Before she receives her Master’s degree, my client will have to present and defend her thesis. With admirable foresight, she came to me four months in advance to work on her presentation skills and, in particular, her comfort level with public speaking.
For many people, one of the terrors associated with public speaking is the fear of being judged and criticized. In the vast majority of presentations, this fear is groundless. The audience is no more judging and criticizing you than you are when listening to someone else. They want you to do well. They’re already “on your side”. My advice to clients with this fear is always the same: stop looking for approval from others and simply focus on the quality you can give to them. The more you focus on giving, the less you will worry about what’s coming back to you.
My client’s situation is different, though, because she really does need the approval of the panel of professors in order to graduate. What then? How do you prepare your mind and emotions when you really are being judged?
I spent much of my childhood in similar situations. In my case it was a seemingly endless round of piano or singing exams and music festivals. Nearly every time I was required to make music, my performance was being evaluated and graded. What I didn’t understand in those days was that I was not being judged; my performance was. My worthiness as a human being was not in question. Whatever happened in the performance, I would still be a valuable, worthy human being.
My client already knows she will receive her Master’s degree. She knows her research is good. Yes, she may have to stick up for her conclusions and explain her reasoning, but if there were any serious problems, her advisors would have told her long ago. Her discomfort with presenting her thesis isn’t based in concern over its quality but in an unconscious fear that her quality as a person is being evaluated along with her paper. Our preparation for her presentation will be to make a clear distinction between who she is and the work she has been doing. She is far more than her Master’s thesis.
No human being is less or more valuable than any other human being. Yes, we all make choices, some wiser than others. Yes, we all do things, some of which are of greater quality than others. But our humanity, the essence of what makes us a living being, is unassailable. I’m advising my client to view her panel of judges as her fellow human beings. She and they are equal human beings, regardless of their position in the university hierarchy. In our coaching sessions, we’ll work toward developing a perspective in which she presents her thesis as a colleague, respecting herself and sharing her research with respected fellow colleagues. Her presentation will be a company of equals in which my client gives her time, her energy, her warmth, her connection, and, yes, her information. No different than any other effective presentation.
As I see it, the key to conquering stage fright lies in giving, whether your work is being judged or not. It lies in being more interested in your audience than you are in yourself. It’s in sharing the best of your humanity and reaching out to touch the best of humanity in others. When you reach out, your presentation is always more effective than if you stay bound up in fear for yourself. No one has the right, or even the ability, to judge you as a person. Prepare as well as you can, focus on giving value and let the results be whatever they will be. Your value as a human being is never in question.
“I’m fine talking to small groups,” he said, “but this time I have to present to 50 or 60 people. It’s freaking me out!”
What my client didn’t realize is that speaking to large groups is no different than speaking to small ones. You use exactly the same skills. He had a problem simply because he wasn’t thinking correctly.
Your thinking determines your experience. If you have a similar problem the first step to solving it is to recognize that your emotions are born out of your thoughts. They don’t arrive out of nowhere, creating havoc in your heartbeat and your sweat glands. They are a direct result of the thoughts roaming around in your head. When you control your thinking, you control your emotions. If you feel as if you’re freaking out, you’re thinking thoughts that don’t serve you. You are not at the mercy of your thoughts. Discipline them to go only where they will help you. Let’s look at a few thoughts that do serve you.
The audience is your partner. Perhaps without being aware of it, people who fear speaking to large groups have a perspective of the audience as critics, judges or even adversaries. That’s self-sabotaging thinking. The fact is that the audience cannot hear your presentation without you. They need you and want you. You can’t give your presentation without them. You are two halves of one whole. You belong together. All your audience wants is to connect with a genuine person and receive something of value to take away with them. They’re not ogres. They’re just people, just like you. The more you think in terms of “us together” instead of “me versus them out there”, the more comfortable you will feel with them.
Have one-on-one conversations. Consider this: you can’t speak to a group; you can only speak to individuals. Every person in every seat is an individual, with their own mind and their own feelings. They are not listening to you as a group, but as individuals. Stop thinking in terms of “group,” of whatever size, and think in terms of individuals. And then talk to them as individuals. What do you do when you’re having a conversation with one other person? You meet his or her eyes, and you talk. You do the same thing with an audience. Meet one person’s eyes and talk briefly only to him or her. Move your gaze to someone else, meet eyes and talk briefly. Do this throughout your presentation. Guess what? You haven’t presented to a large group. You’ve had brief one-on-one conversations with numerous people, one after the other.
Be the host. What would your thoughts be if a treasured friend came to your home? How would you behave? Your sole interest would be to make that friend feel welcome. Your entire focus would be to ensure that he or she had a good experience. You wouldn’t be worried about what they thought of you. Your relationship is too positive to mess with that negative stuff. Treat your audience members as if they are your treasured friends and welcome them into your home. In this case, your home is your presentation. You are the host of the party. You smile. You’re warm and welcoming. And remember, a party isn’t about the host. It’s about the guests. It’s about ensuring that they have a good time. You do that by preparing well, making sure your thoughts are organized, having quality content and rehearsing ahead of time. Given that background, when you begin to speak your thinking is focused on making sure each individual receives something of value. It makes no difference how many individuals are out there. What makes a difference is your thinking.
Yesterday I met a man from Zimbabwe. He told me that his mother and father were from two different African countries, and that he, himself, spoke five languages. He said that when talking with friends or on the phone, his mind sometimes gets stuck searching for the right word in the right language. He asked me what he could do about that. My answer? Simply stop talking while you think.
Like most people, my new friend had the mistaken impression that fluent speech requires an uninterrupted stream of sound. He thought his words should flow continuously from his tongue. In my own experience, our brain doesn’t work that way. It gives out and takes in information in blocks or bursts, and both speaker and listener need a slight break between the bursts. Fluent speech incorporates pauses just as music incorporates rests, or silences.
Most of us don’t have the challenge of juggling five languages in our head, but we all have a considerable vocabulary to choose from in whatever language we speak. Just as you sometimes have to wait for your computer to catch up with your requests, you sometimes have to wait for your brain to provide the word you’ve requested. There’s no need fill the silence with “um”, “you know”, “right?” or “OK?” Simply pause and let your brain catch up. Listen to the people around you and notice that, now and then, everybody has to stop and think briefly of what to say next. Why should you be super human and not have to do the same? In fact, a speaker who is comfortable with pauses broadcasts a sense of assurance to her audience.
Many speakers fear that if they stop producing sound, they will lose their listeners’ attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. Speech without pauses becomes a barrage. The listener’s brain is far more likely to tune out in the face of an avalanche of words than if the speaker pauses to take a breath. The listener’s brain has a chance to “breathe” with the speaker. It reminds me of the composer Igor Stravinsky, who disliked the pipe organ, complaining, “The monster doesn’t breathe.” Speaker and listener instinctively feel a need for the natural rhythm of breathing in and out.
The listener’s brain works the same way as the speaker’s brain, in bursts and blocks. The short pause while the speaker searches for the next block of words is when the listener’s brain takes in and processes the block the speaker has just given.
It’s the speaker’s responsibility to do everything possible to help the listener understand. Brief breaks in speech help the listener keep incoming information sorted and categorized. A continuous stream of words and ideas gets all jumbled up inside our head. You do your listener a favour when you give him or her pauses in which to absorb and process what you’re saying.
How long is a pause? That depends on what you’ve just said and where you’re going next. Actors think in terms of “beats”. A comedian will often wait a beat before delivering the punch line. A beat is about a second. Your audience will not immediately become uncomfortable if you wait a beat or two. In fact, it heightens their interest. A pause of ten seconds or more can have a dramatic effect after a penetrating rhetorical question.
While we’re on the subject of searching for words, please use simple language. We all want to feel important and respected, but using complex, multi-syllable words is not the way to achieve it. That kind of language merely obscures the meaning and makes the speaker look needy. Respect your audience by speaking plain language that’s quick and easy to grasp. Plain language serves you, too. Wouldn’t you rather have someone say to you, “I really got what you were saying,” than “You have such a big vocabulary!”
Searching for a word? Pause, take a breath and then choose the simplest words possible to clothe your idea.
Caller (unknown, young, female voice in a casual, offhand tone): Hi, how’re you?
Me (abrupt change to formal tone): Who’s calling, please?
Caller: I’m from XYZ Financial (the name went by too fast for me to catch). I’m just calling to let you know you’ve been pre-approved for a line of credit.
Me: Thank you, we don’t want it.
End of call.
Let’s assume this wasn’t a scam. The voice sounded too young and inexperienced for its owner even to dream of making money out of deception. However, there were so many disastrous elements in this call, it was doomed from the start. The mistakes were extreme in this case, but they occur in varying degrees with great frequency.
Talking on the telephone is public speaking.
That’s especially true in business. Unlike an in-person speaking event, where the listener comes to hear the speaker, a telephone caller enters the listener’s personal space, often uninvited, and needs to behave with due respect. There are rules to follow if you want your call to be effective.
No matter what the situation, a listener will only respond to a speaker if he or she has a perception that the speaker is trustworthy. Perceptions are formed almost instantaneously in the emotional/instinctive part of the brain, and are therefore strongly influenced by first impressions. On the telephone, you don’t have visuals to help you make a good first impression, so everything depends on what you say and how you say it – from the get-go.
Family and friends are recognized immediately by their voice. Sometimes conversations seem to pick up where they left off from the last one, with very little preamble. But if there’s any chance the person you’re calling won’t recognize you right away, I think your first responsibility is to let them know who you are. And not just your given name, either. If I’ve never spoken to you before, I want to know your full name and the name of the organization on whose behalf you’re calling.
You know what your name is and where you work, but your listener may not. Speak slowly enough to be understood. Put sufficient energy into your speaking to ensure that consonants are crisp and syllables are appropriately distinct, not all mashed together. It’s a question of respect. A caller doesn’t have the advantage of being seen, so he or she needs to respect the listener enough to be sure their words can be understood. This is particularly important if you’re leaving a voice mail. If you want me to call you back, I need to be sure who you are and where to call.
Don’t ask me how I am!
Yes, I know, “Hello, how are you?” has become accepted as a polite formula for opening an exchange, particularly from clerks in stores. In a face-to-face context, the formula serves its purpose. But let’s admit it, the actual words are meaningless. It’s not an invitation to begin a conversation. The clerk doesn’t really want to know all about you. He’s just being polite and doing his job.
Personally, I think the rules change on the telephone. If the caller has never met me, I know darn well he or she doesn’t care how I am. Nine times out of ten, they haven’t even identified themselves yet! And they’re asking me for personal information on how I am? In this case, the meaningless formula no longer serves any purpose at all and becomes actively counter-productive. Ditch the formula!
Cut to the chase.
Tell me who you are, where you’re calling from and why you’ve called me. Don’t waste my time and yours trying to engage me in a polite formula or trying to sell me something before I know what your reason is for calling. This isn’t face-to-face and you have entered my space. Respect the fact that the rules of exchange are not the same as if we were talking in person. Am I ranting? Sure!
The muscles of your face affect the tone of your voice. A serious face creates an unappealing, glum tone. A smile immediately warms up your tone. Remember, you don’t have visuals, so you have to use the tools you do have to advantage. Even if you don’t feel like it, a smile will make sure your tone is friendly and welcoming – crucial for that all-important first impression.
If part of your work requires talking to people on the phone, do yourself and them a favour, and recognize that telephone talk has its own set of rules.
As we move into June, the month for weddings, here’s a “Tips on Talking” re-post from shortly after the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate.
‘Tis the season. Of weddings, that is. The prospect of giving a wedding toast need not spoil your enjoyment of the day. There is a wealth of helpful information on the internet. Here are a few pointers to get you started.
Traditionally, wedding toasts are given by four people: the father of the bride, the groom, the best man and the maid/matron of honour. Nowadays, many couples depart from tradition with other speakers and even guests invited to offer their congratulations. As I recall, even I said a few words at my husband’s and my wedding.
Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes, and especially in the shoes of the one receiving your toast, will give you a guide for creating your speech. Think about what makes it easy for you to engage with the speaker, and what turns you off. Here are a few basic tips.
- Be brief. Under five minutes. An audience never minds if a speech is short, but they sure don’t like it when someone goes on and on.
- Be kind. Of course you want to be amusing, but never at anyone else’s expense. Poking a little fun is fine, but be careful with your humour. Remember that parents and older people will be present, so don’t be risqué. Prince Harry, in his speech at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s reception, referred to his brother, Prince William, as “the Dude”, but apparently, and wisely, edited out a remark about Kate’s having lovely legs. It would have been in poor taste, especially in that company! If you are not comfortable telling jokes, don’t feel obliged to do so. Your positive tone and the smile on your face will be sufficient. Never divulge anything that would embarrass the recipient of the toast. And never bring up the subject of an “ex” – ever.
- Be focused. Craft your speech with a clear structure – a beginning, middle and end. If at least half the people present don’t know you, begin by briefly describing your relationship to the couple and saying something positive about the wedding ceremony. Focus the body of your speech on the bride and groom. What occurs to you about them as a couple? What are their shared interests? Are there a few anecdotes you can tell about how they met or about their engagement? Finish your speech on a high and hopeful note, wishing the new couple a happy, healthy and prosperous future.
- Be authentic. Don’t be afraid to let your loving feelings for the couple show. After all, the whole event is about love, isn’t it?
- Be prepared. Don’t imagine that you can wing it. Know what you are going to say and practice it, many times. It doesn’t matter if you don’t say exactly the words you had planned, but by being well prepared, you can vary the way they come out without losing your way. People who are good at “ad libbing” are those who are thoroughly prepared in the way it was intended to go.
- Make eye contact. To begin, meet the eyes of the person you are toasting, but you don’t have to stare at them the whole time. Look around the room and make eye contact with other people in the audience. Return your eyes to the subject of your toast several times during your speech, and meet his/her/their eyes as you finish with “Please join me in offering love and best wishes to (name of the bride) and (name of the groom).”
- Speak sober. Contrary to what you may have heard, drinking champagne does not make you more clever. You want this speech to be something that everyone, including you, looks back on with pleasure, not embarrassment. My advice – don’t drink alcohol until after your speech.
The best speakers are those who genuinely enjoy connecting with their listeners. Bear in mind that everyone present is there for the same reason – to celebrate the new couple. Everyone is already your friend. You are all on the same team. Prepare well, then reach out to your audience and enjoy giving your well wishes.
Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/juan-antonio-capo/4747648957/”>Juan Antonio Capó</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com/Wedding/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>
Many young people are graduating and starting their job search this month. This article from a few years ago is still relevant.
The moment you walk in the door for your job interview, you’ve made an impression. Make sure it’s a good one. A job interview is a performance, just as if you were on stage. Here are some stage presence techniques that you can apply to your next interview.
Your posture says volumes about what kind of person you are. A slouched, sunken-chest, round shouldered posture does not project the energy of a person ready and willing to do a good job. If you walk in the door with your head high, your chest lifted and your shoulders down and relaxed, you project an image of self-confidence and energy.
Good performers pay close attention to their costume, and so should you. When applying for a job, arrive at the interview dressed as if you already worked there. Be neat and clean, with your hair secured off your face. Understate jewellery – no distracting, dangly earrings. If you can wear something colorful near your face – a tie or a blouse – it will draw attention to your eyes. Dress according to what is appropriate to the situation and the image you want to portray.
Chances are, when you greet your interviewer, the two of you will shake hands. The point of a handshake is contact, so don’t offer someone the ends of your fingers. Let your palm connect with the other person’s palm, with your fingers curled around the bottom of their hand. For both men and women, use firm pressure (no dead fish, please) but not too much. Be considerate of the other person. If a woman is wearing a ring on her right hand, a finger-crushing grip can be extremely painful. Hardly the first impression you want to make!
Make eye contact when you shake hands and when you speak. People in western cultures expect eye contact from a speaker and are uncomfortable when it’s absent. It’s especially important to make eye contact when you say something good about yourself. Eye contact says you’re telling the truth, and it speaks of self-confidence. Everyone has an emotional need to feel seen and acknowledged, even employers and interviewers. If you make eye contact, you’re fulfilling the other person’s need, and he or she will be more comfortable with you.
Speak with a firm tone and good diction. Make sure you remember to breathe, because your voice won’t come out firmly without enough air behind it. Articulate clearly. Use the muscles of your lips and tongue energetically to form clear, distinct consonants. Lazy speaking forces the listener to work harder to understand what’s being said. The speaker should be doing the work to make sure he or she can be easily understood.
Walk in with a smile. Shake hands with a smile. Where appropriate, speak with a smile. A smile makes you feel more relaxed and it helps to break down the barriers between yourself and the people you talk to. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to respond favorably to those who smile at them.
It can be difficult to smile when you’re nervous, but remember two things:
1) Your potential employer is interviewing you, but on the other hand, you are interviewing him or her. Both of you have the task of finding out if you’re a good fit for each other. You aren’t walking in with your hat in your hand, begging for a job. You are a worthy, valuable person wanting to see if this is the right place to offer your talents. With that in mind, you can afford to be friendly and smiling.
2) An audience only knows what you show them. No matter how many butterflies are flying around in your stomach, good stage presence makes a good impression. Show your interviewer upright, energetic posture, appropriate attire, a firm handshake, clear speech and smiling eye contact, and he or she will see good energy and self-confidence.
Above all, be authentic, be yourself. Stage presence skills are not an overlay to hide your real self. Rather, they are techniques to help reveal the beautiful person you are. If the job interview were a piece of jewellery, the presentation skills are the setting, but the jewel is you.
Telling people too much is as bad as not telling them anything at all. Anybody who works in a specialized field is vulnerable to the too-much-information trap – technical and scientific people especially so. It happens so easily! You love what you do, you’re enthusiastic about your message and you have so much you want to share! If you tell your listeners too much, you’re doing the mental equivalent of force-feeding, and your listeners’ brain will do the mental equivalent of regurgitating – it won’t keep down, that is, remember, what you say. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s that they can’t.
If you want to be an effective speaker, you need to know how to keep your audience’s attention. Saying too much will have exactly the opposite effect, simply because that’s the way the human brain works.
How we pay attention is one of the most widely studied brain functions. There’s a great deal that researchers still don’t know about it, but there’s one thing they do know for sure. The human brain doesn’t pay attention to anything boring. If you’re a “techie”, all the details you want to share are fascinating for you, but for most people, especially if they’re not in your field, straight data is boring, and you will very quickly lose your listeners’ attention. The brain is hard-wired to focus on things that change, not things that stay the same. A long stream of detailed data is too much the same for the brain to stay focused on.
Here are some ways to make sure you keep your audience’s attention:
- Stick to broad strokes. If your presentation is a 15-minute introduction to your business, your purpose is to spark interest, not to educate about details. Paint a general picture, and leave the details out. If you’re giving an hour-long workshop, you’ll need to convey lots of data. Still, your audience can’t stay focused listening to an hour of minutiae. Put those in a printed handout.
- Organize your material in clear, easy-to-follow chunks, rather than one, long, continuous flow of data. The brain loves structure and patterns.
- Number your points to make it easy to grasp your structure. Make your transitions clear by summing up the preceding point before introducing the next.
- Provide “state changes”. Anything that stays the same for more than a few minutes (like a steady stream of words) begins to bore the brain. The longer your presentation, the more state changes you need to introduce. Examples of state changes are asking for a show of hands or asking questions that require an answer from the audience. Even rhetorical questions are state changes because they switch the listener’s brain from being told to being asked. Keep your audience’s attention by keeping them actively involved. Depending on the length and purpose of your presentation, you can ask audience members to discuss a point with one another, or even to stand up and stretch.
- Humanize your data. The more you can make dry facts relevant to human experience, the better your listeners will pay attention. Give examples and tell stories that show how your information affects real people in real situations, and leave out any details that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story.
- Involve the senses. Use descriptions that involve as many of the senses as possible – sight, sound, touch, and even taste and smell, if you can. Humanizing your data and involving the senses engages not just the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain behind the forehead that processes dry facts) but also the limbic system, the part that feels emotion. In order for information to be transferred from short-term memory (10 to 15 seconds) to long term memory, it must have some component of emotion or the senses.
Do not go over the time you’ve been given for your presentation. Aside from the fact that exceeding your time is inconsiderate to your audience, to any speaker following you and to the organizers of the event, your listeners will tune you out. The moment you go over your time, their brain focuses on that fact, rather than on what you are saying. No audience minds if you finish early, but they sure do mind if you finish late.
Practice your presentation before you give it, and time it. That will tell you how much or how little you can say. If you find yourself running short of time, cut something out rather than talk faster to get all your information in. People can’t remember a data dump anyway, so why would they remember it if you deliver it faster?
To keep your audience’s attention, and to have them remember what you said afterwards, forget about what you want to say. Focus on what your listeners need to hear and how they need to hear it.
Whether it’s to sell, to persuade or to inform, people give presentations every day as part of their work. Here’s an article I wrote for The Experion Group Blog on the benefits of giving your presentation a well-defined structure. The Experion Group is a collection of high calibre advisors, specialists with many years of experience in their respective fields.
Structure Your Presentation
Structure! It benefits both presenter and listener. A clear framework keeps speakers on track and helps audiences follow and remember what is being said. Here’s a method for creating a structure that enables you to guide your audience on a journey from starting point to destination, and helps them stay with you along the way.
Your first priority when planning a presentation is to be clear in your own mind about your purpose. What’s the core idea you want your listeners to take away? Can you state it as a concise headline? The premise of a photographer’s talk might be, “Good composition creates great photos.” For a succession planner the core idea might be, “Advance planning avoids future headaches.” A presentation to a Board of Directors might have “Better customer service will increase profits” as the premise. Strive to write your premise in eight words or less. If your talk were a house, your premise is the roof under which everything you say is gathered.
As I mentioned in my article A Strong Start, don’t waste your precious opening moments on meaningless fillers like, “Tonight I’m here to talk to you about…” That kind of opening takes the audience’s initial intensity of interest and dials it down several notches. The first few words of your talk are probably the only time you have the full attention of the entire audience. Take advantage of that attention and dive right in! One way is to open with your headline premise and expand on it in your next sentence or two. Take a look back at the opening paragraph of this article for an example.
Chances are you know volumes more about your topic than you have time to convey in your presentation. There’s so much you want to tell them! It’s important not to try to “pack it all in.” Your audience won’t remember everything you say, anyway. They’ll probably remember one outstanding point, and perhaps a couple more.
Let’s say you’re planning your talk and you have a host of sticky notes all over the top of your desk, each one with an aspect you could talk about. Think in terms of support for the roof of your presentation house, your headline premise. Pick no more than three points for the walls holding up that roof. The more points you make, the less your audience will remember, so discipline yourself to three. Don’t be afraid to number your points as you talk through them. It helps your audience to follow you. If they need to know more than three points, distribute a handout.
On track and on time
Building your presentation around a three point structure gives you a clear sense of direction and keeps your mind on track. If you find yourself getting off on a tangent, structure pulls you back into the right direction. If you’re concerned about forgetting which point comes next, use a 3 x 5 card with key words for each section of your talk. A quick glance will bring your thoughts into focus.
Structure also helps keep you on time. You know you have just so much time for each point, so plan it out. Be sure to allow time for your opener, your conclusion and Q&A. If audience questions threaten to derail your timing, knowing you have one or two points yet to cover allows you politely to move on by suggesting you chat with the questioner after the presentation.
Illustrate with stories
Back up your points with two or three supporting points (no more). Bear in mind that dry data is boring and will instantly be forgotten, so incorporate the human element. The surest way to keep your audience engaged is to illustrate facts with stories. Use analogies to make numbers relevant. If you have data like “At this very moment, there are 600 million stray dogs in the world,” make that number real with “That’s nearly two dogs for every person in the United States.”
Conclude your talk by reminding the audience of your three points and then “close the circle” by restating your opening in a way that includes a call to action. Invite your listeners to take the next step.
For your next presentation, let a clear structure keep you moving efficiently from point to point and keep your audience in step with you all the way.
Any quantum physicist will tell you we live in a universe that’s pulsing with vibrating energy, that energy vibrates in various frequencies and patterns, and that our very thoughts are energy. Everything we do starts with a thought, and our thoughts influence everything we do. Some vibrating thought frequencies coordinate harmoniously together, while others have a jarring effect on one another. If we think of positive thoughts as having a high frequency vibration and negative thoughts as having a low frequency, it’s easy to see how they can’t vibrate in harmony. They’re vibrating at different rates.
When speaking in public, your goal, whether you’re conscious of it or not, is to give your listeners the highest quality energy you’re capable of. I’m sure you’d agree that positive energy is a higher quality than negative energy. Since speaking originates in thought, if you want to give out positive energy, you need to start with positive thoughts. But what if you hate public speaking? What if you dread that monthly report to the management team? What if even saying your name in front of a group is a source of anxiety for you? You engage in what’s called “positive self-talk”. You talk – or think – yourself into a more positive place.
Frequencies must match
I’m not a fan of using affirmations when you don’t believe they’re true. If you already have positive feelings about your presentation, visualizing how good it’s going to be and how well you’re going to speak is beneficial. That’s amplifying what is already high quality energy. But simply saying, “I’m gonna be great! I’m gonna be great!” when your feelings don’t believe it, doesn’t move you from a negative place to a positive one. Your conscious mind is talking high frequency while your subconscious mind, where your feelings come from, is vibrating at a low frequency. They can’t work together. Energy doesn’t work that way. The disparity between the two frequencies will be visible to your audience, and you’ll come across as unsure, no matter what words you’ve been repeating in your head. Effective positive self-talk raises the vibratory frequency of your feelings by talking them gradually into a more positive, assured state. Only then can they vibrate harmoniously with positive thoughts.
Our perspective shapes what we’re capable of thinking. A negative perspective makes it extremely difficult to generate positive thoughts, whereas a positive outlook makes positive thinking easy. A positive perspective enables positive thinking, which generates positive actions. In my own experience, I’ve found that my self-view is the primary shaper of my world-view. That’s the starting point. If I want to function – and speak – with high quality energy, I need to start with a positive opinion of myself. How we feel about ourselves colours and shapes everything we think, and since everything we do starts with how we think, our ability to create the presentation we want – indeed, the very life we want – is predicated on valuing, respecting and appreciating ourselves.
Effective positive self-talk, then, starts with acknowledging our own quality, our own worthiness, our equality with everyone else. All people are good. All people are doing what they feel is right. All people deserve respect, you no less than anyone else. Our value as human beings is not dependent on anything outside of ourselves – not achievements or other people’s approval. From that place, you are as worthy to speak as anyone on the planet.
From the starting point of positive self-view, you can move forward with more positive self-talk. “I can stand tall. I can have a giving attitude toward my audience rather than an adversarial attitude. I can show that I care about my listeners by looking them in the eye. I can smile. I can enjoy the interchange of energy with others. I can enjoy the challenge of doing my best.”
Any presentation skills trainer will advocate the use of positive self-talk. In order for that self-talk to be effective, positive energy needs to be coming from your whole being. Your mind, feelings and body need to be vibrating at the same high frequency. In my opinion, that experience starts with a positive perspective of yourself. Self appreciation. Self value. Self respect.
Photo from Hillsboro Community Youth Choir, Hillsboro, OR
Have you ever watched a group of kindergarten children on stage for a performance? Inevitably, at least a couple of them are looking into the audience and waving to somebody special. It’s adorable in wee ones. As they get older, those little ones may learn that in the theatre, a good actor never makes direct eye contact with the audience. It’s called “dropping out of character”, and is a serious no-no. By engaging with the eyes of an audience member, the actor abandons the character being portrayed, and becomes simply a real person connecting with another real person. The illusion, the “suspension of disbelief”, which is so crucial to the audience’s enjoyment of the production, is lost.
To look or not to look
This business of eye contact – to look, or not to look – was a question I had to resolve in my own performing career. I alternated between musicals (playing a character and maintaining the illusion throughout the performance) and solo concerts (communicating directly with the audience while introducing a song, but creating an illusion by playing a character within the song.) That doesn’t mean I never looked into the eyes of my audience during a song. The question was, could I maintain the illusion? Could I avoid personal connection and stay in character, while making eye contact? There were certain people, family members particularly, with whom the pull of genuine connection was so strong, I knew it would pull me out of character. I made it a point, for example, never to look directly at my husband during a concert.
When I made the transition to public speaking, my theatrical training flipped on its head. Now audience connection was essential and illusion was the no-no! I couldn’t even depend on the illusion of connection. No more acting. I had to show the real me, and I had to make a genuine connection.
For my first forays into speaking, I lacked the courage to speak extemporaneously. What I knew was how to deliver a memorized script, so I wrote, memorized and delivered a half-hour presentation. Memorized speeches are dangerous, and the main danger is loss of connection. The stress of remembering something word-for-word tends to make the speaker’s eyes glaze over. They’re not connecting; they’re reading the script in their head. This produces tension in the back of the neck, which may cause the speaker’s eyes to rise above the audience’s heads. He or she ends up “playing to the balcony”, never looking at the people in front of them. (Unfortunately, memorized speeches are usually one of the only two types of presenting that school children do. The other is reading from a paper, and they’re not learning audience connection there, either.)
Eventually, I learned that genuine connection requires eye contact. Just lining up the eyes isn’t enough, though, because you can line up eyes with someone and an invisible wall can still stand between you. A friend mentioned that she worked with a colleague for some time before realizing he had one blue eye and one brown eye. She had lined up her eyes with him, but hadn’t really looked at him. If you must deliver a memorized speech, include making audience eye contact into your practice time. Your listeners don’t want to be performed at; they want to be communicated with. That means you have to look into people’s eyes, not just for a fleeting moment, but several seconds – long enough for both your hearts to register the connection.
Real eye contact with our listeners means removing barriers. To do that, we need to question how we look at others. What’s in our heart? Are we looking with respect, appreciation, understanding and compassion? Are we looking without judgement and giving others the benefit of the doubt? Are we looking with a genuine desire for their well being? In short, do we love them? I believe that to be a good speaker, you have to love both yourself and your audience.
On LinkedIn and Twitter, I’m connected with leadership consultant Dr. Jack King (@DrJackKing). In a note to me this morning, Jack wrote, “The world so desperately needs to know love, and the people who make up our extended family of 7 billion want to know, with certainty, they are loved. Everything I’ve learned in my lifetime takes me to the same place: be the one that loves them!”
When you speak, look at your audience with love, the love they so greatly need. Here’s looking at you – looking with love.