Let’s talk about… talks

Some people were just born public speakers. Others are terrible at it, they suffer from stage fright and should just avoid talking to crowds altogether.

That way of thinking is very convenient but, unfortunately (or fortunately), not supported by facts.

Most of us have attended some presentations or watched TED talks that left us with a feeling: “Wow, this guy knows how to get the audience’s attention! I’m so jealous, I wish I was like him/her”. What if I told you that this guy isn’t “a natural”, but has been working very hard to sound so? What if I told you that you can give talks that people would enjoy listening to?

If you asked my teenage self what my weakest point was, I’d probably respond “public speaking”. I still remember the day when for some weird reason I ended up at a public speaking competition. I’m pretty sure I had been forced to do that, otherwise I wouldn’t have even entered the room. The task was simple: we were given simple topics such as “Movies are better than books” or “Summer by the sea is better than in the mountains” and needed to give a short impromptu speech. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, some would say. Well, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t say anything – just stood there frantically looking for some words, but in the end ran away in tears.

My experience: formerly terrified of public speaking, now a TEDx speaker! Photo credit: Robert Gardner.

This was the day when I decided that something had to change. Even though I hated public speaking, I knew how important it is. Especially if you’re a student or a scientist – a conference here, a workshop there, we just have to communicate our research. So I started to push myself out of my comfort zone. First step: I signed up for all public speaking competitions I could find. Second: worked hard to prepare. I started to prepare speeches, present them to friends, family and theachers, ask for feedback. How did the competitions go? No astounding successes, to put it mildly. Some more tears and embarassing moments. But also more and more often I was able to give a presentation without getting into a state of panic.

Only a few years later I can say that I actually enjoy presenting, even in front of big audiences. Am I an amazing, charismatic, naturally talented speaker? Definitely not! But usually people don’t fall alseep during my presentations, while I don’t fall into tears. Let me share a few tips with you – tips that have worked for me and aren’t necessarily supported by any reasearch.

  1. Don’t write your speeches, unless forced to do so (for example, TED and TEDx organisers require a written script). Of course it’s easier to write a talk and memorise it than think on the spot, but there are some major disadventages. First, it requires a skill to sound natural while reciting a talk. Second, when you rely on your memory, you might blank out during your presentation and it’s quite hard to get back on track. I recommend writing the key points and practicing before, if possible (i.e. if it’s not an impromptu speech).
  2. Don’t focus on the audience. Do NOT imagine they’re all naked, it gets quite awkward, especially if you know people sitting there. Just look above their heads – it’ll seem that you’re looking straight in their eyes, which is exactly the effect you want. Blinding lights can actually help, because you won’t be able to see their reactions and stress out about them.
  3. Smile. Even if you hate every single member of the audience and would rather stay home watching cat videos, pretend it’s the happiest moment of your life. Fake it till you make it! The more you smile, the more you’re likely to enjoy whatever you’re doing, be it giving a talk or having blood drawn (ok, the last example is a bit exaggerated).
  4. Have a drink. I mean water. Skip coffee this time – it’ll not only get your blood pressure higher than necessary, but also your mouth will get really dry, which doesn’t help when you talk, trust me. I hope I don’t have to mention that you should save anything with % for the afterparty.
  5. Practice. Practice. Practice. And what should you do after you’ve practiced your talk so many times that you’re sick of it? Practice even more.

Some people indeed are more talented and more confident when it comes to public speaking. If you’re one of them, bad news: you also need to work really hard to sound so great. If you aren’t so lucky (like me), good news: with some effort you can become a charismatic and confident speaker. Keep practicing and good luck!

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