5 Simple Tips for Better Public Speaking
As part of the training for his first computing job, James Dickerson was asked to take a course in public speaking, leadership and communication. He was skeptical at first -- he working with computers after all. He found, much to his surprise, that the course turned out to be very valuable. Fifteen years later he is still using the skills he learned there.
What Dickerson learned is how critical solid communication skills are for success in any career. Vocational careers are no exception. Public speaking courses can teach you about the power of persuasion as well as improving your ability to explain complex ideas, both valuable skills for anyone dealing with coworkers or clients. You also learn about the other side of effective communication -- listening.
Here are five steps to help improve your communication skills, whether you are speaking one-on-one or in front of a crowd of thousands.
Step 1: Take a deep breath.
Anyone who has ever practiced yoga or meditation knows about the power of breath. Lest you think this is some kind of new-age nonsense, you should know there is real science behind this idea.
Numerous studies, including a 2002 study by Pierre Philippot, Gaëtane Chapelle, and Sylvie Blairy, confirm the connection between mind and breath. Their study found that emotions like fear and anger produce different breathing patterns. What's more, participants could affect their emotions by actively changing their breathing patterns.
Public speaking courses often teach students to control their breathing. One easy method is simply to slow your breathing down by taking a deep inhale for a (slow) count of four, then exhaling for a count of four.
Train yourself to breath deeply before you speak. It calms you down. It short circuits your fear response and gives you a moment to organize your thoughts. In relaxing your mind and body, deep breathing also helps you convey a sense of confidence -- whether you have an audience of one or one thousand.
Step 2: Learn to listen.
You thought this was all about you speaking, right? Wrong.
In his course, Dickerson learned how to be an active listener. "I learned how to sift through information to pick out what is important and how to summarize quickly. Both of those skills have helped me throughout my career," says Dickerson, "particularly in job interviews."
In her blog for U.S. News & World Report, Miriam Salpeter affirms that active listening can help you with your job search. It can also make you better employee once you land that dream job.
Step 3: Clean up your language.
We're not talking about foul language here, but rather the "uhs" and "ums" and "likes" that clutter your everyday speech.
In her article "(Mis)perceptions of Generation Y in the Workplace," author and creator of the Public Speaking Podcast Lisa B. Marshall, warns these kinds of disfluencies distract from your message. They make you sound less professional and, therefore, your audience is more likely to discount what you have to say.
Step 4: Stay on track.
Dickerson says his course taught him to stay on track when he's speaking, especially when he's answering questions. And, staying on topic is one of the biggest public speaking hurdles people encounter.
Getting off topic can happen for any number of reasons -- from losing your train of thought to getting sidetracked by a question. Here are some tricks for staying on point:
- Be prepared: Know your topic inside and out. Knowing what you want to say helps you say it clearly and concisely, and leaves less room for error.
- Practice, practice, practice: This is equally important if you are giving a speech or interviewing for a job. Take time to rehearse your key talking points. Try to anticipate questions and craft answers before you need them.
- Don't give up: Don't get rattled if you find you've drifted off topic. Take a deep breath. Use that moment to collect your thoughts, then steer the conversation back to where you want it to be.
Step 5: Be yourself, only better.
Perhaps the most valuable thing Dickerson got from the course was the ability to talk to strangers. "I can be pretty shy when I first meet someone," confessed the six-foot tall SEO professional. "It may sound corny, but the course gave me a set of techniques I still use when I'm talking to strangers. And, having those skills gets me past my fear of speaking."
What it essentially boils down to is confidence. When you have tools to conquer your fear, you come off as more confident, more competent and more capable. People are much more likely to take what you have to say seriously and to trust in your expertise.
It is ironic that, in our Facebook-addicted culture of sharing, Americans still fear public speaking more than anything else, even death. The best way to face down that fear is in small increments.
Think of it like learning to ski jump. You'd never start out by launching yourself off an Olympic-sized hill. You start small and build up to the big jumps. The same goes for building your communication skills. The more you practice, the more comfortable and more confident you'll become.
"Improve Your Listening Skills to Win the Job," U.S. News & World Report, Miriam Salpeter, On Careers, April 20, 2011, http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2011/04/20/improve-your-listening-skills-to-win-the-job
"(Mis) perceptions of Generation Y in the Workplace (part 2)," QuickandDirtyTips.com, Lisa B. Marshall, February 8, 2013, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/business-career/public-speaking/mis-perceptions-of-generation-y-in-the-workplace-part-2
"Repiratory feedback in the generation of emotion," Cognition and Emotion, Pierre Philippot, Gaetane Chapelle and Silvie Blairy, Volume 16, Issue 5, 2002, Published Online September 9, 2010, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930143000392?journalCode=pcem20#preview
"The Thing We Fear More Than Death," Psychology Today, Glen Croston, Ph.D., The Real Story of Risk, November 28, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death