Failure, as author Bob Sutton put it, "sucks but instructs," and this is as true of public speaking as it is for any other area. But while we can all acknowledge that the school of hard knocks is one of the best, if least pleasant, teachers, we can also agree that minimizing failing in front of others makes life a lot less stressful. So how can you improve your public speaking skills without making a fool of yourself in front of actual members of the public?
Gen Y blogger Jenny Blake tackles this question in a recent post offering those relatively new to delivering presentations and speeches some tips on how you can tune up your public speaking skills. While you'll never improve without actually practicing under pressure, her methods can minimize your embarrassment as you learn:
- Download a free recording app on your phone. Practice saying something at your normal pace, then practice slower, then EVEN slower. Playback so you can hear for yourself what the three sound like, and even ask a friend which is most clear.
- Take three ujayii breaths before starting. For non-yogis: this means taking a slow, steady, even inhale through the nose, then exhaling slowly and evenly through the nose. (More on how to do this here). These breaths are always incredibly calming for me and help clear any nervousness in my system.
- Make it a challenge for yourself to bring more awareness to your speech in every day interactions. Sometimes even when I'm talking with friends I will practice not saying "um" and other speech quirks that come across as unprofessional. Even though these are low-stakes situations, it helps me change my default speech to something that works in any setting.
- Give yourself a rating on scale of 1-5 after every class you teach (or training, or meeting you present at). How'd you do? This will bring awareness to the area/s you are hoping to improve and help you track progress over time.
- Pretend you are speaking to a non-native English speaker or a five year old. Does your pacing change? Another trick I use: pretend you are on The Today show, or speaking for the president. How would you talk? How do you want to sound or come across?
- Channel/observe a speaker or teacher you really respect. What do they do well? Ask if you can observe them at future events/meetings (if they live locally) â€"- or look for more examples and videos on YouTube or TED.
- ASK FOR FEEDBACK â€" often! Make sure you have people who are willing to be honest with you. Ask them one thing you did well, and one area you can improve (if you just say, "what's your feedback?" they'll be hesitant to share development areas). You might also have people track when you speed up (certain segments?) and when you slow down, so you get more granular data about where to focus.
- Clench and release a muscle several times before going up to speak. Try making your fists into tight balls (or any other muscle -- ahem, butt cheeks work too), then release and repeat. This will give your adrenaline something to do, and often helps stop shaking (which makes you appear more nervous than you really are).
- BONUS: Join Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a great way to get practice and feedback in a safe environment, and learn from watching others.
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- Psychologists: Confidence Is a Learnable Skill
- Tips for Fearing Public Speaking Less Than Death
- 4 Public Speaking Lessons from President Obama