If you're on stage, your audience members will assume you're the expert and will treat you as such -- unless you give them a reason to believe otherwise.
Public speaking can be frightening, but for entrepreneurs who learn to take, and own, the podium, the benefits far outweigh the stage fright.
Succeeding as a small business is all about building trust with your consumers. According to Harvard University researchers, people trust eloquent speakers more than honest ones, even when the more articulate speaker isn't telling the whole truth. That doesn't mean you should start lying to get ahead, but it does mean that sharper speaking skills could improve your brand's perception.
Even if you aren't a natural, you can improve your public speaking with practice and a little support. Researchers at the University of West Australia found that students they studied who received reassuring messages before a speech reported less anxiety than those who did not.
So, if you can get past your anxiety, you'll find that public speaking has its perks: I met several of my largest Phone.com clients, for example, when they approached me after one of my speaking opportunities. In some of these cases, they were the only ones to approach me out of the entire crowd.
So, if you invest a bit of practice, you'll find that public speaking can help you meet new people, improve your presentations and strengthen your brand. Here are several tips to help you do that:
1. Eliminate ambiguity about your audience -- and your topic.
Don't just get to know your audience members the day of the speech -- research them beforehand. How many will be there? What do the demographics look like? Simplify your delivery if you're speaking to a group of laypeople, or get technical if your audience consists entirely of engineers.
Also recognize that simply knowing your topic isn't enough. Dig deeper and find out why your audience cares about this topic right now, what positions on the issues in your industry they hold and what kinds of questions you can expect to receive.
Also, be prepared to pivot: Once, when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was preparing for one of her speeches, she ditched her original presentation, which she described as "chock-full of facts and figures and nothing personal."
Instead, she changed tactics at the last minute to present emotional stories, and her speech became a viral hit.
2. Familiarize yourself with the environment.
Will you have video screens and a projector? Where are the lights; how are the seats arranged, and what is the dress code? The more you know about your speaking environment, the fewer hiccups you'll encounter on the day of the event -- and the more commanding and assertive presence you'll have, helping you make stronger connections with attendees.
As for the dress code, regardless of what they're wearing, make sure you wear something comfortable. Nothing exacerbates nerves like a too-tight shirt collar or pants that ride up.
3. Study the pros -- and yourself.
Practice your speech in front of a mirror. When you're ready, try it out on colleagues and friends. Open yourself to helpful criticism, and try not to take feedback personally. Accept opportunities to speak at smaller engagements to build your chops and acclimate to the role before you go after the bigger clients you really want to land.
If you feel that your presentation skills are shaky, find videos of previous sessions of the event and watch the successful speakers. As former TEDx talk participant Brooke Warner said, describing that experience: "There are countless videos to study, books to read and online resources from those who've walked before you. I consumed everything, and voraciously. I watched close to 50 talks, read two books,and read many many posts."
You might not sound quite as smooth as those who came before you, but you can pick up a few tips from watching professionals in a similar environment.
4. Start and finish strong -- with no apologies.
Spend extra time crafting the beginning and end of your speech. A strong start will help you get into a rhythm, while a powerful finish will help you drive the point home in case you start to stumble along the way. Do what comes naturally -- not every great speech needs a joke or tragic story to be memorable.
When you feel uncertain, your first instinct may be to apologize to your audience for your shortcomings. Don't do it. If you're on the stage, the audience will assume you're the expert and treat you as such unless you explicitly tell them not to.
5. Reap the rewards.
Even if half your audience exits, one impressed person could be the gateway to your next major contract. Whether you leave with dozens of leads or just spread a passionate message, appreciate that you were the organizer's choice, and take what you can from the experience.
You don't have to wait for audience members to approach you. Make clear that you'll be available to talk and connect in person after the speech and via your social media profiles or email in the subsequent days and weeks. Some leads might take longer to ruminate on your message, so make sure you're easy to find when they're ready to chat.
Don't let speech anxiety prevent you from making the connections that could take your company to the next level. Put these strategies into practice and start charming audiences immediately.