How to Speak Publicly Like an Adult

Cat at PodiumI’m waiting for the day that I can’t find a cat picture that correlates perfectly with my blog topic. I fear that day will never come.

Anyway, cheerio and welcome to another edition of ‘How to Be an Adult’, starring resident and supposedly legitimate adult: Grant Cushman. Today, we tackle a very important topic in our profession and in our lives in general: public speaking. Now, according to statistics that I literally just googled, 74% of people suffer from some form of Glossophobia (that’s fancy trustee talk for fear of speaking in a public venue). As I mentioned before, I’m an adult– so I don’t have time to fact check that data or wonder why the next study listed is titled ‘Urinary Frequency and Bladder Control Statistics’. But I’m gonna just assume this site and the data therein is legitimate and move forward.

Bathroom statistics aside, it’s a commonly held notion that public speaking is terrifying. Now, I’m not the best public speaker in the world, but I’m definitely in the top 2, so hopefully I can offer you some insight into my strategies for quelling oratory fears. If you’ve been a reader of my blog for a while, you know that I have problem with transitioning into lists, so here’s another picture of a cat so you’ll assume this segway was smooth…

Other Cat on Podium

You’d be surprised at how many pictures there are of cats on White House podiums (hint: there are 2).

TIP 1: Don’t draw attention (to flaws)

I was originally going to title this section ‘Don’t Apologize’. Then I realized that my devil-may-care-never-apologize-for-anything-ever lifestyle isn’t for everyone and that my sound advice would probably get misinterpreted.  What I mean by this is ‘don’t draw attention to or apologize for things that don’t need attention drawn to or apologizing for’ (that one doesn’t quite roll off the tongue).

I probably don’t need to tell you at this point, but a lot of things can go wrong in a presentation: your powerpoint might get corrupted, you might trip up on some words, the room may smell faintly of asparagus. Whatever happens, don’t linger too much on one fault or mistake. The audience wants you to succeed just as much as you do, so focusing on a silly mistake or hiccup will only ruin the flow of the presentation.

For example, I see counselors do this literally all the time:

Counselor: “Here at State University we have a pretty rigorous admission probress (guttural noise) progriss-Progress! Ah, sorry! Super long day. Where was I?”

While this sort of aside can add an element of personality to the presentation, you’re sacrificing your perception of oratory prowess for the chance at a pity chuckle from the local family that already laughed at your ‘changing majors four times’ joke. Why push the envelope? Pick yourself up, say the right word, and move on. No one probably noticed anyway. Unless I’m there. Then I totally did.

TIP 2: (Kind of) know your material

This one’s a little different and (admittedly) a bit more a matter of personal preference, but I usually strongly advise against writing out your entire speech and then delivering it verbatim from memory. In my opinion, there is nothing authentic about reciting something you wrote four days ago; this kind of strategy more often than not leads to a robotic, methodical, and subjectively boring experience for everyone involved. You already have so many things flying through your mind during a presentation that, if you’re worried about what specific word comes next, you’re just setting yourself up to come across as bland and scripted.

The strategy I generally employ when I’m preparing for a presentation is to literally talk to the mirror about the topic and craft enough comments for a bullet point. After that, I will organize my thoughts and try to see how I can add more to the bullet point. It’s important when writing a speech (or anything, in my opinion) that you say it out loud as often as possible. It’s incredibly common for something to sound good in your head and then have it completely fall flat because it has never left the confines of your cold, quirky brain.

For example, here is an excerpt from my critically acclaimed WACAC 2013 presentation “High School Visits and the Proper Care and Maintenance of Persian House Cats”:

Presentation

I have my points listed out, but nothing is written out in excess. Part of what makes a speech enjoyable is the human element that comes from speaking more naturally on a subject.

Tip 3: It’s okay (to be nervous)

I can pretty much guarantee that, if you look up public speaking tips, one of the top 10 tips will be some form of the beaten-to-death-mantra: RELAX. This advice is silly and you’re just going to add undue pressure on yourself by trying to force yourself into a state that your body is actively fighting against. Stress and anxiety before anything is your body’s way of focusing your energy towards its goal. This reaction should be embraced, not pushed aside. The real problem comes when you are fighting your nervousness, and then you get nervous because you think it’s bad to get nervous, so you’re even more nervous because your nervousness is making you nervous. #metacognitivetonguetwisters

If you’re nervous before you give that presentation–GOOD. Embrace it. Love it. Cherish that feeling and nurture it like a newborn. That feeling means you actually care about what you’re doing and you want to make it good. If you didn’t care at all, you wouldn’t care about getting better and you wouldn’t have gotten this far in this increasingly unorganized blog post.

Shift your perception of stress and you shift your perception on how stress affects you.

Let that knowledge bomb sink in for a second and then check out this Ted Talk which does a great job explaining this concept and how your perception of stress can affect your fear of public speaking (and everything else, for that matter):

Click here.

If you didn’t have time to watch the TED Talk, do yourself a favor and dog ear this page in your life for later viewing; it’s definitely worth your time.

TIP 4: Be yourself (even if you suck that day)

This is the piece of advice by which I live my life. Every morning I wake up and stare at myself in the mirror for my daily three hour self-affirmation, and it has gotten me where I am today (which may or may not be a statement of legitimizing veracity). I’m not gonna get all ‘after-school special’ on you, so let’s hop into how this concept affects your public speaking craft.

A lot of public speaking advice tells you to be confident when you’re speaking and to be persuasive with your language. The intentionally-not-referenced advice will tell you that if you want to be confident, you just have to act confident. As a result, you become so concerned with acting confident and persuasive that you lose the element that actually makes you confident and persuasive: authenticity.

Let’s go deeper. The human brain is good at picking up on subtle non-verbal social cues; a slight glance at the end of a sentence or an overly rehearsed motion can showcase more about you in two seconds than a thousand pre-crafted words ever could. That’s why authenticity is so important. If you’re so worried about portraying yourself as something other than yourself, then you’re not only going to lose the audience, but also going to lose the sense of comfort in simply being you.

Another part of being authentic is being okay with your ups and downs as a human being and, by extension, as a public speaker. There are some days where you walk into a session and none of your (obviously hilarious) jokes land; you feel like you’re speaking to a brick wall of condescending faces and slightly-downturned-phone-entrenched heads. And that’s alright.  Some presentations will fall flat, and the best thing you can do is to dust yourself off and trying again. You can dust it off and try, try again.

That’s it. Boom. Once again, feel free to take all, some, or absolutely none of my advice. Public speaking is an art, and finding what works best for you is all a part of becoming better. Take bits and pieces from other people’s styles and make them your own.

Comment, post, subscribe, retweet, or carrier pigeon me your thoughts. You can also let me know if you have any blog topic ideas, since I’m pretty much an expert on everything.  I’d love to take your topic and rant about it until I inevitably trail off into a lackluster conclusion. Kind of like this…

By Grant Cushman

P.S. Surprise! There are actually 3 photos of a cat on a White House podium!

Yet Another Cat on Podium

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