There are a few things that people say to me when we start digging into their public speaking. I think of it as that thing you do when you feel like you are about to be stretched. You get a bit defensive.
In my case, when I am being stretched (or taking on feedback), I find myself saying things in a high voice like “I have got better at <insert criticised area>” or “You should have seen me 6 months ago…!” And the air is filled with my awkward laughter.
When I am the one getting people ready to improve their speaking skills, I hear this one a lot from my clients: “I am OK once I get started”… In fact, one of them openly admitted recently “I just find it so hard to start the damn thing”.
Starting a talk rarely feels comfortable.
It’s like when you go to introduce yourself to someone, cold. It’s hard. It feels awkward. There is a bump in the road you have to get over, but it feels like a wall you’ll crash in to.
Same when starting a talk. So here are some of the tools I use with my clients to help them through that bit.
- Start in the middle (or at least as far in as you can)
When I teach storytelling I get the class to start with the problem or the mistake that has happened – we often think this is the middle of the story. It’s not. It’s actually where the story begins.
The trick in all good talks is to start further in than you think. We worry too much about the setup and the context. For example:
“There’s a moment when you lose something, that your heart sinks, time stops and you think – nothing is going to be the same again”
Is a better start than “Yesterday I was the park, the birds were singing, and the sun was beaming down. I had this really great back-pack, that I bought the day before, and I thought that I had everything with me but I didn’t”
Dawdling in the detail lands you in the depths of dreary.
The same applies to when you are prepping. A client said to me recently that when they were writing they weren’t sure how to begin. Thinking we have to have a grand beginning can hold everything back. The trick is to just get going, the order can come later. As can the killer first line.
And more often than not once the story is written a great headline pings out at you.
2. Never settle for bog-standard
The adage “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you have said” has been taken so literally that I keep coming across people starting their presentations with the line: “I am here to talk to you about…”
The best first line I ever heard was:
“This talk will start when there is an earthquake” …
It was followed by a stretch of silence about 2 minutes long (which on stage is a lifetime). I was in.
The speaker, it turned out, is a dancer who had implants put in her feet to sense the seismic activity of the earth. There are earthquakes all the time as the earth moves beneath us, so when the plates move, her feet vibrate. She was fascinating and captivating.
Imagine she had started with “Today I want to talk to you about some implants I have in my feet”
It’s just not that interesting.
3. Cliches are cliches for a reason
The problem with trying to land a great first line is that you stray into sounding cliched. And in a bid to not sound cliched you then start avoiding the cliche. And then you just come back round to “Today I am here to talk to you about…” #yawn
Cliches are cliches because they work:
“At the end of the day…”
“The bottom line is…”
“Only time will tell…”
Just because StoneHenge / Disney World is popular doesn’t mean you don’t go.
Some people feel that cliches mean that you sound like everyone else, and yes this can be true. But, I see cliches as a town you have to go through to get to the destination of “you”, and if you don’t go through it, you won’t find the right you.
So use cliches, because people will hear the familiarity in them, and then move through them to find your own way of saying it.
As an aside, beware: introducing yourself is underrated. While you don’t need to introduce yourself if you have been introduced, if you do – speak slowly and clearly.
Many people I work with rattle out their name and where they are from as quickly as possible because it’s boring or it feels weird.
Introducing yourself is a chance for people to tune into you – especially if you are speaking in a place where you’re the one with a strong accent. It also allows them to get to know you, and it indicates how important what you have to say is. Plus what’s the point of you standing there and saying something revolutionary, if the audience can’t attribute it to you because you said
“Hellomnameisclaregrndand I am a cnsmerbehvier specialist”
Your opening line is the opportunity for your audience to go “OK I am going to invest into listening to this!”. Take the time to make it a good one.
Everyone has to do presenting from time to time. It can be in a formal setting, it could be an interview, or it could simply be in a meeting – and if it’s in a meeting it might not actually be a presentation – it could be you just want to make a point.
In any form of public speaking situations asking yourself these 3 questions beforehand could get you everything you want!
- What do I want out of this?
Setting our own bar is vital before any presentation. When you establish the point you want to make, and what you want the outcome to be for you, then you can control the content of the presentation and be confident with it.
2. What do I want them to remember?
This is about making sure your audience walks away with one clear message. And it ensures that when you are presenting you can make sure your theme shines through,
3. Who am I speaking to?
Years ago I heard Alec Baldwin say on his podcast “Here’s The Thing…” that when he interviewed people he always thought about who they were, and what they would be expecting?
In his case, he was thinking that if he was interviewing a huge record label boss versus a politician, versus a comedian, he might ask his questions in a certain way, or think of experiences he could relate to with them.
You can make some simple assumptions about the person you are going to attempt to connect with. For example, if you know the audience will all be lawyers you can make some assumptions about what is important to them that day. Or if you are going for a meeting with a CEO you can assume they are busy and not waste your time getting to your point.
These three questions never fail to help my clients through sticky situations, the content they are unsure about sharing or meetings they are nervous about. So if you are in a similar situation – these 3 questions will not let you down.
I truly believe that being a great communicator can change your world – and that includes the way you talk to yourself.
We all have the evil inner critic that is quick to be hard on ourselves. For some, it is louder than others. For me, it’s sometimes not even a voice, just a feeling that I can’t, or I shouldn’t, or I won’t be able to.
I come across negative self talk all the time from my clients. The radio presenter who thinks they will sound cheesy if they say something, the TV broadcaster who doesn’t think they can talk to their boss about the future because they won’t want to hear it, the business owner who doesn’t think they can stand on a stage and tell their story. Most of all, when you are putting yourself out there it is really easy to tell yourself that you aren’t good enough and that all you have to do is get through the presentation.
The result is exactly that – a mediocre, forgettable presentation.
Henry Ford once said “The man who thinks he can, and the man who thinks he can’t, is usually right”.
Here are the 3 tips I give to change the self-talk:
- “I love myself”
This is simple. In your quiet moments, get into the habit of repeating the words just say ‘I love myself, I love myself…” in my head. In Barry McDonagh’s book “The DARE Response” this is the advice he gives as the culmination of all the reading he has done. This is the one way that you can change your self-talk and the way you feel about yourself. (Read the book too – it’s excellent).
I have suggested this to friends and clients, some of them say that they don’t believe it, or that it sounds tinny and thin when they hear it.
It’s hard to convince yourself you are worthy of your own love when you have spent so much time bashing yourself. So just keep repeating it. The tinny and weak sounds become healthy and more real.
You can’t give what you haven’t got, and so when you believe in yourself it is easier to put yourself “out there” and speak.
2. Change Your Story (with help from Gratitude)
Our thoughts are the stories we have told ourselves about the experiences we have had, or are having. It’s hard to change an experience, but you can change your story. On top of that (if you are struggling with how to change that story), starting with gratitude is a great way to ground your thoughts so that you can make that change.
I do a lot of CrossFit and recently the sessions have included running. I am always a slow runner. In fact, whenever running comes up on the board I say to myself ‘ugh I am a terrible runner”. This week we had a session where we had to do 4, 800-metre runs (interspersed with 25 overhead squats!).
On the first run, my head said “ugh I am a terrible runner, why are you doing this, you’re never going to finish this session in the time” and I felt sluggish, rubbish and slow. I looked at the clock and decided there was no way that I would make the 25-minute time cap.
Halfway through the second run I had a word with myself: “yes you are a slow runner, but you are not a terrible runner – change this self-talk please”. So I changed it to say “I am grateful for my legs – I am so lucky I can run” and (because I was getting very tired!) I shortened it to “Can run, Good runner” every step!
After the 4th run, I made it over the line at 24 minutes and 59 seconds!
By changing my self-talk and committing to it – a hideous experience was made a lot better: I completed the session and in the time as well. It all started with gratitude.
- Take down the thoughts
In the book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron gives some great advice around quelling the inner critic in our head.
Her technique is to write down the negative thought she calls it the “blurt” – eg “You are not good enough at that to do this”. And then turn it into a positive thought, an “affirmation”.
Even better you might want to take the negative thought, and try writing 5 affirmations against it.
It always strikes me that our inner critic can be so mean! You would never tell someone else the things that your inner critic says to you. So be kind to yourself, back yourself and defend yourself.
Everyone has the inner critic. Everyone.
Before every talk, workshop or session I do, my inner critic has told me that this is going to be awful and that everyone will know this already, that I am not telling them anything new so what’s the point? But I fight through it, I change the story and I defend myself against the thoughts. Mostly I say “I can do this” or “I love myself” and then, I get a thrill from reading the feedback forms at the end of the sessions.
There are, of course, many elements that have to come together in order for people to do what you want. One of those elements lies in the language you choose to instruct them.
When my kids were little, I went on an “Incredible Years” parenting course, not just because there was a free creche and I got a break – honest! Mainly because my neighbour had done the course and her son was so well behaved! He did everything she asked him to do.
I HAD to know her secret.
So I went on the course. And here is what I learned:
Ask people to do what you want them to do.
- Speak in the positive
Why? Because your unconscious mind hears positive instruction.
When you see a child carrying a glass of water, and they are tottering towards a table, and it looks like they are going to spill it, what do you hear their parents say?
“Don’t spill the water!!”
Your brain doesn’t hear the “Don’t” – especially when you are a kid. And more often than not you can guarantee that that child will actively spill the water. That’s what they think they’ve been told to do.
Asking people what you want them to do (rather than what you don’t want them to do) has real results. When we learned this Mr C and I got really creative with the kids:
“Keep your feet on the floor!” when they thought climbing on things was OK and it wasn’t.
“Put your hands on your tummy” when we wanted them not to touch anything in the shops.
It worked more than “Don’t touch that” ever did. And the added bonus is that if you ask people to do what you want them to do – it’s easier to reward them for doing it. Creating a great cycle of positive reward!
2. Be clear with what you want
That’s it. If you want someone to do something for you then you have to ask them explicitly what it is you want them to do. One thought per instruction. The minute you ask for more than one thing, or you start to clutter the request, people won’t hear it.
Less is 100% more.
I looked up at the audience to see them on their phones or staring at the ceiling and one of them doing some emails. They were bored. I had lost them.
I knew why.
I was reading them a list of bullet points from a screen. I hadn’t put the effort into the one thing I always put effort into, because, I was supply teaching, standing in for someone else.
I had fallen into the biggest trap by mistake. I had forgotten the golden rule about engaging the audience.
Content FIRST. Platform second.
When it comes to marketing or speaking, or spreading a message to anyone, or any form of communication, it’s easy to become obsessed with the platform.
You feel the pressure of standing on the stage, or you get thinking about which platforms people will see your ad on… but it’s the CONTENT that comes first.
Sounds obvious right? well, It’s not! Because it even took broadcast media quite a while to suss it out too.
About fifteen years ago I was in the depths of working in Radio. Radio: the traditional broadcast medium where we put content together, blasted it out through speakers and people listened – there was no other choice. Audience engagement was pretty easy.
At the time we were starting to rethink how Radio was working. Twitter and Facebook were starting to grow, and we were aware that youtube was starting to be a place people went for information. We sat in a room and decided that it had to evolve and we came up with the idea that we should put the brand of the Radio Station in the middle, and then engage with our audience on as many platforms as possible.
This approach worked. This approach stuck.
So if you are ever sat in a meeting where someone says “we just need to do some facebook ads” or “we should get some videos on youtube” they are platform gazing, rather than focusing on the content.
For content to engage with your audience you need to go through the following 3 steps:
1) What is your point? (Also, what do you want to get out of it?)
2) What do you want your audience to remember, and feel?
3) Who are you talking to? Where are they, and what are they needing?
It is only when you’re at that third point do you begin to work out what platform will work best and how you tweak it to the platform.
My mistake was to try and deliver someone else’s content without thinking “what is MY point?” or what did I want them to remember? I was just worried that the powerpoint slides made sense. And because of that – I lost the audience.
If you are communicating in any way: Content First, Platform Second.