I’m in the fortunate position where people sometimes want to listen to what I have to say. That has led to me presenting in front of lots of people over the last few years. There is more than a bit of discussion on the interwebs about whether people would rather die than speak in public, but from my own experience it seems to be something that lots of my peers have feared.

By being able to do so, it’s helped me to communicate my opinions more broadly than others are able to. This has in turn helped me become more commonly seen as someone who can lead groups of people. I have also now got to a stage where it is something that I genuinely enjoy doing.

So here are a few things that might help you if you haven’t got to that stage just yet. They’re based on my own experiences and I’m sure many others would have different views — but just on the off chance they’ll be useful I thought i’d jot them down.

Public speaking is a skill just like any other, that can be learned.

As a child I HATED being the centre of attention. I did not take leads in school plays, I didn’t sing in bands and my absolute nightmare would be to stand in front of a class and present something. Getting better at public speaking was a conscious decision I made about 3 years ago, as I knew I would have to do a speech at my wedding and I didn’t want to disappoint. At that stage I sought out every available opportunity to stand up in front of people and talk - at work in our team stand ups, at conferences or leading workshops etc…

Practice. Practice. Practice.

People who turn up on a stage and make it look easy have a lot to answer for. I know from personal experience, that the easier they make it look, the harder they have had to practice. A previous senior leader of mine would spend hours practicing his sessions in his office for weeks leading up to a big conference. For the audience though, he’d bound onto stage and look like he was adlibbing for 45 minutes.

For me, I take long walks home instead of the tube and talk through what i’m going to say over and over again. I know plenty of people who practice when running or in the gym. Find what works for you, but be prepared to put the hours in.

By this point, I suspect it goes without saying that leaving it to the last minute might not be the best idea unless you’re super confident in your process…

Everyone gets nervous before big things that matter.

No matter how well practiced you are, you can’t stop your body reacting with adrenalin before you do something that you care about (unless you’re a buddhist monk of course). So you’re hands will shake, you’ll get sweaty and the 10 minutes before you go on stage won’t be that much fun. It’s natural and I haven’t found a way to stop it. Only advice I can give is to take lots of deep breaths to help oxygenate your brain and if you’re into that kind of thing, 10 minutes of Mindfullness beforehand is no bad idea.

Don’t use a piece of paper for notes

If you’re going to use notes (see later points) then make sure you don’t use a piece of paper as it will shake when your hands do. As above, this is natural and something you probably can’t control so make sure you deal with it. Index cards are great as they’re solid enough cardboard not to shake but light / easy enough to carry. Lots of people seem to be using their mobile phone or tablet these days as well.

Always have a bottle of water near you

You’ll only need to forget to do this once when you get something caught in your throat and you’ll never forget to again.

Don’t read a script.

I know people that will get up and leave a session if they see that presenter is reading from a script. Whilst that might be a bit extreme, reading from notes does make it extremely difficult to sound and feel natural, unless you happen to be a newsreader.

Plan. Plan. Plan.

Whilst using a script is a bad idea, it obviously gives a great deal of confidence to people to have something to fall back on in case you get lost. As such, getting up on stage and ‘winging it’ is not a good idea. You need to find a process that works for you, but mine is:

  • Work out my audience
  • Decide what I want them to think, feel or do at the end of the session
  • Create section headings with a flow diagram
  • Write bullet points for each
  • Write a fairly full script
  • Refine script
  • Learn
  • Practice. Practice. Practice.
  • Use a mind map card on the day if you really need something to hold onto

This works for me as I like to work on particular phrases within my content — which I find easiest to do in print. But i’ll always come back around and add bits and pieces in as I go through the rest of the process.

Tell stories

They’re easier to remember and people can relate to them. They’re the super sauce that most brilliant presenters use without people even realising it.

Just use cat gifs on your powerpoint slides

Don’t use your slides for anything other than to

  1. Make a joke
  2. Show a visual example

Don’t use them to remind yourself of where to go next or repeat the words you’re saying. If you find yourself needing to give a very technical presentation, then hand out notes at the end with any diagrams or information that’s required for the audience to takeaway. You shouldn’t have more than 10 words on a slide that’s being used in a presentation of any scale.

Learn the order of your slides

That way you can look at the audience whilst you are changing slides, which immediately makes you look very professional.

Always face the audience

Don’t speak in the direction of your slides — look at the people you are addressing and make as much eye contact as you can do.

Check your A/V beforehand & always practice with a microphone

Every microphone is a little different and well worth practicing with. If it’s the first time you’ve ever used one then you MUST practice with one before you go on stage — otherwise you’ll be able to think about nothing else. Also, make sure you have a belt or something that you can clip a button mic on if needs be — floaty dresses tend to be a bit tricky for this.

Change up the pace & interact

Whilst almost all audiences are on your side, that doesn’t mean it’s not easy to start to sound boring. You can ensure that this doesn’t happen by changing the pace and structure of your content and delivery. I was once told not to go more than 4 minutes without switching things up. That could be:

  • Play a video
  • Get the audience to vote on a question
  • Talk through an example
  • Change the tone of your voice
  • Tell a story
  • Do Q&A

All of these changes will help to make sure you don’t lose your audience, no matter how long they’ve been sat in a conference centre in Olympia for.

Different people need different things

For most audiences of any size, there will be a wide range of personality types and preferences present. That means some people will like the big, visionary sell and others will want to understand the detail behind every assumption and point you make. It is a very difficult exercise to cater for the full breadth of needs. If you are able to though, then you will connect with a broader group and your message will land more clearly.

There is lots of information about various personality types (such as the MBTI framework) across the internet — the point is to consider them carefully when you’re planning your sessions.

Don’t worry about finishing early

No one has ever complained about a session finishing ahead of time. Everyone complains about one that goes over.