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The Introvert’s Guide to Public Speaking

March 13, 2016
Maintain eye contact, and control your gestures. (image via wikimedia)

Maintain eye contact, and control your gestures. (image via wikimedia)

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?”

Use technology.

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.

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From → Dysfunctileaks

12 Comments
  1. I’m okay with speeches and presentations so long as I have time to prepare. But I dread ‘ice breakers.’ I also can’t stand being the spokesperson for my table at a meeting in a hotel conference room I’ve never been to with a bunch of people I don’t normally work with. That sucks.

    • Ha ha! Thankfully, my audience wasn’t captive for that long: no icebreakers and no table-to-table “sharing.”

      If I’m at a table with a bunch of introverts and one of us has to “share,” I just start fidgeting and then announce that I need a smoke and leave for a few minutes. I don’t even smoke, but everybody understands.

  2. Kathleen Tucker permalink

    Well written and some really sound advice. I like the idea of a few moments of silence. Some speakers never draw breath from start to finish. I enjoy a speaker who takes his/her time. I also will be giving a power point presentation, so appreciate the advice.

  3. I’ve done many presentations and have spoken in public many times. I never had a fear of it. My problem is that I naturally talk too fast, so I have to consciously slow down.

    My general advise to anyone who has to publicly speak is to slow down. Read your speech through to someone else, and when you do, stand up in front of them so you know all eyes are on you. Then tailor your sentences to fit your breathing. Breathing helps one to calm down. Before you start, get up in front of everyone, take your place, then breath in and out fully. Then breath in and start your speech. At a pause in your speech (like a period if your reading), finish letting go of that breath in fully inflate your lungs again to start the next sentence. That keeps your breathing steady and you are much calmer throughout.

    If you just read over the speech while sitting down, you tend to speak faster without realizing it, and can’t time your breathing accordingly.

    • That (pretty much everything you wrote) was great advice. Controlling how you breathe is very important. I took a lot of controlled deep breaths just before the presentation while I was silently rehearsing everything.

      I think of an old episode of the television show Taxi where they kept repeating the words “Sloooowwww dooowwwnnn!” while a character was taking a driving test. The context is completely different, but thinking “Sllooooowwwww doooowwwwnnn” helped me out.

      • I’m glad my advice made sense to you. I hope it can help you in the future. Just remember, to run through your speech at least once standing up – even if you just say it in front of your fish, it will give you a better understanding on what you need to fix or alter.

  4. abishta permalink

    This comment is about “The Writing Prompt.”
    I liked this story and I liked Long Story too (R.I.P.). I think it’s pretty awesome that you reacted to Mr. Fay-guns and the classmates reaction to your story the way you did. I didn’t think the end of Long Story was as described by Mr. Fay-guns, but what do I know…he’s an English teacher after all. At first I didn’t think the ending was great (of the Writing Prompt) but on second thought realized how clever that final statement was.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked The Writing Prompt. I’ve always regretted losing “Long Story,” but at least I (kind of) have been able to bring it back in a way. Thanks for reading it and commenting!

  5. There is a great post on Wait But Why on how to nail down any public speaking.

    Basically you need to study and rehearse so much that you can talk through the speech while you’re doing dishes – that’s when you’ll nail it, no pressure applied.

    You can find the article there: http://waitbutwhy.com/2016/03/doing-a-ted-talk-the-full-story.html

    and meanwhile, I’m gonna follow you!

    • Thanks for the link (and the follow)!

      I think I did a combination of Methods 2 and 3B, where I wrote out the speech ahead of time, but I didn’t memorize everything. I memorized only the first sentence of each section of the power-point, and and then I occasionally referred to note cards if I needed to. I knew my topic pretty well, so I could speak about it without sputtering.

      Plus, the video helped.

      Plus, the tense moment with the boss’s boss helped.

  6. Excellent post. So glad that I found your blog!

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