I was stressing over an upcoming keynote when my husband asked me why I was so worked up about it. There will be over 1,000 people there I told him. So what, he wondered out loud. When you were on TV, you used to speak to millions of people and it never bothered you.
Well, that’s different, I informed him. I didn’t have to look at them!
That’s when the light bulb went off. Yes, I make my living teaching people how to become better communicators and for the most part, I’m a confident speaker. But his remarks sparked a new level of understanding regarding our clients. It’s far easier to present to people when you don’t have to look them in the eye. And it’s far less nerve-wracking when people are not staring back at you.
Compared to what our clients must do on platforms and in meetings in the glare of judgmental eyeballs, talking to a television camera is a cinch. Unlike a real audience, the camera doesn’t react. It doesn’t scowl, text, sleep or stare back at you in defiance.
Public speaking can rattle even the most seasoned communicator. It’s a natural fear and a good fear. How can this type of terror be good you’re probably wondering? Because if you aren’t nervous, it means you don’t care about how you’re coming across. Seasoned speakers don’t get rid of their fears. They simply learn how to manage those shaky nerves.
Former President Bill Clinton, often referred to as a master communicator, was a terrible public speaker. In fact, he was almost booed off the stage during a rambling 1988 keynote at the Democratic National Convention where his biggest applause was heard when he said “in conclusion.” Since then, Clinton has spent much of his career focusing on becoming the best communicator he can be.
Billionaire businessman Warren Buffet was another terrified communicator. Published articles claim Buffet was so nervous that he would choose college classes where he didn’t have to get up and speak in front of people. All of that changed when he started his career and discovered he could never reach his full potential if he couldn’t clearly communicate his ideas to others.
Then there’s former Vie President Al Gore. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Gore was awful. I actually campaigned with him when I ran for Pennsylvania State House the same year. I remember his stiff arm around my shoulders as we posed for pictures and when reporters asked for comments, he sounded as if he was trying to recall a memorized script.
It wasn’t until he launched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth that he connected with the public in a genuine heartfelt way. Gone were the scripts and pretenses. Passion and personality took center stage.
Too many people equate public speaking with performing. While you are certainly ‘on’ anytime you stand in front of a camera or a room, people didn’t come to see an act or a slide show. They came to hear you.
Back in my television days, viewers always seemed so surprised when the person on camera acted the same off camera. It’s the same in the business world. People want to hear from the person they talked to in the hallway or over a cup of coffee, not a rigid version of that person who stands in front of a room reading PowerPoint slides to the audience.
Here are some simple tips to help you become a more natural communicator.
Think of communicating as having conversation instead of giving a presentation. Conversations are more animated. They allow for pauses, facial expressions and gestures that occur naturally.
- Tell a story. Create a central theme and then share examples, anecdotes and personal experiences to make the talk memorable and relevant to your audience. This helps people visualize how information and ideas can benefit or apply to them.
- Opens and closes are key which is why you should practice them until they simply roll off your tongue. If you get off to a good start, you’ll gain momentum. If you close with a strong statement, you won’t ramble.
- Internalize, don’t memorize which means practicing out-loud. The most natural speakers are the most practiced speakers. They rehearse every aspect of their talks over and over again until the words sound natural.
Most of us are not born with verbal courage. It’s an expertise that’s often honed after making mistakes, feeling embarrassed or learning that your not-so-terrific communication skills are impeding your success. But you owe it to yourself and your listeners to speak up and speak well. When you don’t, you may be robbing them of unique insight and experiences that can impact their decisions and affect their lives.
And if you make a mistake or flub a few words, which you will from time to time, it’s no big deal. People want the real you. And they’ll take comfort knowing they too are in good company!