I don’t know a single person who doesn’t get butterflies before they speak. Because when you care, you want to do a good job. When you want to do a good job, that amps you up, your body chemistry changes, and you’ll be anxious.
Heck, I speak professionally for a living, and I tell myself that the first time I walk on the stage and I don’t feel any type of anxiety means that I shouldn’t be presenting that day.
But there’s a big difference between a few butterflies and paralyzing fear. When it comes to giving a great public speech or presentation, it’s not just what you say, it’s not just how you say it, but it’s the combination of those two things along with the experience you provide and the feeling you leave your audience with that creates results.
Here are four key areas of presentation and public speaking delivery that you should address to make your presentation delivery more dynamic.
Eye contact is a top conveyor of honesty in the United States. We know it’s important, yet when it comes to public speaking, though, eye contact is tough. Looking at a piece of paper is so much easier. Why? Because the paper doesn’t have eyeballs staring back at you. The paper doesn’t judge.
If making eye contact with your audience members is a weakness, here are some proactive strategies that you can use to make it, gradually, less intimidating.
First, don’t assume that if someone is or isn’t looking at you that they are or are not paying attention. You don’t know what’s in their head. Someone looking directly at you could be thinking about donuts in the breakroom. Someone not looking at you could be taking notes or processing in their own way. Your job isn’t to judge how your audience is paying attention to you—your job is to make sure you’re doing your best to pay attention to them.
Second, if making eye contact is challenging for you, instead of looking directly at the eyes, start looking at the top of the head. Make “eye contact” by scanning the top of heads in the room. If you have a room of 25+ the only people who will realize you’re not making direct eye contact with them are the person you’re looking at and potentially those on either side.
Next, graduate to the forehead. You’re so close now! Get comfortable with the forehead and then make your way slowly to the eyes. It’s systematic desensitization, but gradually.
Finally, if you feel you’re an eye contact pro, watch yourself on video and see what side of the room you tend to favor more. Note that, and gradually start to adjust.
Enunciation and Pronunciation
How you speak and pronounce words is important because people need to be able to understand you. When nerves seep in, sometimes we have the tendency to speed up, use filler words (such as “um” and “uh”), and—for some—mumble. All of these behaviors can negatively impact how you’re perceived and affect your confidence as a speaker. Allow me to share two lessons I learned in an unexpected place that can help all of us be better at enunciation and pronunciation when it comes to our speech.
I’m about as musically inclined as a rock. Despite my lack of ability to carry a tune, in music class, I did learn two things that are incredibly useful when it comes to public speaking and effective delivery.
The first, to enunciate, you need to show your teeth. The best lip sync performers are so believable because as they mouth the words their teeth are showing. Because in order to get that type of sound out, the mouth needs to be open and the air pipes clear. If you find yourself starting to speak too quickly, think about showing some of your teeth—open the mouth a little wider. If you’re not sure if you do this or not, set up a camera and record yourself in conversation, or during a video chat. You’ll be able to see your tendencies that way.
The second musical lesson I learned is about pronunciation. Singers that have lyrics you can actually understand and sing along with pronouncing the consonants clearly, especially the final consonant of each word. Try it. Say “world” out loud without focusing on the final “d” in your pronunciation. Now say it while focusing on the last “d” and pronouncing it clearly. Practice this out loud with other words and you’ll notice a difference.
Another thing…Don’t put words in your speech that you can’t or don’t know how to pronounce! And if you make a mistake, laugh, own it, and move on.
Paralanguage is everything other than words in your speech. It’s your rate, tone, and pitch. The rate is the speed at which you speak. The tone is the relative volume of your voice—are you loud or soft. The pitch is the natural highness or lowness of your voice.
The three combined convey emotion, confidence, and power during a presentation.
Effective paralanguage is like a vocal roller coaster. In a good amusement park ride, you have highs and lows, twists and turns, loops and straights. So too should a good speech have variation in rate, tone, and pitch.
Nobody likes to listen to a monotonous speaker. You know that person who stands behind the podium not moving, speaking at a flat level the entire time (think Ben Stein’s voice for an entire speech). Emotion drives action. And the goal of any business presentation is to achieve some sort of action as a result. Don’t be afraid to put your energy and emotion into your voice. People will feel more connected to you, to what you’re presenting, and have a higher propensity to act based on what you present.
Gestures and Movement
Most presenters don’t reach their audience best by standing perfectly still. It’s hard to convey emotion if your body is rigidly standing in a single position. Alas, sometimes you have to use a podium and your movement abilities are limited. Here’s what you can do.
If you have to use a podium, you can still use gestures! Just make sure your gestures are done above the waist. Do them with intent, power, and confidence. Make them visible to your audience. As you gesture, lean slightly forward. You may also lean slightly forward in order to emphasize a point or as a way to increase connection.
If you have the ability to move around the room or stage, be sure your movements are intentional. Some gesture and movement don’ts:
- Don’t move for the sake of moving. Instead, move to transition between points or sections of your presentation.
- Don’t let your movements be a way for nervous energy to escape your body.
- Don’t be a pacer, a hula dancer, a weight shifter, or a toe-tapper.
Remember, rigidity conveys seriousness. For some points in your presentation, that is important, but if you stay firmly planted the entire time, you’re not likely to endear anyone in the room or motivate people to action.
In Closing: Stop Boxing Yourself In
The first time you were likely introduced to public speaking was in high school or college. In these classrooms, you learned that the “professional” presentation was one behind a podium, meticulously organized, with a perfectly timed gesture, a perfect balance of eye contact, a perfect level of volume. You learned how to put yourself into a box of what a “professional presentation” should be.
That box only works in artificially created environments—like the classroom. In business, the most successful presenters are those who have shed the box. Instead, they focus on connecting with the audience over the perfect articulation of words. They focus on getting the people in the room to feel a part of the experience, rather than how many times they’ll gesture with their right hand.
Quit putting yourself in a box. Quit comparing yourself to what others are like as speakers. They are not you. You are not them. The key is to find out your own strengths and weakness so you can craft a delivery style that emphasizes your strengths and drives people to action.
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