What I Learned About Public Speaking From Starting My First Speaking Tour
Just two months ago, I kicked off something I've never done before: a speaking tour.
Based on my book Her Big Idea, my talk wrestles with big questions surrounding the self-doubt we all feel when considering action upon our ideas, with the ultimate message as the encouragement to just go for it and start before you're ready.
So, taking my own advice, I embarked on my speaking tour. I started before I was ready, and launched my tour with a speech at Harvard, and expanded to Columbia, Yale, Northeastern and the University of Colorado at Boulder in the past two months. Here's what I learned from the six speeches I gave as a new speaker.
1. Be 100 percent, totally yourself in front of a crowd.
I know this sounds cliche, but it's hard to get up in front of a room of people and feel like you can act authentically, like the way you'd talk to your best friend. You may feel that you have to mold yourself to a specific crowd or act more "professional" or "professor-like" to be taken seriously. Audiences don't want that.
At one of the first talks I gave, I could sense that the energy in the room was low. It was around 4 p.m., and the audience had been in conference since the early morning. Since it was my third talk, I felt comfortable enough with myself that I simply eased into my content, cracking jokes, making fun of myself and injecting energy with my bubbly personality. The audience immediately loosened up, laughed at my jokes and I noticed how many in the audience physically leaned in because I approached them as a room full of friends rather than as a "class" or audience.
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, exercises this same authentic approach in her talks ... and actually broke Instagram momentarily during her talk at the MA Conference for Women. In her talk, she made fun of herself and her early days rather than keeping it serious or boasting about her success. It resonated so much with the audience that she earned 2,000 followers in 10 minutes, which momentarily overwhelmed Instagram.
Being truly yourself is naturally magnetizing for an audience. They want to be entertained.
2. Add something new to your speech every time you give it.
By the fourth time I gave my speech, I was bored with my own content, so I rushed through. It's great to have your speech memorized for the first and second time you give it, but by the third time, you run the risk of sounding monotone. The audience can tell if you aren't excited by what you're saying, so rather than feigning enthusiasm, add something new every time.
You can choose what to add based on new epiphanies, your answers to audience questions from past speeches or from something you impromptu added the last time you spoke. Whatever it is ... shake it up. If you aren't on your toes, the audience isn't on theirs.
3. But, practice the first three slides many, many times.
If you're prone to stage fright, make sure that the first three slides of your talk are second nature. The anxiety is at its worst when you first start talking, before you find your rhythm and start making eye contact with individual audience members. Marjorie North consults with politicians on public speaking, and she shared in an article for Harvard Extension School that the best way to beat the nerves is to prepare, prepare, prepare some more ... as much as it takes. By leaning on perfect memorization of the very beginning of your talk, you'll be able to allocate more intellectual energy to calming yourself down and stepping into control and ownership.
4. Engage the audience frequently.
The first time that I gave the speech, I stared into a sea of neutral faces. I thought, undoubtedly, that I had just given the most boring speech of all time, so was I truly surprised by the flood of positive response afterward. It made me realize: Very few people actually make facial expressions when listening to and processing information, because they're in a crowd.
Related: How to Become a World Class Speaker
Jesse Scinto teaches public speaking at Columbia, and in an article for Fast Company, he recommended asking for a "show of hands" as a way of engaging the audience, because it helps audience members know where they stand within the crowd. So, ask for a "show of hands" for a relatable topic (for example: I talk about Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday" in my speech, and ask for a show of hands for who knows it). Exercise this tactic of engagement three or four times during a talk. It will prove to you that the audience is listening (thus, giving you the assurance that you're doing a good job), and make them feel more involved.
5. Offer real help beyond the talk.
Some of the best speaking advice I've ever received is to find a way for your audience to engage with you long after the talk is over, and the best way to do this is to offer continuous value. At first, I thought that asking them to follow me on Instagram would do the trick. While this works, it didn't have quite the effect I was hoping for.
One of Tony Robbins' top three public speaking tips is "add more value than anyone expects." Go deeper than they expect and give more than they expect.
One of my talks was in front of 300 high school girls, and I was asked to incorporate some advice on college admissions into my personal branding topic. At the end of the talk, I offered to look at every single one of their college essays and offer my edits. Let me tell you, the energy in the room was electric after I said that.
I knew that it may be crazy of me, busy as I am, to take on the editing role for 300 girls ... but I also knew that I wanted to "put my money where my mouth is" and prove that I support them beyond my talk. Only four girls sent me their essays, but dozens told me how much it meant to them that I offered.
If there's some way that you can offer real help -- providing legal resources, 15-minute coaching sessions, connections within your industry -- offer it. Giving a talk should be about helping an audience, and forging a real, sustainable connection with every audience member.
We all have a message worth sharing, and sometimes we have to push ourselves to share it. I promise you, six talks in -- it's worth it.