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Becoming a Public Speaker — Go For It!

Cross posted from the Federal Communicators Network blog:

Is it really as hard as it looks? I asked myself this question many times when I decided to apply to become a speaker at the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington, DC. After 15 years of public service, I knew exactly what topic I wanted to speak about — How to Love Your Government Career. And I knew that an audience filled with hundreds of young aspiring leaders who had an interest in the federal government could benefit from my story. Although it was not my first time speaking publicly, I dared to take the stage among experienced keynote speakers which included high-ranking government officials and leaders from the public sector. I was truly inspired by the opportunity and chose to seize the moment rather than let it slip by as so many do who have a fear of public speaking.

So how do you prepare for your venture into public speaking and how do you make the most out of it? With planning, effort, and perhaps some training you’ll realize that it’s no different than anything else you try for the first time. You’re not the first person to feel nervous holding a microphone or standing up in a crowded room with all eyes on you.

Here are a Few Tips for Becoming a Public Speaker

  • Study other speakers around the world to discover what makes them great.
  • Watch TEDTalks, online videos, and lots of news — reporters are sometimes great to observe because they often improvise.
  • Read books, magazines, and web articles to learn what it takes to be a confident communicator.
  • Sign up for training events and attend public events to see how it’s done in person.
  • Join a Toastmasters Club to practice developing and giving your speech and to get helpful feedback in return.

I’ve given presentations for meetings at work, hosted events, and even stood in front of a classroom full of elementary students. But a professional speech has a different feel altogether, because your audience doesn’t know you yet and is expecting something useful and provocative in exchange for their time. You have to really think about what your audience wants to hear. As a speaker, you must provide the greatest value to your audience by delivering something meaningful that will positively impact their views or lives. Of course you know that anything of value will take time to perfect, so you must practice, practice, practice! Put any doubt aside and just do it. You’ll find that it’s not as hard as it looks.

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Profile Photo Kenneth Wells

I am a member of a Toastmasters club, and one piece of advice I give about observing other speakers is to watch pro wrestlers. I know it sounds wierd, but you need to see how they work a crowd, give their interviews, and even do impromptu tirades. They are some of the most polished speakers you will see. Try it and see for yourself!

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Profile Photo Mark Hammer

I’ve spoken to large packed halls, lectured to classes of 1000, as well as small seminars, and there isn’t all that much to it, really. A couple of rules of thumb:

1) Too many folks who get sweaty palms thinking about public speaking are thinking in terms of being graded or judged. With very few exceptions, no one is “gunning” for you. What people want from a public talk is the opportunity to be amused, a little inspired, reminded of what they already know and told that what they already know is not stupid, connected with others, and the sense that they’ve come away with a little more knowledge, or perhaps re-organized and more usable knowledge.

2) One does not have to pack everything you know into a talk. The information provided should be just enough to provoke thinking, and some interesting questions from the audience when you’re done. If anything, it looks MUCH better on one to be able to instantly respond to a question with more information, than it does to pack a talk with more details than the human mind can manage. Reserving information so as to be able to respond to questions also provides a place for the audience to “fit” that info, so it will be remembered better.

3) As my doctoral supervisor used to tell me: tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell them, then tell ’em what you told them. Introduction and recapitulation that provides coherence is rarely wasted time or effort.

4) There are few things that lead the mind to wander as much as listening to someone read notes or slides in a monotone voice. If they’re not looking AT you, then it probably has no relevance TO you, right…or that’s how it starts to feel. Provide yourself as much of an opportunity to LOOK at people, and look around the room, as possible. I find that slides or notes that give me a skeleton to work from, allow me to quickly glance, get my cues, and then actually talk TO people. If the text on any slides is slightly cryptic, then people will want to listen to you to fill in their gaps.

5) Being charming or funny has its place (after all, people want to feel connected), but can be overrated. Being coherent is much better. If you have to convey information, the hallmark of a great talk is that people leave and are able to convey to others not in attendance what you told them. You don’t want to yammer on like Ben Stein, but if they remember only the jokes, you haven’t done your job.

6) One of the most consistently engaging public speakers I’ve ever seen is noted intelligence theorist Robert Sternberg. He always begins with an anecdote that gives everyone in the room a sense that they know plenty already about what is about to be discussed/presented. Once they have a mental framework and sense of familiarity with the content, it becomes much easier to hold that audience and fill up their little noggins with material they will remember after they leave.

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