Tuesday, March 30, 2010

8 scary ways to be a better speaker

Speaking can be scary. I can tell, because I see speakers scared into the safe mode of speaking all the time, staying behind the lectern, using slides to advance their content, and limiting time for questions. It’s a bit like learning to swim by hanging onto the side of the pool.  In effect, you’re in the water, but not really swimming. You’ll improve by trying these scary—but fun and effective—ways to speak:

1) Move your body where the audience can see you. Yes, get out from behind that lectern, even if you stand to one side of it and rest an arm on it. This will force you to look up and out at the audience, and will let them see the whole person, not just a head behind a block of wood.

2) Move toward the audience. Instead of pretending there’s a moat full of alligators between you and the crowd, get out there. Greet people as they enter the room, or wander around to say hello, introduce yourself, and ask what people are interested in hearing. Then keep it up during your presentation. Move up close to the audience and their attention will rise, and stay high.

3) Interrupt yourself. When you pose a rhetorical question, don’t answer it right away. Stop and ask who else might know the answer. You also can stop yourself by announcing a Twitter break, a stretch break, or to introduce a game people can participate in from their seats. One good speaker I know likes to introduce a series of points by asking audience members to stand if they agree with each statement he’s about to say. By the end of the series, everyone’s been able to see this very visual poll, gaining more knowledge as a group.

4) Don’t use all the time allotted. Yes, this means flying in the face of the organizers who asked you to speak for an hour. And yes, it means you need to use the rest of the time to take questions from the audience. But I guarantee you’ll do a better job holding the audience’s attention, and the organizers will be thrilled. So will you.

5) Let people disagree with you. They’re going to, anyway, privately or publicly. So let them—and listen with respect, then feel free to explain why you disagree, without getting defensive.  See if you can acknowledge what they're feeling, even if you don't agree with it.  Your audience will feel it's been heard and that it is contributing.

6) Don’t have the answer to everything. You can’t, of course, but you’d never know it by the way some speakers overprepare. Instead, practice getting comfortable saying variations on “I don’t know” – even an “I wish I knew that answer to that, but I think we may never find out” will do.

7) Ditch your slides. If you’re using slides as big backlit notecards, try developing your content into a three-point outline that you can handle without notes. Scary, sure, but so much more engaging, since you’ll be forced to look at the audience instead of a screen.

8) Don’t waste time on preliminaries. Dive right into your talk instead. You can thank the organizers in a note, on your blog or personally afterward. Grab the audience while its attention is still sharp and you won’t regret it.

Related posts:  Attention!  Why speakers need a strong, fast start

Lecterns: use them or lose them

17 reasons to welcome audience questions

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