Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit all types of venues to speak with groups of various sizes. At first I was not completely comfortable with public speaking, but these days I’m more at ease when I stand up in front of a room to begin my presentation. I can honestly say that there has only been one event where I felt like my presentation completely bombed and to this day I can’t tell you why it happened. Sometimes, the chemistry with the crowd just isn’t there and you simply have to grit your teeth and get through your main bullet points before the long cane comes in from the side to violently yank you off stage. While traveling around and giving these talks, I’ve picked up a few tips on public speaking. While these may be particularly useful for writers, most apply to everyone.
1. Relax. Somebody has done it worse.
Think about the absolute worst speech or presentation you ever witnessed. Remember how you could practically feel the speaker’s anxiety rolling off stage and infecting the crowd. Everyone in the room tensed and although nobody spoke the words, people were praying for the presentation to succumb to a merciful communications euthanasia. For me, that moment is when I was in college at Penn State and watching a stand-up comedy competition. I can still see this one poor guy trembling up on stage, sweating through his clothes, while stuttering through jokes that never once drew a laugh. When the red light came on signaling his time was up, the poor guy was more relieved than the audience (and we were relieved). From the outset, the aspiring comedian failed to connect with the audience because of a lack of confidence that affected his delivery. Half the battle is believing in yourself.
For example, the other night my three-year old told a joke at the dinner table. Previously, she had learned the following joke:
Why don’t dinosaurs eat clowns? Because they taste funny!
Well, she decided to improve upon this joke and yelled, “Why don’t dinosaurs eat clowns? Because they taste like penguins?”
She proceeded to laugh hysterically in spite of the fact the joke made no sense whatsoever. The total confidence she displayed in making this nonsensical statement made my wife and I laugh. She believed in her delivery. She believed in herself. Of course, she then proceeded to hold up two of her fingers like scissors and inform my wife and I that she wanted to cut off our faces.
She laughed about that too.
So, she might just be a sociopath.
2. Be Flexible.
No, don’t start demonstrating yoga poses (unless that’s what your presentation is about). But, be ready to change your presentation in order to adapt to the audience. I’ve had a few events where I was told in advance that everyone in the group had read my novel RESOLVE. More than once, I’ve arrived to find out an additional group had joined the discussion and they had not read RESOLVE, but had read Measure Twice. At which point, I’ve had to quickly modify my presentation as to not give any spoilers that would ruin either book for the audience members. This can be difficult to do on the fly, so I try to prepare myself to alter the discussion if needed.
Also, consider the age range of your audience when making a cultural reference. There have been a couple (or dozens) of occasions where I’ve referenced a TV show from the 1980s and the audience members were too young to remember. On the flip side, I’ve made references to shows and movies that are currently popular and some older audience members won’t be familiar with the name (see Sheldon Cooper reference below).
3. Limit Sarcasm.
Oh, sure. That’s easy for me. (That was sarcasm) This is incredibly difficult for some of us and I battle with this every single time I speak in public. While plenty of people appreciate sarcasm, there are always a few people in the audience who don’t quite get the tone and find it abrasive. I’m not saying you need to imagine Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is in the front row, but be aware that sarcasm – particularly if it sounds jaded – can be a killer. Use it sparingly and be ready to ditch it if the audience isn’t responding in a positive way.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Sidetracked.
Each time I give a presentation, I get sidetracked. It may be five minutes into the talk or possibly thirty minutes in. It’s the way my mind works. I hit a point and decided to elaborate and the next thing I know I’m not talking about the protagonist in my book, I’m rambling about the best way to make a strawberry and banana smoothie (FYI: I recommend using both strawberries AND bananas). It’s okay. Going off on these little tangents is how the audience gets to see who your really are. It can make you seem more personable and the discussion more fluid. These tangents are windows into the person behind the bullet point notes. Just do your best to get back on track and don’t run over your allotted time.
5. Use Visual Aids.
I’m not talking about some boring PowerPoint. It may be anything – the book you wrote, an old coin, or a photo of your hometown. Be creative. During a recent presentation, I used an old cardboard box and the board game Chutes and Ladders. Which worked out great, because I was able to use the box to carry around the board game (that’s solid planning!). If you can relate it to your speech, then you’re good to go. It gives the audience a visual reference to the topic, gives you something to do with your hands for a minute, and lets everyone know you’ve at least given enough thought to the presentation to have dragged something along with you.
I don’t believe there is any magic formula when it comes to public speaking. There are plenty of others out there who know more about the topic and entire books written on the subject. However, I do believe your presentation will be successful if you practice in advance, relax, and – most importantly – just be yourself.
Unless you’re normally a total jerk. Then, be someone else.
Do you have any public speaking tips or stories to share? Comment below!
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology