“My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, I couldn’t swallow, I had cold chills,” is a fair description of what happens to many when they're about to make public remarks. Speaking in front of an audience is still one of the top fears Americans list, along with loneliness, and ahead of death (although “going broke” is quickly becoming a strong contender#.)
Standing up feels like a set up for being rejected for many. Contrast the act of being in front of a group of expectant faces with the ability to edit oneself before posting to social media, writing an email, or even sending a text, and it becomes easier to see why.
Over reliance on writing is hurting our ability to speak in public — we're out of practice and often we don't know who we're talking with because we take no time figuring it out. When elaborating and adapting doesn't involve immediate reactions, we learn to distance ourselves emotionally long enough to create.
But creating is much harder for many when producing in real time. The truth is that if delivering an impromptu address is a hard earned skill, we can prepare for most of our speaking. We can write out what we want to say ahead of time.
Spontaneity is much easier when it's planned.
Address the issues
Talks have secret lives because even the most spontaneous speeches and presentations hide mountains of preparation work. Ideally the talk abstract focuses an end goal and provides some lessons — techniques or points to make, each of which will break down into core elements.
We use stories to illustrate our points, and use a narrative arc to keep the listener's interest throughout. Most go ahead and prepare a deck out of an outline, but there is tremendous value in holding off on the deck until we write the entire speech — just like we would when delivering an address.
Sir Winston Churchill wrote every word of his many speeches. To a listener, hearing him on the radio gave the impression that his eloquence flowed naturally, complete with pauses. What sounded improvisational organization was the result of careful preparation.
King George VI had to overcome a stammer that nearly crippled him mentally before he rose to power. Much rode on George leading England as it fought Germany in World War II. The story retold in a movie shows how the King had to overcome various personal issues of self worth in a brave feat of public speaking and attempting to overcome his stammer while addressing his people.
The three main issues we need to address with public speaking are — trust, message, and overall success of the talk. Trust is about being believable in practice and how we get the audience on our side. To structure our talk we should use the three pillar of persuasive speech.
As for the subject we're addressing, the question is whether the message getting through, and people understand the point we're trying to get across simply. Success depends on what the audience remembers and takes with them, including the questions we raised in the mind of listeners.
Write to talk
Preparation helps ease the stress and free the mind to focus on the topic. The idea is to know the topic well and know what we're going to say ahead of time. Research helps, including asking the likely questions an audience might ask using an outsider's perspective.
Writing to be heard is radically different from writing to be read, says Mortimer Adler in How to Speak, How to Listen. When we write for listening, we need to keep “moving forward irreversibly with the flow of speech” because we can only listen once.
Reading is something we can do at our own pace, flipping back and forth. Talking also involves facial expressions, gestures, modulations of voice, and using pauses effectively. We can learn to speak powerfully, but we still need to know what we're going to say. Delivery cues should be part of our script and preparation.
One trick to remember to pause and make eye contact, or smile and use gestures to illustrate a point is to think about a talk as an act — in musicals, stand ups, and films, actors have practiced routines with the help of cues for effect.
Timing is of the essence, but so is having a sense of time, that is staying well within the allotted minutes. When we go over we strain attention and come into conflict with people's other plans and agendas.
The two common forms of writing a talk are outlines with quotes and topical phrases, and a full speech, which is the form people use for commencement addresses. For my talk on influence, I had a full write up of the whole topic to practice the 30-minute slot. For my Inbound bold talk I wrote out the summary stories and key take aways to cover 12 minutes.
Outlines work well when we're in full command of the topic, based on experience and frequency of delivery. For a new topic or angle on a topic, it's more useful to write the whole talk.
There's a reason why full scripts don't work well when we're in front of people — we become overly focused on reading the words rather than speaking them. We relate to speaking much better because of presence and all the other non verbal cues, like smiling, modulating the voice, and so on.
A middle ground is to write full sentences in outline form with spacing, like a movie or play script. This is how we may see copy on a teleprompter. When I worked with subject matter experts to prepare them for short videos, for example, I used this format and a laptop to work as a teleprompter.
We can use visual cues to show subordination, indentation, and pauses. The eye can follow a narrow format down the page easily, and our visual cues help us remember how we planned to tell the story. Each section should include a note on time to keep us on track.
If we end up ahead in one section based on the audience reactions, we will know that an extra minute in the next won't make us go long.
Focus on the right data
When preparing for a talk we often refer back to our thinking and writing on the topic. We make notes about the points we want to get across, and think of stories to illustrate. At this stage it's important to remember who's going to be there.
Counter intuitive examples work well, but even better when relevant to the people in the room. The first time we give a talk we also have the opportunity to gather a lot of feedback that will help us improve our points and/or delivery.
Which is why it's important to maintain a line of sight with the audience, get a sense of the energy in the room. For this reason, it's preferable to speak in a well-lit room than to have stage lights in the eyes. It's a good idea to identify a few people in the room with whom to make eye contact. This also gives us immediate feedback.
Fear is energy. Practice and organization help us fuel it for forward momentum. Passion for the topic and purpose help us stay energized. Things to keep in mind are what people want to learn from us, as well as what they have the right to expect based on the conference theme.
We want to know what's special about a topic that makes it worth sharing in addition to our point of view. The ingredients of a good talk are: address the issues, write for listeners, prepare and practice for fluency, and focus on the right data and stories.
With experience, we also learn to choose our words well to build the narrative to be heard.