The Introvert’s Guide to Public Speaking
You don’t have to be an introvert to hate speaking in public. Even extroverts, who can energize themselves with hours of endless conversations, get terrified of speaking in front of a large group. Fear of public speaking might seem irrational, but nobody likes being over-scrutinized, and if you’re giving a speech with a bunch of people staring at you, it can feel scrutinizing.
There’s a lot of advice about giving speeches/presentations, but most of it is vague. An introvert like me appreciates concrete, specific advice. Stuff like “Be yourself” is worthless because there’s no way to just be yourself. People always tell me to lighten up or to have more energy, but then when I try stuff like that, I come across as insincere. When I get advice, I want concrete advice. I want strategies where I either do something or don’t do something.
It was my own fault that I had to make a presentation last week. The previous week, I had decided to speak like Donald Trump during a meeting at work and I talked myself right into giving this presentation. I have to admit, it felt good to act assertively and pretend that I knew everything. I’m fairly competent at my job, better at it than a lot of my coworkers, so it makes sense that I would give the presentation. But I’m a quiet guy who would rather mock the person in the spotlight than be in the spotlight.
When it comes to public speaking, I have a few built-in disadvantages. I have a monotone voice that puts people to sleep (except when I talk like Donald Trump). When I try to add inflection, I sound phony. I also gesture too much. However, I have some built-in advantages. I’m usually aware of my surroundings, so I can gauge my audience’s reactions. I’ve also sat through enough bad presentations to know what mistakes NOT to make. Even though I’m not a natural gifted speaker, I knew enough to go through a few basic steps to prepare myself for a meltdown-proof presentation.
Practice the speech the night before.
It took a lot of work and preparation to do this. I wrote the speech out ahead of time, put the basics on note cards (yes, I still use them), and practiced before I went to bed. I slept pretty well that night.
Do not start the speech with any variation of “GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM!!!!”
That movie came out almost 30 years ago, and I’ve seen people still begin presentations like that. Only Robin Williams could get away that, and I’m pretty sure even he knew it was annoying.
Also, do not start with “Good morning. I can’t hear you.” If people don’t want to say “Good morning” in unison to you, don’t worry about it. I didn’t even start with good morning in my presentation. I was nervous (never admit to the audience that you’re nervous) and it would have sounded insincere.
Instead, I said “I’m Jimmy from the ____________department, and I think we have a way to make our professional lives a lot easier.”
As an opening sentence, it’s pretty stale, but I had my video ready (which I’ll discuss later). If Moby Dick can start with “Call me Ishmael,” I can start with “I’m Jimmy.”
Keep it short.
The audience appreciates short. An audience will forgive a bad presentation if it’s short. An audience will hate you if you take too long, even if you’re a gifted speaker (which I’m not). If the speech is too short, and the audience keeps asking questions, that’s the audience’s fault for asking questions. You did your job by keeping the speech short.
Avoid saying things like “Umm,” “Uhh,” “Uhh, okay,” or “Alright.”
Instead, say nothing. It’s okay to pause occasionally. The reason I volunteered was because Ron (the usual presenter) reads from the powerpoint and then says “Uhhh, okay” after he’s done. I practiced speaking without the powerpoint, and I paused whenever I had to think. Awkward silence is better than saying a “Uhhh, okay.”
Try to save questions from the audience until after the speech.
Random questions can slow down the speech, even if they’re good for clarification. The only exception is if a really powerful/important person asks. During my presentation, one of my boss’s bosses raised his hand, and I said: “Normally I don’t take questions until I’m done, but you have the power to fire me, so I’ll make an exception.”
It was a tense moment, but he laughed, so everybody else laughed, and I kept my job. Plus, I answered his question to his satisfaction. It took me a moment to regain my thoughts, but I stood still and used it as a dramatic pause. I didn’t say “Uhhhh,” or “Where was I?”
It’s the 21st century, so you usually don’t have to rely on yourself to get your message across anymore. Power-points, videos, and cool graphics can make you look more competent than you really are. Technology can cover a lot of your flaws, but only if you use it properly.
Check technology ahead of time.
If possible, get there before your audience does and make sure everything works. It’s better to take care of technology issues before the audience is there. If something goes wrong during the presentation, have a back up plan so you can talk while somebody else fixes the problem.
If possible, start with a funny video.
I’m not funny in speech-like situations, but I’m a decent gauge of humor. I started off with a quick humorous 90 second video that illustrated a problem similar to the one I was addressing. The audience laughed, and I led in with my introduction. It was about three minutes before the first person yawned. For me, that was pretty good.
Stand away from the podium, stage, or power-point screen and walk around if you are allowed.
I walked around the conference room while I spoke, making direct eye contact. When I made eye contact, attendees put their phones away, even the millennials. Plus, walking kept me from reading the power-point. If you are standing to the side or the back, nobody notices if you are checking your notes. If they notice, they don’t care because (from their point-of-view) at least you’re not making eye contact with you. Most audience members hate making eye contact. I do it anyway. If I’m uncomfortable speaking, I want the audience uncomfortable too. Plus, it keeps them from falling asleep.
Just so you know, the presentation went well. I kept it to about 15 minutes, even with questions. I think I covered about 8-10 minutes of information in 15, and that’s a pretty good time-info ratio. Ron, who usually does the presentations, said I should have stood in front of the audience more, and I responded to him by saying, “Uhhh, okay,” just as he does every time he finishes reading something from a power-point. If moving around was the worst thing I did, I’m fine with that.
I know there’s a lot more to giving a speech than what I’ve listed, but this is the guide that helped me get out of a bind. What advice do you have for somebody who is about to make an important speech?
I wrote a story. I read it to my class. And then a bunch of weird stuff happened.