and more real.
You can’t give what you haven’t got, and so when you believe in yourself it is easier to put yourself “out there” and speak.
2. Change Your Story (with help from Gratitude)
Our thoughts are the stories we have told ourselves about the experiences we have had, or are having. It’s hard to change an experience, but you can change your story. On top of that (if you are struggling with how to change that story), starting with gratitude is a great way to ground your thoughts so that you can make that change.
I do a lot of CrossFit and recently the sessions have included running. I am always a slow runner. In fact, whenever running comes up on the board I say to myself ‘ugh I am a terrible runner”. This week we had a session where we had to do 4, 800-metre runs (interspersed with 25 overhead squats!).
On the first run, my head said “ugh I am a terrible runner, why are you doing this, you’re never going to finish this session in the time” and I felt sluggish, rubbish and slow. I looked at the clock and decided there was no way that I would make the 25-minute time cap.
Halfway through the second run I had a word with myself: “yes you are a slow runner, but you are not a terrible runner – change this self-talk please”. So I changed it to say “I am grateful for my legs – I am so lucky I can run” and (because I was getting very tired!) I shortened it to “Can run, Good runner” every step!
After the 4th run, I made it over the line at 24 minutes and 59 seconds!
By changing my self-talk and committing to it – a hideous experience was made a lot better: I completed the session and in the time as well. It all started with gratitude.
- Take down the thoughts
In the book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron gives some great advice around quelling the inner critic in our head.
Her technique is to write down the negative thought she calls it the “blurt” – eg “You are not good enough at that to do this”. And then turn it into a positive thought, an “affirmation”.
Even better you might want to take the negative thought, and try writing 5 affirmations against it.
It always strikes me that our inner critic can be so mean! You would never tell someone else the things that your inner critic says to you. So be kind to yourself, back yourself and defend yourself.
Everyone has the inner critic. Everyone.
Before every talk, workshop or session I do, my inner critic has told me that this is going to be awful and that everyone will know this already, that I am not telling them anything new so what’s the point? But I fight through it, I change the story and I defend myself against the thoughts. Mostly I say “I can do this” or “I love myself” and then, I get a thrill from reading the feedback forms at the end of the sessions.
There are, of course, many elements that have to come together in order for people to do what you want. One of those elements lies in the language you choose to instruct them.
When my kids were little, I went on an “Incredible Years” parenting course, not just because there was a free creche and I got a break – honest! Mainly because my neighbour had done the course and her son was so well behaved! He did everything she asked him to do.
I HAD to know her secret.
So I went on the course. And here is what I learned:
Ask people to do what you want them to do.
- Speak in the positive
Why? Because your unconscious mind hears positive instruction.
When you see a child carrying a glass of water, and they are tottering towards a table, and it looks like they are going to spill it, what do you hear their parents say?
“Don’t spill the water!!”
Your brain doesn’t hear the “Don’t” – especially when you are a kid. And more often than not you can guarantee that that child will actively spill the water. That’s what they think they’ve been told to do.
Asking people what you want them to do (rather than what you don’t want them to do) has real results. When we learned this Mr C and I got really creative with the kids:
“Keep your feet on the floor!” when they thought climbing on things was OK and it wasn’t.
“Put your hands on your tummy” when we wanted them not to touch anything in the shops.
It worked more than “Don’t touch that” ever did. And the added bonus is that if you ask people to do what you want them to do – it’s easier to reward them for doing it. Creating a great cycle of positive reward!
2. Be clear with what you want
That’s it. If you want someone to do something for you then you have to ask them explicitly what it is you want them to do. One thought per instruction. The minute you ask for more than one thing, or you start to clutter the request, people won’t hear it.
Less is 100% more.
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.
To stand on stage and perform feels vulnerable, so when you are on a line up with other speakers, that’s when the comparison voice kicks in.
I’m sat watching the guy who is speaking before me. He is really funny. Like really funny. I’m not that funny. And he has no notes – how is he doing all this without notes?
Then the next lady steps on the stage and she is covering really similar stuff to me, so obviously my brain starts up: “they are going to find out that you aren’t as clever as you make out”. And again “oh she is putting this message together much better than you do”…
And then your brain hits you with this doozy: “Are you sure you’re good enough?”
Brene Brown says that “Comparison is the killer of creativity and joy”.
And as I sat there trying to stop myself from going into a flat spin, I started to deploy the methods I use that remind me of the only thing that can stop you from killing your creativity and joy…
Remember that You are You.
I get all my clients to establish who they are before doing anything else. Understanding what you bring to the table, where your strengths lie, and what you are trying to achieve, eradicates comparison. All that matters is that you are attempting to be the best you can be, in line with your own values. Grasp this, and then suddenly you won’t be worrying about what others do.
Presenter Chris Evans said on his first Virgin Radio show in January “If anyone is any good then there is room for everyone”. He was replying to those who were curious about any competition between him and his old Radio 2 show. He’s right.
I also used to get really worried that I wasn’t as good as other people doing what I do. That was until I started to realise that there wasn’t one or two people that I was in competition with… there are thousands of people doing it, all over the world. All I can do is do the best I can to help the people I want to help.
Of course, competition is useful, It spurs us on and helps us to be better, and competition is fuelled by comparison. So, be clear on who you are, what you want people to remember, and focus on that. You can wave goodbye to comparisonitis.