“When you get up in front of a group of people, you have to know that you deserve to be there,” I told her. “When you’re up there, you have to believe that you’re a rock star. You have interesting things to say, and they want to hear you speak. In fact, they’re lucky to hear you speak.”
She later told me that my advice helped her, but in retrospect, I didn’t give her the complete set of tools for effective public speaking. I didn’t tell her that my stutter used to be so bad that I physically could not speak. The words would stick in my throat, and my lips would move noiselessly. I had to learn to rearrange sentences to find a word that I could actually say. Learning to take sentences apart and rework on them fly likely contributed to my writing ability, but having a stutter made my life an emotional nightmare. I was afraid of leaving my house for fear of encountering one of my many bullies, and I became intensely shy.
That was then. And now, I am booking speaking engagements at high schools and colleges and giving seminars on writing and publishing.
A lot of experimentation and trial and error took place between then and now, but I want you to be able to skip that and progress faster than I did. Here are 6 quick tips to becoming a public speaking master followed by a four week boot camp to jumpstart your public speaking ability.
1. Your outside affects your inside.
Confidence is the core of a successful public speaker, and developing that confidence is challenging. Changing your thought process and your perception of yourself takes time, but starting with your external self can establish outwardly what you want to be reflected inwardly. Cut your hair. Shave. Put on a nice suit or a nice pair of jeans. If you are fashion handicapped, ask a friend, preferably of the opposite sex, to take you shopping. Part of acting like a rock star is dressing like one, so look the part of someone that is confident, put together, and respected. If you are not sure what image works best for you, look to someone you admire and mimic how they dress.
2. Treat your presentation like a conversation.
The challenge of public speaking is that it’s you and only you talking for an extended period of time, which does not feel like a conversation at all. In actuality, when you are speaking to a crowd, it is implied that the audience asked to hear your thoughts. The conversation may be one-sided, but it is still a conversation. To become comfortable monologueing, practice speaking into a microphone. Record yourself and critique how you talk, particularly your pacing and your annunciation. This will feel weird, but being able to continue talking calmly and coherently for long periods of time will give you more confidence when you are speaking in front of people. Once you are comfortable listening to yourself, video tape yourself. Visualize speaking to a crowd.
3. Talk to strangers.
Every time you leave your home, you have a chance to practice your public speaking skills. It may not be formal, but developing your confidence in informal situations is helpful. With a slight smile (a touch beyond neutral and well below full on creeper smile), make eye contact with strangers and hold that eye contact for three seconds or until they break eye contact. If you are in line at a check out, talk to the person behind you about anything. If you are actually engaged in a conversation, genuinely smile, and smile anytime you are presenting. At first, talking to strangers may petrify you, but try to do it as often as possible. The more you force yourself to do it—and it is okay to crash and burn—the more natural it will become.
4. Ease in.
In my fight writing, I have again and again said that practice does not make perfect; it makes instinct. Public speaking is no different. Your goal should not be to become a perfect public speaker, but to become a natural public speaker. Saying “umm” a time or two or stumbling over your words once or twice is not critical. What is critical is your demeanor, your ease of speaking. If you are comfortable, even when you make a mistake, your audience will not notice. To develop that comfort, you need to practice as much as possible. Join a book club to talk in front of a small group. Volunteer to speak at a job fair at a local high school. Attend a town hall meeting and voice your concerns. Do everything you can to face your fears and accumulate practice hours, but start small and work your way up to larger and larger crowds.
5. Reinforce yourself.
Developing a confident mindset requires constant reinforcement. Whenever I was preparing for a submission match—and this was an important part of my self-discipline in Hilo as well—I would write a few notes to myself and hang them on my bathroom window, something to remind me of my confident self. An example: “Never quit. They want you to fail. F*** them.” Yours may be less explicit, but the key is to remind yourself what you want and to encourage yourself. At the same time, preparation is vital. Learn your material. Internalize it to the point that you don’t need note cards. Make these practices routine. I call this “outlook control,” and I use it constantly.
6. Don’t forget the big picture.
Every piece of your life interconnects to some degree. If attempting any of these tips scares you, you may need to improve other aspects of your life first. What to work on will be different for everyone, so it is up to you to decide where your weakness—your source of un-confidence—lies. In my case, I felt weak, helpless. I needed jiu-jitsu to build my confidence. You might be unhappy with your career. You might need a haircut. Maybe you need to lift some weights. Or perhaps this one girl shattered your confidence and you need to face her to reclaim it. Being in public is surprisingly complex. Analyze yourself and develop a plan, using these tips as a guide, to become the person that you want to be.
Four Week Boot Camp
Below is a public speaking boot camp. Do your best to complete the exercises in order, and be okay with failure. A lot of these exercises will scare you, and being scared is normal. Force yourself to push through it. If you can’t do it by yourself, ask a friend to encourage you. How did I do it? I gave a friend 100 dollars in twenty dollar bills and told him to give me twenty back every time I talked to a stranger (this is not a technique I invented, by the way). You’re not competing against anyone but yourself. Do this for you, and base your progress on your starting point, not someone else’s.
If you would like to complete the boot camp but have no one to hold you accountable or to encourage you, I will happily film a video or two for you to help you stay motivated. I’ve been where you are, and I know how much a little bit of encouragement can help.
Note: if you use the boot camp blue print and keep a journal of your experience, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, no performance enhancers! Do not use alcohol or other substance to make you more relaxed.
Week 1- The Control
Day 1-3: Correct your posture in the mirror. Back straight, chin up, shoulders pulled back. Practice smiling while you’re at it, and pick your best non-creeper face. Get used to what that face feels like and practice making it without the mirror so you can recreate it effortlessly. Now, make eye contact with as many people as you can, holding contact for a few seconds or until they look away. Walk slowly, calmly, relaxed.
Day 4: Respond to a news story, articulating your opinion and position on the story. Record your response with your computer or phone (Windows Sound Recorder is a simple program to use). Talk for five minutes and then critique your recording. If you aren’t sure what to look for, compare your performance to that of an actor giving an interview.
Day 5-6: Talk to five strangers a day. Coffee shops, malls, and food courts are great places to complete this exercise. Talking to sales people does not count. If you are having trouble initiating, ask for their advice on picking a dish or a product or tell them that you are shopping for a birthday present for your mother. How well the conversations go is irrelevant. Initiating is the most important, and don’t forget to practice your posture.
Day 7: Sign up for a book club (or an organization at your university if you are a student) or another group activity where conversation is frequent.
Week 2- The Revamp
Day 1: Buy three new outfits. One professional and two casual. If you are male and do not have a female friend to help you, Esquire Magazine often has some pretty good fashion advice, but the short of it is this: a suit that fits properly and does not look like it’s for a wedding or a funeral goes a long way. It’s even better if the tie can be optional. For the casual outfits, jeans that fit properly are a must—not too tight and not too baggy. Sleek, distinguished shoes. A new t-shirt or two and a sport coat. These are just suggestions of course. Pick a style that suits you, and if you are female, do not ask me for fashion advice. Oh, shave and get a haircut.
Day 2: Find a song that gets you pumped and find a song that calms you down. By pumped, I mean ready to take on the world, and by calm, I mean completely washes your stress away. Dress to the song that amps you up, and dance. I can’t dance either, so don’t worry. Laugh at yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror, and tell yourself—out loud—that you look damn good. Then write down something that inspires you. If you can’t think of anything, feel free to use my quote from earlier. Hang it on your mirror.
Day 3-4: Continue to make eye contact as often as possible while maintaining proper posture. On the third day, call five random numbers in the phone book and ask for movie recommendations. If it helps, say, “Is Sharon there?” and when they say you have the wrong number, explain to them that you are in a jam and need a movie recommendation. Cold calling people still terrifies me, but this exercise made it easier. Again, failure does not matter. You’re never going to talk to these people again. For day three, repeat the exercise, but smile the entire time you’re talking, the bigger and dumber the grin the better.
Day 5: Read a news story and respond to it for five minutes. Instead of just using a microphone, video tape yourself. For this day, sit at your desk and look directly into the webcam. Talk for five minutes. Smile. Review the tape and note your mannerisms.
Day 6: Go out in your new casual clothes and talk to five strangers. To repeat: rejection and failure are acceptable. Breaking the ice is important but so is understanding how inconsequential a stranger’s opinion of you really is.
Day X: Attend your book club wearing one of your new casual outfits. When you introduce yourself, smile and maintain your proper posture.
Week 3- The Trial Run
Day 1: Find a venue where you can give a short speech. Volunteering your time at a local high school for a career fair is an easy route. A college or a town hall meeting may also be a good option. Schedule this speech as close to day 28 as possible. For college students, you could ask your professor to give you a few minutes at the beginning of class to announce an upcoming event (you may want to wait until you are closer to day 28 to make this request if you are taking this route).
Day 2: Call three of your friends and invite them to have dinner at your house at the end of week 3. Ask that each friend bring a friend that you do not know. If anyone asks why, tell them that you have felt shut-in at work lately and would like to meet new and interesting people. After all, if they are friends with your friends, they must be cool.
Day 3: You are giving a toast at your dinner party. Draft an outline, and aim to make it last about three minutes. Your topic: you are thankful for your current friends and what they have done for you. Next, get your microphone out, and talk about your day 28 speech topic for eight minutes. It’s okay to ramble, just keep talking. Maintain a clear, consistent tone. Smile.
Day 4: Watch the video of yourself that you recorded last week. Notice your mannerisms again. Then record a video of yourself giving your toast, focusing especially on eliminating the mannerisms that bother you. Watch the video when you are done and critique.
Day 5: Drive to a fast food restaurant in the next town over. Ideally, this will be a restaurant that you never visit and do not plan on visiting again. Listen to your pump song in the parking lot. When it is moderately busy, walk into the center of the restaurant, and say, projecting almost to the point of yelling, “Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. Has anyone seen my underwear?” Count to five. Turn around and walk out. Remember, you will never see these people again. As you drive away, listen to your mellow song and pat yourself on the back.
Day 6: Clean your house/apartment. Set the table. Position your camera or webcam so that it is pointing at the spot where you plan on giving your toast. Film yourself giving your toast. Visualize everyone sitting in the room. Stand up straight. Smile. Watch the footage and critique yourself. If you are not satisfied with your performance, film it again.
Day X: At some point during your club meeting, speak up and voice your opinion, about anything. Your main goal is to get the group’s attention and maintain it for a short period of time.
Day 7: Today is toast day. Dress in one of your new casual outfits. If you feel yourself losing your nerve, go back to reinforcement note and read it four times. Stash your iPod in the bathroom or in a spare room, and excuse yourself to listen to your pump song just before dinner starts. Don’t worry too much. These are your friends, and you have worked hard to get to this point. Give the toast and enjoy the spotlight.
Week 4- The Prize
Day 1: Draft an outline of your speech. Using your webcam or camcorder, record yourself talking about your topic for ten minutes. Watch and critique.
Day 2: Put on your new professional outfit. Go out and get a coffee. Sit down and enjoy it. Notice how people treat you differently when you are well dressed.
Day 3: Rework the outline of your speech. Film yourself again. Before you watch this latest video, watch your very first video and compare yourself to the latest video. You will have improved a great deal.
Day 4: Drive back to the fast food restaurant from last week. Order a meal. Sit down and eat it. Notice how nobody gives a crap.
Day 5: Set up three chairs in your living room. One represents the center of the audience, and the other two represent the far right and left of the audience. Film yourself delivering your speech, and practice looking at each chair as you speak, visualizing an audience.
Day 6: Watch comedies all day, or, at the very least, before you go to bed.
Day X: Speak up again in your club. Smile.
Day 7: Bring your reinforcement note with you to the venue of your speech. Keep it in your pocket. Listen to your mellow song on the way in. Review your outline in the parking lot. Read your reinforcement note, and put it back in your pocket. Next? Kick ass. You have faced your fears over and over again already. You have practiced. You have improved. You earned this. Enjoy it. You are the rock star now. They are lucky to hear you speak. And congratulations. You did it.