10 Commandments for Surviving Public Speaking

Lights, Camera, Eeek Eeek Eeek!

Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for Surviving Public Speaking

Everyone hates to give a presentation or speech. Well, maybe not everyone. There are showoffs, actors, and people who are secretly from another galaxy who appear to like it. They can talk to groups and seem poised, articulate, intelligent, and worth people’s time and attention. But you? Me? Yikes? Where’s the exit? The nearest bathroom? A dying relative (real or fictional) to rescue us from the podium?

Most people respond this way even if “all” they have to do is a small presentation, let alone a speaking gig where the focus of everyone’s attention is, well, YOU! Studies show people rank fear of public speaking above that of dying. So if you can’t get out of it, or feel brave enough to try, use these commandments to help yourself cope:

Commandment Number1: Make them like you.

Here’s a secret: Everyone wants you to succeed. They want to be amused and enlightened, but they also don’t want to feel your pain. You can make the audience like you by coming across as sincere, confident, and competent. Avoid starting with some bad canned joke. Instead, thank them for being there. Above all don’t share your fears of failure. If you’re engaging, warm, and personable, as well as informative and professional, you’ll all leave feeling the session was a good investment of time. Your self-esteem and their opinion of you will all benefit.

Commandment Number 2: Balance information and entertainment.

There are many ways to lose an audience. Unless you’re a celebrity or handing out money, few people will walk in excited about your talk. Even if you’re passionate about your subject, don’t forget other people might be bored. And if you dull an interesting subject with poor delivery, you’re sure to disappoint. Ditto for preaching. People like stories. Salt your presentation with short and relevant anecdotes about yourself or other people. These can serve as object lessons in success and failure. Use an array of examples to keep them awake while you feed them information.

Commandment Number 3: Repeat your key points often.

Tell them up front, “I have 5 things I want to make sure you leave this room knowing.” Have a handout with the key points simply stated. Be sure your contact info is on it (proofread, proofread, proofread!), especially if you want to market to them later. Organize your presentation in the same order as the handout. Start and end each segment with the one-liner about that point. Repeat keywords. Consider asking them to repeat key phrases in unison with you. At the end of your talk, after the Q&A, repeat the 5 points. End with the key phrase you like best when you say good-bye.

Commandment Number 4: Engage and involve.

Think of activities the audience can participate in. This keeps them awake and tuned it. Ask them to guess at statistics before you quote them. Ask them rhetorical questions to consider. Ask them to raise their hands if they’ve experienced something similar to whatever you’re exhorting or lamenting. Pick a volunteer. (Note: this perks people up like a cattleprod, because people like seeing colleagues suffer in public). Ask the audience to toss out ideas that you write on a board. Bribe them with candy or quarters if they come up with something great, especially if it’s something you can incorporate into your next presentation.

Commandment Number 5: Don’t rely on props.

You’re instinct will be to hide behind slides, PowerPoint, videos, anything that distracts people’s attention. Avoid equipment you don’t know how to run, especially things that are prone to malfunction like computers, movies, and presentation software. If you must have technology: test it twice; be sure you can operate it from the podium with one hand; or have someone else responsible for managing it. Keep people’s attention focused on you, not on a screen. If you want your key points written legibly on a whiteboard behind you,  great. But don’t make act like a professor mumbling a lecture. Make them want and need to look at you. If you’re a guest, have business cards to hand out.

Commandment Number 6: Master your image and body language.

Avoid both the undertaker look and rock star glam. Find a style that’s comfortable for you and that’s appropriate for the setting. Image includes how you dress, how you talk, and your facial and body language. Avoid new or tight fitting clothes.  Choose an outfit that’s professional. You should look poised, like you feel happy about being in the public eye, not trussed and stuffed, ready for the gallows. Have some bright aspect to pull the eye, be it a tie, scarf, or jewelry. Get a haircut a week, not the night, before. Be animated but not a one-person band or Vegas show. Smile, don’t puke. Stay hydrated, but not so much that you’re ready to run down the hall.

Commandment Number 7: Interact with the whole room.

Make sure you move your head when you talk. Think of yourself like an orchestra conductor, playing different sections of the room. Look directly (yes, real eye contact) with random individuals in the room. If you hit a scowler, move on to someone who’s nodding supportively. if there’s Q&A, plant one question to get it going and an easy last question, so they leave on an upbeat note, confident in what you’ve said. If you get asked a toughie, say “good question” and take a swig from your water glass while you think up an answer. Don’t be afraid to say, I need to check that out and email you.

Commandment Number 8: Use legible cue cards.

Make a set of easy-to-handle 4×6 cards to look at during the presentation. Once you’re on a roll, you probably won’t need them, but keep them moving in pace with your talk, so you can glance down if you need a prompt. Write keywords for your main points and to cue anecdotes (e.g.: Contracts – ownership; McClain project; Scheduling – Sadie & Brad; bad Mondays). Use large fonts, something you can see if you peek down very very quickly. Experiment to see how big they have to be to read them under stress. Have two sets in case you spill your drink on one.

Commandment Number 9: Practice, practice, practice.

It’s scary to do, because it makes the whole thing real. But after you stop planning your escape to Rio, you’ll start to be motivated. Time yourself. If you have three hours of material and only 30 minutes to talk, you’re going to disappoint everyone. Write it out and SPEAK IT ALOUD. Decide what you most need to say. Then trim or embellish as time permits. When showtime comes, you’re going to speak faster in the beginning (because you’ll be nervous). But if you know that you know what’s coming, you’ll slow down and relax into your talk. Like any other athlete, knowing your routine gets you a better score.

Commandment Number 10: Forgive yourself.

Your worst critic will be you. Here’s the good news: few people are taken off a podium and executed or publicly chastised. The worst that can happen is that you’ll never be asked to make another presentation. That may even sound like a reward now, but afterwards you’ll be surprised, because you’ll want another shot. Even if you’re one of those people from another galaxy who craves attention, it takes time and practice to get good at working a room. Be yourself. Be authentic. Stay present.

These commandments may not take away all your fears. But if you follow even half of them, you’ll improve your performance enough that everyone will think well of your efforts. Bottom line: make people care about being there with you. If you can do that, there’s lots of kudos in your future.