Public Speaking 101

How to deliver presentations with ease and confidence

By Donald J. Strankowski
Ascend Career and Life Strategies, LLC

Does the mere thought of giving a presentation tie your stomach in knots and make you anxious?  If so, you’re in good company.  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Courtney Cox, Bob Dylan, Brad Pitt, David Letterman, Julia Roberts, and Robert De Niro all have suffered from “stage fright” or performance anxiety at some point in their career.

Public speaking is a common source of stress for everyone. Fear of public speaking is considered to be the number one phobia in this country.  According to one recent study, fear of public speaking was ranked ahead of death, disease, heights, and financial trouble.  Many of us would like to avoid this problem entirely, but this is hard to do.  Whether it’s addressing a major client or prospect or presenting to a large group of peers or employees, most people will be asked to present to a group at some point in their career.  If we aspire to be leaders and achieve our goals, we will often need to speak to groups, large and small, in order to be successful.

“All great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I remember from a very young age, feeling “natural” presenting and speaking to an audience.  It seemed that I always looked forward to giving that book report, playing the lead in a school play, or even showing off on the playing field.  As an adult, I parlayed my natural talents for public speaking and presenting into a satisfying sales career and now as a public speaker with my own company.  But natural talent can only take you so far.  I’ve also had to work hard to refine my presentation skills over the years.  It seems that as we mature, we also have a tendency to take on new “learned” fears.  And, just like David Letterman and Robert De Niro, I’ve also had to overcome anxiety many times before giving a major presentation.

The truth about public speaking, however, is it does not have to be stressful.  If you correctly understand the hidden causes of public speaking stress, and if you keep just a few key principles in mind, speaking in public will soon become an invigorating and satisfying experience for you.  With time, patience, and practice I learned to overcome public speaking anxiety.  So much so that now I do it for a living! 

Here are 9 Key Points that have helped me and can also help you prepare for and deliver your next presentation with ease and confidence:

1- The key to a powerful presentation is preparedness.  You will be confident in your presentation and delivery to the degree that you feel you are well prepared.  Make sure you know your topic.  Conduct some research and/or learn from people in relevant fields.  Practice 3 times minimum beforehand.

2- Visualize your presentation going exactly as you would like it in the days leading up to it.  See all the details; people smiling, learning, attentive and then giving you a huge round of applause when you conclude.

3- Come in organized.  Use folders, paperclips, etc., to separate your material and then arrange it accordingly on the table/podium. Check the room for all hookups, power, etc., in advance the day of your presentation.  When presenting, use an outline, note cards, or a couple bound pages.  DO NOT read directly from your notes.  Use them as a guide only and speak to (and with) the audience.

4- Give yourself permission to be yourself—don’t try to emulate someone else.  Audiences like to connect with people they can relate to.  Use lessons you’ve learned or your own personal faux pas’ to show them you’re on the same level.

5- Be alive and passionate about your topic.  You don’t have to don a cheerleader’s outfit but show enthusiasm; it will hold your audience’s attention and keep them focused on your message.  Most presentations only have a few key points supported by facts, figures, examples and anecdotes.  Use real-life examples and stories wherever possible. Pepper your presentation with humor!

6- Vary and maintain eye contact with your audience at all times (shows confidence).  Do not look down when talking (lack of confidence)!  Reviewing notes is fine provided you’re not overly reliant on them.  Always maintain an upright posture when speaking.  Use hand gestures where appropriate; move around on occasion if possible.  Smile!  Do not hide behind the table or podium.  People want to see you!

7- Speak SLOWLY.  We have a tendency to speak too fast when we’re nervous or excited.  Use an elevated tone/volume depending on audience size.  To emphasize an idea or important point and make it “stick” with your audience, make the statement and then pause for 5 seconds still maintaining eye contact.

8- Be aware of nervous queues and repetitions such as rocking back and forth, clearing your throat, wringing your hands, tapping a pen, or saying “You know, OK, alright, etc.” after each sentence or statement.

9- Have fun!  You’re the authority and people want to listen to what you have to say. Your audience is your ally and they want you to succeed!

Remember that practice makes perfect.  Your first few presentations will be far from perfect so learn from experience and keep going.  Don’t worry about knowing everything, know just the main things.  Rehearse it a few times in the days leading to the event; not so much as to memorize it, but to become familiar in how to deliver it.  An audience can always tell a “canned” pitch from someone who is speaking from the heart so as mentioned above, don’t be afraid to be yourself.  Most top speakers don’t even use notes.  Some don’t even rehearse very much!  They simply speak from the heart and know how to connect with their audience.

Almost everyone fears public speaking.  However, with preparation, practice, and persistence you can become a well-respected presenter that knows how to inform and inspire an audience!