Like many people, I was very shy teenager, and public speaking was my worst nightmare. Just walking up to the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom would give me the shivers. Except for a few close friends, I found it difficult to carry on conversations with acquaintances and strangers. What did one talk about? How did one avoid embarrassing faux pas?
Eventually, I realized I needed to overcome this fear, and for inspiration I turned to my father. The man has been blessed with the ‘gift of gab’ and has been known to talk his way out of speeding tickets, into free meals, a free refrigerator, and free car service, among other things. He has mastered the art of connecting with his audience on any topic, and making others feel immediately comfortable. I am not suggesting that he does this in a manipulative way to get free things. That’s just a perk. His secret is his genuine interest in other people. This invaluable lesson is really at the heart of creating rewarding personal interactions.
Entering college, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and declared myself a Journalism major. My classes, assignments, and excellent professors gave me a blueprint for striking up a conversation with just about anyone. I soon realized that everyone has an interesting story to tell and a lesson to teach, and it was my job to help them share it. This helped me overcome my fear of awkward conversations by turning the focus from myself to the other person.
A few years later, I started coaching track, a job which required me to speak to the team on a daily basis, hold their attention, and convince them to do what I told them to do. This was a particularly tough nut to crack, as anyone who knows a teenager will tell you. However, I beat the odds and succeeded (60% of the time, every time). I learned how to succinctly present my information, ask for questions, and repeat basic principles.
Theresa’s Tips for Public Speaking Like a Pro
I’ve come a long way on my journey toward becoming a skilled public speaker, but it wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t easy. I’d like to share a few of the important things I’ve learned that have helped me become more comfortable speaking before an audience:
- The secret to connecting with your audience is to develop a genuine interest in other people and what they have to say.
- You can learn something valuable from every person you speak with. Focus on the win-win in every conversation.
- When speaking to an individual, try to immediately discover a common interest.
- Be a little self-effacing. No need to be overly critical but a few well-timed jabs at yourself puts other people at ease by showing that you don’t take yourself too seriously.
- When appropriate, throw in a joke or a pun. Watch your audience’s reaction to see if you should continue with a second.
- Avoid excessive gesturing. It’s not European, it just makes you look nervous.
- Pause to ask for questions during your speech, not just at the end.
- Smile a lot.
For another expert’s point of view (I flatter myself), check out James Blute’s blog post on this topic.