Did you know that, according to the Chapman University 2016 Survey of American Fears, public speaking was ranked as a fear by more respondents than three kinds of natural disasters, gang violence, financial fraud, kidnapping, and needles? I’ve enjoyed opportunities to be a panelist or speaker in the past, so much so that I’ve made it a priority (not really a goal, but something to execute on every day – even I’m not sure how I would measure progress on this one!) to improve speaking in all aspects of my life, whether in front of a large, crowded room or in one-on-one conversations. Given that Warren Buffett believes, according to Inc., that public speaking is the “single greatest skill to boost your career,” why not take a chance on working toward overall career success?
Here are my eleven strategies I am working on to become a better speaker – with friends and family or a large audience as a public speaker!
- Practicing. This is my simple approach to everything I want to get better at. I simply need to do more of it. No one is perfect. In this vein, I take every opportunity, whether formal or informal, to practice speaking, especially in front of lots of people. Two ways I do this include:
- Face to face conversations. I work daily in an office that can have anywhere from 30 to 50 people present, depending on the day. Passing colleagues in hallways, greeting them hello in the morning, or chatting over lunch are all opportunities to practice my speaking. I make sure to make direct eye contact, smile (or not smile) as appropriate, use hand gestures, and, of course, listen.
- Phone conversations. I’ve found from talking to millennial peers that some are terrified of the phone – the thought of having to leave a voicemail is fear inducing, and actually speaking to someone is horrifying. When face to face is not possible, phone might be the next best thing, absent video conferencing (of which I do very little). One way I help myself prepare is to have a list of topics I want to talk about, so I feel more confident. While the phone is ringing, I practice my introduction and how I want to segway into the topics.
- Thinking ahead. Following onto the practicing, I make an effort to think ahead about and potential opportunity I have to speak somewhat publicly. On panels, I ask to see the questions that are anticipated or what discussion items might be. For a more formal speech, I spend a few hours preparing what I want to say and how I am going to say it. When I go to networking events, I always try to have a few “bullpen questions” for when a conversation gets quiet. To use in more extreme cases, I occasionally practice a graceful exit.
- Working on reduction of “like”, “um”, “just”, and “so”. As a millennial woman, these words and inclusion in the manner of speaking can be killer to a reputation I desire, one that has me known for professionalism and authority/knowledge. I don’t beat myself up for letting them slip out, but remind myself that there are better terms (or silence in the case of “um”). This takes conscious effort because of how pervasive it is, but I always feel a stronger reception when I am successful in the omission of these fillers.
- Improving my storytelling and reducing reliance on facts only. Statistics might be fascinating in short doses and in the proper context, but stats don’t make for compelling conversations alone. The best conversations or presentations weave experience of the speaker or others to share more insight about the facts and figures or the intent of the lesson. Storytelling relies on having experiences in life that can be re-told that add value to another person. Simply, the value could be for entertainment. Other times, it may be for education – or even both! In order to have experiences, I have to get off my couch and out into the world interacting with others. A variety of people in your life that you can regularly interact with certainly do make for great stories!
- Being my most authentic self. Ah, authenticity. That dirty “A word” we all grapple with when we yearn to be ourselves, but struggling to fit into the world around us as we “grow up”. I once received criticism in college that I was “too cheery” when speaking in front of a group. It was disappointing to hear, because it was who I was. I tried altering my style and asking for feedback, only to find that most people preferred my natural, smiling, enthusiastic style. It was refreshing from other speakers and not forced. It was a lesson at 20 that feedback is important only if there can be improvements made to approach. Being who you are is important and should never change.
- Work on confidence. The famous adage of “fake it ‘til you make it” is good advice in most cases. Speaking publicly (as long as what you say is true!) is one of those instances where faking confidence can help you get through the tough spots. Some ways I build my confidence when speaking are to straighten my posture, watch tone and volume, make eye contact, and focus on smiling as appropriate – and as is my authentic smile.
- Focus on adding good content to the conversation. Speaking for the sake of speaking isn’t always appreciated. My intent with this strategy is to increase the impact of what I say. Sometimes this means that I stay quiet on something if there isn’t a new viewpoint to add. As a woman, this can occasionally get me into a bind where I’m not speaking up as I should, so I am mindful of my company or audience in asking questions or adding something of value.
- Staying positive and finding solutions. Who wants to listen to a complainer? On most occasions, I try to move forward from a problem or perceived complaint. Whether I re-focus myself or re-direct a conversation, the focus should be on adding positively to the lives of others, and, selfishly, myself (see item #7). Working to address topics of discussion positively helps me to think on my feet to re-frame, and also work on addressing the needs of the person I am talking to. It’s an exercise not in being uncomfortable, but working through being uncomfortable.
- Have goals for outcome. Similar to the previous two items, there has to be a goal for what I am sharing. Will it help someone, in some way? What is the ultimate message I am trying to convey? Will it improve how I am perceived by others? Often, I make sure to ask questions so that there is an outcome.
- Prepare for conversation, not only to be heard. Conversation and dialogue don’t happen without at least two people or two parties. There needs to be a back and forth for discovery of new viewpoints and an open mind kept for gaining new knowledge. Questions are the key for conversation – that and knowing that most people do love to talk about what they are doing or thinking, even if it does take some prodding.
- Listening. The magic of being a better speaker may be listening! I love and appreciate the opportunity to sit on panels because there is so much to learn from the other speakers, no matter their level of experience. Even if their commentary is irrelevant to my situation, I learn more about them personally, and that goes a long way into building the relationships.
There they are! I’ve been focusing on these strategies for a few years now, and have seen continuing improvement. Even still, there is a long way to go. I also make sure to ask for feedback when appropriate and am trying out a Toastmasters meeting later on this week.
Let me know where you stand on public speaking – are you a champion of the microphone and stage, or nervous to get out from behind backstage? Are there other ways you are working on improving your speaking generally or public speaking overall?