“It’s time to do our public speaking presentations. As always, we’ll start at the top of the alphabet. Seth, you’re first.”
Having a last name that starts with A means that I almost always went first. It was terrible, especially because I hated getting up and speaking in front of others.
I would fumble over my words, pace around the class, and have no idea what to do with my hands. If you watch me now, I still do all of that.
It didn’t matter if it was a simple presentation on a book report in 2nd grade, or trying to explain why my science project wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. No matter how prepared I was, I was going to be scared.
When I was 12, I was asked to give my first talk in church. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), members of the congregation are asked to speak on assigned topics, starting at age 12.
All this really did was give me more anxiety about speaking in front of others.
The funny thing is I didn’t have stage fright. I could be in plays with memorized lines and I could sing solos, but I couldn’t speak in front of others.
Now, if anyone knows me today, I speak frequently. I average about 4-5 WordPress presentations a year, and about 3-4 talks in church a year.
Do I still get nervous? Of course I do! While I may have gotten better at speaking, I’m still really good at failing at public speaking. Frequently. Here’s how you can fail too!
This one is a given, but if you don’t practice, then you will fail. I’m not saying that you can’t get away without practicing, because hey, things happen, but I am saying that things will run a lot more smooth if you do.
When I was 16, I was asked to give a talk in church. It was only supposed to be 5 minutes, so I wasn’t worried. I thought about it on Friday, but then I figured that procrastination is a great idea. Why do something today when you can always put it off until tomorrow, right?
Doing just as any teenager would, I never once thought about it on Saturday. Sunday morning, our family walked into the church and I took a look at the program. What do you know? I’m speaking today!
I shamefully walk up to the stand and sit behind the bishop, who is leading the meeting. Knowing that I should just be honest, I tell him I don’t have anything prepared, and fully expect him to say, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.” I was shocked when he reached down and then handed me his scriptures saying, “You’ve got five minutes.” I quickly prepared something, and while I don’t remember anything I said, I do know it was a terrible talk.
Until about a month ago, when we moved away from the Metro Detroit area, I was a counselor to the bishop in our local congregation. I know this puts pressure on those in charge because they are concerned with every little aspect of the meeting, making sure everything runs properly.
When someone isn’t prepared, it’s usually pretty obvious. Just take your time and prepare. Have a set of notes, or write out the talk. Just do whatever works best for you. After that, practice it once or twice. It will do a lot of good when speaking.
Go Under Time
A few years ago, I spoke at WordCamp Jackson. Obviously, this wasn’t my first time speaking, but people may have guessed it was. In my opinion, the worst time to speak is right after lunch, because people enter food comas and you need to be an entertainer. The next worst time is the day’s first talk.
Of course, I was the first speaker on Saturday morning. The opening remarks happened, and I was setting up. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention to what the time was and had already set my slides and notes to full screen.
So I basically was waiting for the cue to start when the videographer looks at me and put his thumb up. I’m not sure if this was my cue to start or not, but I took it as such.
One of the things that I have trained myself to do is to hit the Reset button on the presentation screen for Google Slides. This way I can have a timer running. While I would prefer a clock with the actual time, that’s just not the way Google does things.
Well, I must have missed the button because I had only gotten a few slides into my presentation when I realized that my timer was at 10 minutes. Figuring I was going way too slow, I began to cut out parts of my presentation.
After rushing through my presentation, and quickly answering the two questions asked, I conclude my talk and close down my slides.
At this point in time, I realize that I’d made a horrible error. My clock on my MacBook said that I still had 20 more minutes to go. We had an impromptu “meet the person sitting next to you” instead.
Go Over Time
As I mentioned earlier, I was serving as a counselor to the bishop in our local LDS congregation. This means I was one of three people who helped plan and run our meetings on Sundays.
People don’t realize what goes into preparing these meetings each week, but there’s a lot of planning and parts. The times when I got the most anxious was never when someone went under time, because I knew I could easily get up and fill the remaining time. The times that were the worst was when someone went over time.
When you are public speaking, there is normally a schedule. If someone goes over time, then it throws off that schedule completely. The next person is may not have enough time to setup or present their full message. If there’s something else planned, people may not be able to get where they need to be in time.
If you take too long, then you have failed. Know what parts you can cut out if needed so you don’t go over time.
Rely on Technology Too Much
Technology is a double-edged sword in public speaking. It can be great to enhance your presentation, but prepare for Murphy’s Law.
When I spoke at a Metro Detroit WordPress meetup in 2016, Deborah Edwards-Onoro felt I was “well-prepared for any technical issue”. I only was because I have learned the hard way.
I majored in advertising at BYU. For our capstone project, we had to pitch our advertising campaign. I wasn’t one of the presenters, but our whole group met regularly and prepared for this presentation.
On the day of our presentation, the laptop we were using wasn’t connecting to the projector correctly. Fortunately, we thought of a quick solution by using someone else’s laptop that had the presentation slides loaded onto it. This computer didn’t have any way for sound to come out of it, so we accepted that loss.
A few slides in, we learned we had made a mistake. The slides on the second computer weren’t updated, so they were out of order and had some typos. Our speakers were able to compromise, but the end result wasn’t polished.
Fortunately, we got a passing grade, but I learned the importance of preparing for the worst with technology.
Also, try to avoid live demos unless you have spent hours practicing them, and you don’t have to rely on an internet connection. I’ve seen many examples where the slower than expected speeds at a conference have messed up someone’s presentation. Screenshots or previously recorded screencasts are better. Not only do they help maintain the time of your presentation, but people can reference the materials from your slides if you post them.
Nervousness is a very common side effect of public speaking, especially at the beginning of a talk. Some people tremble, several others speak really fast, and more individuals freeze up with the deer in headlights look.
The key is to act natural, and there is no magical way to do that. You have to find what works best for you.
I was in a few community theatre productions in elementary and middle school. I learned how to get past stage fright and remove the butterflies by literally getting into character. I would fully immerse myself into the story, and forget the audience.
Now, when I speak, I partially use this tactic. I have created a presenter persona for myself. I speak louder and enunciate better. I also exhibit more confidence when speaking. I have literally pictured what myself as a speaker would be like, and then I become that character.
I pair that tactic along with another public speaking tip from Chris Lema: starting with a story.
People love stories and it easily captures attention and so people stop worrying about me, or looking at me, and they just focus in on the story and where it’s going.
I always begin a story because it helps me get into character. I can focus on the story, which is usually about one of my failures, so I know it pretty well. I can focus on that while bringing out my presenter persona, and it helps remove any anxiety.
This is what works for me, but each person is different. The point is to figure out how you can appear the most natural while public speaking.
Final Thoughts on Public Speaking
It’s pretty easy to fail at public speaking, and if you do, don’t let it get you down. You may get nervous, and you may feel like you are the worst presenter in the world after completion, but it’s never as bad as what you think.
Try your best and try not to pass out, and everything will work out. Just don’t go over time.