I don’t know a single person, even a seasoned professional speaker, who doesn’t get at least a few nervous butterflies before they speak. But I’m also aware there’s a big difference between a few excited butterflies and paralyzing fear. Let’s review some of the main areas of delivery and strategy and provide exercises you can do to practice and improve.
When it comes to public speaking, making and maintaining eye contact can be tough. But making eye contact helps people trust you. If you’re scared of making eye contact, here are some exercises to try until you can get it right.
First, make “eye contact” by scanning the top of heads in the room. If you have a room of 25 plus, the only people who’ll realize you’re not making direct eye contact with them are the person you’re looking at and potentially the ones next to him. Next, graduate to the forehead. Get comfortable with the forehead, then make your way slowly to the eyes. It’s systematic desensitization.
If you feel you’re an eye contact pro, watch yourself on video and see what side of the room you tend to favor more. Note that, and gradually start to adjust to even it out.
Enunciation and pronunciation
How you articulate and pronounce words is important because people need to be able to understand you. But if you get a little nervous, you probably tend to speak faster and faster, until you’re not enunciating well and your clarity is going to suffer. Your audience won’t catch everything you’re saying and you’ll lack maximum effectiveness. Following are some ways to help with your enunciation and pronunciation.
First, show your teeth! To get the sound out, the mouth needs to be open and the air pipes clear. So if you find yourself starting to speak too quickly, think about showing some of your teeth (in other words, open your mouth a little wider). If you’re not sure whether you do this, watch yourself speak in a mirror. Better yet, set up a camera and record yourself in conversation or during a video chat.
The second tip has to do with pronunciation. In music class, I learned that the singers who have lyrics you can actually understand have something in common — they pronounce the consonants clearly, especially the final consonant of each word. Try it. Say “world” out loud without focusing on the final “d” in your pronunciation. Now say it while pronouncing the last “d” clearly. Practice this in your head (or even better, out loud) with other words. You’ll notice it makes a difference.
Paralanguage is everything other than the words in your speech. It’s your rate, tone and pitch. The rate is the speed at which you speak. The tone is the relative volume of your voice — are you loud or soft? The pitch is the natural highness or lowness of your voice — think high notes and low notes. The three combined convey emotion, confidence and power during a presentation.
Effective paralanguage is like a vocal roller coaster. In a good amusement park ride, you have highs and lows, twists and turns, loops and straights. So, too, should a good speech have variation in rate, tone and pitch.
Nobody likes to listen to a monotonous speaker. You know that person who stands unmoving behind the podium, speaking at a flat level the entire time (think Ben Stein’s voice for an entire speech, except replace Ben Stein with a business owner or salesperson). Yikes!
The use of space in your presentation is important. Most people take a presentation space at face value — that what they see is what they get — or they walk into a room, see a podium and immediately gravitate there.
Don’t do that right away! Evaluate the space to see what type of barrier you might be placing between yourself and your audience, and how you might be better able to use the space to your advantage. Assess the room and the environment. Figure out how to best connect with your audience and deliver from a point of connection, not a point of power. Don’t put unnecessary nonverbal barriers between you and your audience.
Gestures and movement
With the exception of a few extraordinary speakers, most presenters don’t do their best standing perfectly still. It’s hard to convey emotion if your body is rigidly standing in a single position. Here’s what you can do.
Make sure your gestures and words are synonymous. If you’re enumerating a list and adding gestures, make sure the numbers you’re saying match the number of fingers you’re holding up. If you can move around the room or stage, be sure your movements are intentional. Don’t move just for the sake of moving. Instead, move to transition between points or stories or characters.
And don’t let your movements be a way for nervous energy to escape your body. Don’t be a pacer, a hula dancer, a weight shifter or a toe tapper. Move and gesture when it’s natural and purposeful.
Quick practice tips
The best way to improve on your public speaking is to get out there and do it! Then get it on video so you can review your delivery style.
To practice before a presentation, first record your presentation with just audio. Pay attention to the paralanguage and the enunciation and pronunciation. Also note the feeling. Does your voice elicit emotion? If not, focus on improving that.
Second, record a practice presentation with video. Then watch that video on mute. This will make you keenly aware of your body movements and gestures. You’ll be able to observe if you favor one side of the room or another with your eyes and body posturing.
Finally, watch the video with the sound on. This is where you bring it all together and see exactly what others see and hear so you can improve.