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When Public Speaking is Enemy #1

From your opening line to fielding questions, learn how to wow an audience of any size.
March 26, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/176212

It's happening again. Your pulse is racing, your palms are sweating, and your voice is choking up. No, you're not being robbed at gunpoint; you're about to address a group of your most promising potential investors.

Can public speaking actually cause such panic and dread? "Some people fear it more than they do death," says Kim Dower, author of Life Is a Series of Presentations and owner of Kim-From-L.A. Literary and Media Services. "The idea of failure in front of a group is terrifying. The anxiety is so real and so physical."

Whether it's a new business prospect or a band of venture capitalists you're trying to influence, the fear factor can drastically inhibit the delivery of your pitch. Even experts in their field often experience "imposter syndrome," Dower says. "We think when we get up, we won't know what we know. We don't believe our own talk."

And if you think your type of business excuses you from having to perform under such scrutiny, think again. Defeating your nerves and developing a gift for persuasive gab is critical to success in business.

"The two most important skills to your career success are the ability to speak and write well," says Diana Booher, a communication consultant to Fortune 500 clients, key-note speaker and author. "Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's what you have documented, e-mailed and filed for the world or what you've spoken in front of a group that gets noticed," she says.

The Power of Preparation
The good news is you can transform the apprehension and dread that consumes you prior to a presentation into the passion and positive energy you need to wow an individual or crowd. Preparation is what gives most polished speakers an advantage over others. This means knowing your audience and mission.

"Everyone listens and takes in information in a different way," Dower says. "Tailor your talk accordingly. For example, school teachers like to have an outline, as opposed to salespeople who tend to shoot from the hip and are more impromptu."

To make a winning first impression, you'll also need to look the part. For instance, if you're a woman talking to a group of businessmen, don't show up in a long skirt and shawl, Dower says. "Look like the people you're talking to." A good rule of thumb is to dress like the senior decision-maker in the group. You should also ensure your look doesn't compete with your message. Don't wear loud jewelry or anything that reveals too much cleavage.

Since people judge how credible you are by your appearance, your posture, movement, gestures, facial expressions and demeanor should be smooth and natural, Booher says. "If you're standing rigidly still, are breathless and not pausing, people can see through to your lack of self-assurance." If possible, she advises to behave as you would when with a group of friends, focusing on your facial animation, hand placement and energy level. If you're launching a new product line or trying to get a budget passed, it's that one-on-one connection you need to get others to believe and invest in you.

Also, before a presentation or speaking engagement, listen to the radio and watch television. Analyze why you switch from one station to the next and what makes certain guests annoying. Are they argumentative or defensive? Take note of these turn-offs and don't emulate them. Discover what is alluring about someone's style and copy it.

To relax before your opening remarks, Booher recommends finding your fans. "Don't glance at sour, grumpy-looking people who aren't with you. When you first start, you're the most nervous, so pick out smiling faces who are eager to be there and focus on them," she says.

Avoiding Common Mistakes
To draw your audience in early on, make sure you begin with your bottom line message. Poor communicators try to cover all their bases before giving the punch line, Booher says. People, however, tend to get lost in the details and start looking at their watches. Instead, walk in and start with your main point, then provide background and fill in the gaps, she advises.

Your likeability factor will also increase if you're perceived as humble, informal, kind, genuine and funny, rather than arrogant and aloof. However, Booher says to never start with humor. "If you're not good at it and people don't react favorably right off the bat, your confidence will be destroyed, and you may not recover."

Another common mistake is relying on PowerPoint presentations. "You become a slide narrator and put people to sleep most of the time," Booher adds. "Audio-visual technology should be your support--a reminder of what point comes next, not a crutch."

When organizing your speech, it's wise to overprepare. Anticipate questions so you're not caught off guard. If you get a question you didn't plan on, you can still save yourself by changing spots in the room or taking off your glasses to you buy yourself a few extra seconds. Honesty is another good policy to follow when you've been stumped. "People will respect and empathize with you if you respond honestly, saying, 'That's a very good question. I don't want to give you an incomplete answer,' or 'I'd like to double-check my figures. May I get back to you on that,'" Booher says. You can also use humor to deflect your embarrassment.

Above all, if a comment comes at you from left field, don't take it personally. Stick to the points you want to make, regardless of what you're asked. Don't go off message or on a tangent. Remain fueled by the passion you have for your ideas, Dower advises.

If you find yourself truly falling flat and losing your audience, rely on your presentation arsenal to switch gears. Use personal examples, statistics or jokes, or physical aids like brochures, quizzes and business cards to divert a question or change the direction of the conversation.

Overall, remain confident and remember the reasons for your talk, Dower says. "When we are there for some sort of higher reason, it takes away the self-consciousness, allowing us to focus and give to the group."