AM writes: I am being asked to give more talks as part of my job. Frankly, it scares me rigid (although I don't confess to this) and I usually end up with sleepless nights, which adds to the problem. Please can you give me some advice on how to prepare better and on doing the best job on the day.
I know exactly how you feel about standing up in front of large groups of strange people.
Technical stuff aside – I assume you know your subject – pause to think what works best when you yourself are in the audience.
My pet hate is to see someone rooted to their script. I could read it faster – they are adding absolutely nothing to the process. Rude as it is, I usually leave.
There are usually two reasons why this happens to speakers – nerves and insufficient preparation.
It is said that the art of spontaneity is great preparation. Never so true. The tack I usually take is to write my talk out meticulously word for word. I spend a great deal of time over this – hours, in fact. I then spend equal time memorising it. This is the bit which most people ignore but it separates the excellent from the passable or the poor speaker.
If I have the time, I memorise it to the point where I can ad lib on key points and wander round the stage with a roving microphone, interacting with the audience at a nonverbal level. This is maximum spontaneity. It also gives me the biggest buzz because nothing feels better than performing at your best.
If I do not have quite so much time to prepare, I familiarise myself with the script to a sufficient level so that on the day, although tied to the rostrum, I can put my finger at the start of each sentence, quickly scan the whole line or sentence, if possible, look up and speak to the audience. This again gives you the benefit of establishing non-verbal rapport.
In both cases, practise in front of a mirror so you can see your facial expressions. You will be shocked to see what a difference it makes when you smile. It is incredibly engaging for the audience. Do lots of it.
Another strategy – probably my favourite – is to give a brief introduction to the subject and allow the main part of the session to be in question and answer format. Obviously, you are naturally spontaneous in this situation and I find I am at my best here. The audience also get exactly what they want from it at an individual level.
Psychologically, the main reason for nerves is not wanting to show yourself up if does not go well. It is performance-related ego stuff.
When I was quaking in my shoes waiting to go on stage or do a TV or radio interview, I tried all the usual things such as deep breathing. My voice still came out as a squeak with my heart feeling like it was going to jump out of my throat. The best strategy I developed which I still use now – it always works – is to give myself a pep talk while I am waiting.
It goes something like this: “Why am I here? I am here for the benefit of the audience because they perceive me as an expert on my subject, whether I am or not. I wish to communicate in the best possible way for them to gain the insights and clarity they need from this session and to go away feeling it was really useful. I will be so thrilled if they find it really helpful. I know I will feel good as a result. This is my reward. At all times, especially the beginning, I will remember I am here for other people's benefit.”
Watch your heart rate go down, your thought process clear and your composure soar. You will love it. You should also find you sleep better the night before but it helps to spend a few minutes visualising the whole thing before you go to bed, several nights on the trot.
See yourself standing in front of your audience feeling happy, free of all nerves, clear and concise, having a great rapport and reception and everyone thrilled with the result. Good luck.
Fiona Price is managing director of Fiona Price & Partners and a professional mentor