I remember my freshman year of college like it was yesterday (narrator: it was not). I very quickly learned journalism was not the right major, I wasn’t built for 8 a.m. classes, and paying to wash my own laundry was a ridiculous concept.
However, while I was learning all of the things I didn’t like, I was also learning about the things I did. Case in point: public speaking.
All freshman were required to take a public speaking seminar. Even though I was pumped to get up there and regale everyone with tales of my life, my friends were freaking out.
What was the big deal? What was so hard about standing in front of the class and telling a story?
It turns out, a lot.
There are a number of statistics out there around the fear of public speaking but a study done in 2017 put the number around 65 percent. Think about that – for every 10 people you know, at least 6 of them are afraid to speak in public.
The problem is, that fear can lead to issues in our careers. Fear of public speaking can lead to 10 percent lower wages and decrease your chance of being promoted to management.
For anyone in marketing, and particularly search, the ability to communicate is a big deal. From internal presentations to calls with clients or prospects, the ability to communicate is imperative to our success.
So how do we overcome this fear?
How do we improve our public speaking skills?
There is no one answer but there are certainly proven tactics out there we can use. Let’s jump in.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
In Scott Berkun’s book, “Confessions of a Public Speaker“, he talks about letting go of perfection:
“If a disaster happens, something explodes or I trip and fall, I’ll have more attention from the audience than I probably had 30 seconds before. And if I don’t care that much about my disaster, I can use the attention I’ve earned to do something good with it – whatever I say next, they are sure to remember… If you’d like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection.”
You are probably going to mess up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said the wrong thing, misspelled something on a report, or in one case, set incorrect timings on my SearchLove presentation. Whoops!
Don’t expect perfection. Know that those around you don’t expect perfection either.
One of the things we teach our team when it comes to communication is it’s OK to say you don’t know.
If we are on a client call and someone doesn’t know the answer to a question, that’s OK. Perhaps someone else can help – but if not, we simply say we’ll get back to them ASAP.
The fear of public speaking is often tied to the fear of failure. As Berkun noted, the key is to keep going and don’t let that fear of failure get in the way of being good.
2. Practice. Practice. Practice.
I was walking the hallways of MozCon this past July and I came across Wil Reynolds, headphones in, pacing the hallway, as animated as ever. His session was coming up and he was rehearsing his presentation.
Now, if you’ve ever seen him speak, you know he is one of the best out there. What does that tell us? If Reynolds has to practice, then so do we.
Whether you are giving a presentation in a conference room or a conference center, take the time to get it right. Outline what it is you want to say, read your slides out loud, and go over it.
Now, there are people out there who will tell you there’s such a thing as too much practice, and I don’t disagree (this is actually a pretty good article). That being said, knowing your material is never a bad thing.
Want to take practice to the next level?
Here are a few other ways to make the most of your practice sessions:
Record Yourself on Video
Yes, I realize that none of us like the sound of our voice or the way we look on camera but too bad. That’s what you sound like and that’s what you look like.
Instead, focus on the presentation itself.
Is what’s being said clear? Were there any stumbles? What should you change?
Practice with a Friend or Colleague
Before a recent presentation, I sat down with a fellow speaker and we each went through our decks.
He caught a few things I hadn’t and I was able to adjust my messaging ahead of my talk.
Know Your Environment
If you are going to be giving a presentation in a large conference room with 25 people and an echoing phone, then practice as if you are in a large conference room with 25 people and an echoing phone.
Heck, run a practice session in the room if possible. The same thing applies to speaking on a stage.
While you may not be able to practice on an actual stage, you should practice standing up. It’ll give you a better feel for your body language and any hand motions you may use.
3. Ask for Feedback
I’ll be the first to admit that feedback can hurt. After all, no one wants to be told what they aren’t good at.
The thing is, we aren’t going to get better living in a world where everyone tells us how amazing we are. I love when conferences send feedback after shows. It tells me where I can improve and what I should change for the next time.
But how do we get feedback in our daily lives, when we aren’t on a stage or at an event?
One of the things we do in our organization is to take notes during presentations. For example, when an account manager is reviewing a presentation, I note what they are doing well and what they can improve. When the meeting is over, we then go through the specific points.
Improving communication in real-time is difficult but the opportunity is there if you ask for it.
4. Turn to the Pros
A few days ago, my colleagues alerted me to the At&T “Just OK is Not OK” campaign. First off, the commercials are pretty funny and second, the broader point being, we don’t want just OK – we want the best.
If you want to be a great public speaker, spend time learning from the best.
Here are a few places to check out:
Everyone looks at TED Talks as the example for public speaking. While the speakers truly are some of the best out there, what makes it so valuable to me is the way they communicate a story in such a short amount of time.
Getting your point across and keeping an audience engaged is key to being a successful public speaker. Spend a lunch hour or two seeing how it’s done.
Toastmasters is an international organization focused on building communication and public speaking skills. They have been around a really long time and have local chapters in most cities.
I have several friends who swear by the meetings and we are actually using it to help grow our team’s skillset. Costs are minimal and it’s a great way to throw yourself into the fire.
Improv might be the scariest thing on this list but the great thing about it is you can take one or two classes and get a feel for the skills you need to be a good speaker.
Most require no commitment and it can be a fun way to learn. Hey, if it’s good enough for Michael Scott, it’s good enough for me.
5. Do it Again. And Again.
At this point, I think we are all familiar with Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept. Whether you believe it’s right or wrong, the idea that we can only become better at something by doing it over and over isn’t exactly shocking.
The same thing applies to public speaking. I have watched team members go from sounding like nervous nellies on phone calls to leading presentations with CEOs. I have watched in awe as fellow search colleagues grew from panelists to international keynote speakers. All of this was achieved by repetition.
If you have a bad presentation, focus on being better the next time. If you received less than stellar feedback, focus on taking that feedback and integrating it into your next presentation.
Perfection Is Impossible & That’s OK!
Despite what I may have thought my freshman year of college, I’ve come to realize that public speaking isn’t easy and certainly isn’t something most of us are born being good at. It takes practice and even the pros are likely backstage rehearsing.
Public speaking requires us to overcome our fears and be confident in what we know. Something that’s certainly easier said than done.
If you are looking to get into public speaking or improve your communication, I highly recommend relying on those around you.
Ask your boss or colleague to give you notes. Ask a friend or roommate to watch you practice. Remember, their feedback is only going to help you get better.
Most importantly, remember that perfection is impossible and if you mess up, it might just make you more interesting.
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