Have To Give a Speech? Go Ahead . . . Be Nervous!

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he first advice I give to people who want to improve their speaking or presentation skills is, “Don’t fight the feeling of being nervous!” Feeling nervous is normal. Nearly every speaker, including the professionals, has that feeling before getting up in front of an audience. The difference is that veteran speakers give that feeling a different name: they see it as excitement or “aliveness.” It’s a feeling that lets you know that you’re about to do something exciting and the outcome is important to you.

So the next time you feel nervous before a speech or presentation, welcome that feeling and say to yourself, “thank you for the reminder . . . I’m glad I’m feeling this way!” When I don’t have that feeling, my speech is likely to be flat and I have to work much harder to deliver an engaging presentation.

When planning a talk, people usually ask: What am I going to say? Where do I begin? Do I tell a joke? What if they ask questions I can’t answer? The answers come much more easily if you shift the focus from yourself to your audience: Who are they? What do they need? What are their expectations? What information would be most useful or helpful to them? Why did they invite you to speak? The structure and content of your presentation will flow more naturally from your audience’s needs, and you will find it easier to adjust to your listeners during the speech.

A good way to start a presentation is to involve the audience right away. Capture their imagination with a relevant story. Make a bold or visionary statement. If you are not sure who your audience is or what they are expecting, you can do a quick audience survey. Ask them key questions or get their feedback on the topic.

Often I will do an “attitude check” with an audience. I will ask them to call out words that come to mind when they think about public speaking or talking to reporters. Usually great words and phrases like “terrified” or “deer in the headlights” emerge and I write them down on a flip chart or white board. This simple idea accomplishes two things. It lets me know how the audience feels about the subject. And it also give them permission to feel that way, which puts everyone at ease and opens their minds to what comes next in the presentation.

Using humor can be a terrific icebreaker and a way to gauge your audience’s response. But I don’t recommend starting with a joke or a humorous anecdote unless you’re good at humor and are totally comfortable using it. Also, make sure that any anecdote or humor is relevant and appropriate for your audience, the occasion, and the setting.

If you are using visuals, like overheads or PowerPoint style presentations, don’t let the technology become a crutch or a substitute for your content. There’s nothing more boring than a speaker reading overheads or slides verbatim. Use visuals to communicate complex material graphically or as a jumping off point for discussion. Provide your audience with handouts so they can review the material later.

Remember, you have been asked to speak because people want to hear what you have to say. There’s a built-in reason for the audience to support you and they want you to succeed in your presentation. They are looking for honesty, good information, and enthusiasm for the subject. People will forgive minor flaws in your mechanics if you speak from your heart with passion and authenticity.

And of course, don’t forget to breathe!

Lorraine Howell owns Media Skills Training where she teaches business owners, CEO’s, and management teams to speak with confidence and impact in an enjoyable and down-to-earth way. Sign up for Lorraine’s FREE e-tips and also receive her FREE 5 Steps to Start a New Business Conversation (& Get Results, Too!)” by visiting her website at www.mediaskillstraining.com.

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