For my friend, newly sober, this was a terrifying meeting. His first ever Narcotics Anonymous group. He was determined to tell his story and he had a stammer. Anytime he had stood up in front of a crowd of people before had resulted in a ‘deer in the headlights’ freeze and his stammer would leave him standing, his head at an angle, trying to force words from his mouth.
It was the best man speech at his brother’s wedding that had brought Charlie here. A line of coke before he stood up: to the smooth out the edges. And then another: to get him through. And one more: for courage. It had worked, he had talked for 15 minutes straight. Until his brother had forcibly stopped him. Charlie heard the shocked silence and felt shame. The resultant binge had put him back in rehab.
But that night – my friend did a great job. There were moments when his stammer stopped him. But this NA audience knew better than to laugh, cringe or help. They had all stood where Charlie was – they had all battled this demon too. Now he runs the meetings.
I watched Bill Clinton talk at an event honouring the band U2. He arrived with three secret service guys, leading them as he strode through the room. Bill introduced himself to everyone at his table – and the two next to it. When he stood up to speak – he told the room full of musicians: “I’m probably the least talented guy here”. He thanked Adam, Larry and Edge (by name) for allowing ‘your singer’ to promote peace. He dropped in a few pithy political comments and, as he left the stage, pretended to grab a saxophone that stood ready for the band’s performance. The audience howled, Bill sat down: 10 perfect minutes with the 42nd President of the USA.
Obviously Bill has had some experience – and he is a natural charmer (held that eye contact with the ladies just a beat too long). He didn’t take himself seriously. But we did: he left us believing he was the most talented guy in the room.
Public speaking can scare the hell out of people. I am about to embark on a 10-day tour of Secondary Schools with a group of People Living With HIV – who will be telling their stories for the first time. Camparigirl commented that a few of her friends have mentioned their fears of public speaking lately. Women particularly – who have not had many opportunities to speak up in the past. Or have been kept in their seat by men taking to the stage. Now there are weddings and bridal showers in the offing. So – how about I put together a little brief that we could pass on?
1. Know your subject:
Talk about what you know – like Charlie did. If you need more information – research it until the subject becomes familiar. Don’t wing it. Even Bill didn’t wing it – he knew the band’s names, understood his audience. And carefully selected what political messages he wanted to leave behind.
Create an outline of thoughts/points. Arrange them into a beginning, middle and end. Flesh those out into short paragraphs. Edit until the speech flows. Use humour, personal stories, everyday words and conversational language – sound like yourself. Keep it clean and upbeat. No nasty jokes. Ever.
3. Know the audience:
Find out up front who are they are. What are they expecting from you? Then give them what they want. I always mingle before I speak, say ‘Hi’ to people as they arrive. Ask someone the time. It’s easier to speak to a group of familiar faces than to strangers.
4. Practice makes perfect:
Learn your content. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice in front of a friend or family member. Practice your pauses and breaths. Practice with a timer and practice allowing time for the unexpected. Run through your powerpoint or slides – practice with your presentation aids. They’ll soon tell you if you need revision. Every time you go through your presentation, you’re adding another layer of “I know this stuff.” And, knowing your stuff brings confidence. So, practice.
5. Know the room:
Check the specs of the room: if you’ll be using a microphone, test it out beforehand. I always arrive early and introduce myself to any sound or equipment techs. The more familiar you are with your environment, the more comfortable you’ll be.
6. Begin at the beginning:
Introduce yourself. Whether the audience knows you, or not. It buys you time, calms your nerves and gives you the chance to establish the tone of your speech. At the start of a talk on HIV/AIDS, I’ll often say: “Hi – my name is Sue and I’m here to talk about living.” It allows me to frame my content and signals the mood of my talk. Then I pause, smile and slowly count to three before saying anything else: grounding myself before I start.
7. Look good and feel comfortable:
A colleague once arrived wearing a neckline that plunged almost to her knees. She was presenting to the senior executives of the company: 25 men, three women. The men couldn’t take their eyes off her, the women couldn’t look at her. “Those guys remembered nothing”: she complained bitterly. And, worse, two of them made booty calls to her room later that evening. She just couldn’t understand why: she was well prepared and her music was good. I clued her in frankly and she was horrified: “but in my country …” (she was South American). Bullshit girlfriend, you tried to use your sexuality to sell and it backfired. We are judged by our appearances. So, read the situation right and dress accordingly.
8. Be Open:
People trust people who look them in the eye, it makes you approachable and human. There’s nothing for you on the floor, and you’re prepared so you don’t need to stare at your notes. Look up, look out and smile … you’ll put your audience at ease and take command of the room.
9. Be Flexible:
We’re usually our own worst critics. If you forget to read a sentence off your notes or skip forward an image on the projector, don’t worry. It’s not life or death, it’s just a speech. Pause, smile, count to three – move on.
Some people think it’s cute to say: “Sorry I’m not used to doing this and I am a bit nervous”. It’s not. If we see you are jittery or notice that your technical arrangements don’t work – we will empathise. But most people will never even notice. Keep calm and carry on.
No artificial courage:
Never, ever drink or get high before you give a speech or propose a toast. Everyone will know and they will think you are an idiot. A sincere speech from someone who is nervous is much better than incoherent babble from someone who’s loaded.
No negative thinking:
If you believe that you’ll be great, you will be. If you think you’re going to fail, you probably will. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve prepared and practiced … there’s no reason you shouldn’t do a perfectly acceptable job. And that’s all you need to do.
And finally: remember people want you to succeed. Most audiences want you to be interesting, informative and entertaining. But we don’t expect you to be perfect. We’ve been in your shoes before and we’re rooting for you now. So have fun.