Cut the babble and start telling stories

Cut the babble and start telling stories Public speaking often tops the list of people’s fears

Rebecca Knight

Speaking in front of a group – no matter how big or small – can be stressful. Preparation is key, of course, whether it’s your first or your 100th time. From preparing your slides to wrapping up your talk, what should you do to give a presentation that people will remember?

Public speaking often tops the list of people’s fears. “When all eyes are on you, you feel exposed,” says Nick Morgan, the president and founder of Public Words and the author of Power Cues. “This classically leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment.”

In other words: fear of humiliation is at the root of our performance anxiety. But presenters shouldn’t “fear a hostile environment” or second-guess themselves says Nancy Duarte, chief executive and principal of Duarte Design, and the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations . “Most often the audience is rooting for you,” she explains.

Here are some tips that will help you deliver:

Understand your audience

As you begin to work on your presentation, think about your message and content from the listener’s point of view.

“Research your audience,” says Morgan. “Understand their points of pain, what they’re interested in, their fears, needs and wants.”

Open with conviction

According to Morgan, the three classic mistakes speakers tend to make often happen in the first few minutes of a talk. The first mistake is introducing yourself – especially in a long-winded fashion. The second is telling the audience what you’re going to say – often in a form of a PowerPoint agenda slide. The third is what Morgan refers to as “throat clearing” – where you stand up and say things such as: “Well, it’s nice to be here. That was a great party last night, wasn’t it? I see a lot of familiar faces in the audience.”

These things might make you feel more comfortable “but you’re just babbling at the audience,” Morgan says. And more importantly, you’re squandering the opening few minutes that are a key to engaging the audience.

Tell a story

A growing body of research points to the power of stories to change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Bear this in mind as you create your slides and talking points.

Seek to inspire

Even when your talk is internal and your content is mundane, your message shouldn’t be humdrum.

Think positively

Your physiological signs of stage fright – racing heart, clammy palms and churning stomach – are “keenly felt by you, but are far less visible to the eyes of the audience,” says Morgan. “You must remind yourself that you don’t look as bad as you feel.”

And when your brain starts in on a feverish loop of negativity, you need to counteract it. “Replace the negative thoughts with positive ones,” he says. “Tell yourself: ‘I’m going to be fine. I am passionate about this topic. I’ve given this talk many times before.’”

Review and rehearse . . .

One of the best ways to get ready for an important speech is to practice it in front of a live audience. This needn’t be a professional coach; a friend or group of colleagues will suffice, says Morgan. For high-stakes talks, try to visit the venue where you’re presenting so you can get a feel for the stage and the environment.

 . . but not too much

Sometimes practicing too much can backfire. “Your audience will feel insulted if you haven’t prepared, but you can also over-prepare and end up coming across robotic and contrived,” warns Duarte. “Once you’ve practiced it enough and you feel good about the material, let go of the script and talk from the heart.” – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2014 Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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