Public speaking is a crucial skill in the workplace, whether or not you are aiming to make a career out of it. From sales presentations to small meetings, honing the art of communication will help you to persuade and win support with empathy and impact. However, many people struggle with public speaking and most people would like to improve their ability to present in front of groups. Often, when we think about great communicators, we compliment them for their ‘talent’ but, in my view, public speaking is a skill like any other. With the appropriate support and guidance, I believe that we can all become confident, competent communicators, and even achieve excellence, if that’s what we are aiming for.
Speaking In Front Of An Audience Of 7,500
In 2018, I entered the Nordic Business Forum Speaker Sourcing contest. Hundreds of people applied via submitting a short video, from which 24 candidates were chosen to speak at qualifying rounds held in Helsinki, Oslo, and Stockholm. I was selected to compete in the Stockholm qualifier and was invited back to the final in August, which I won, securing the opportunity to speak in front of 7,500 people, at the Nordic Business Forum 2018 event. The speaker line-up was formidable, including President Barack Obama. Before this, I’d been fortunate to speak at a wide range of events, from tech conferences such as Slush Singapore to the World Economic Annual Meeting in Davos, but the Nordic Business Forum was by far the biggest and most challenging presentation I had delivered.
Tips & Tactics To Improve Public Speaking
I’m regularly contacted by people asking for tips and tactics to improve their public speaking, and these requests have increased since the Nordic Business Forum opened applications for their third Speaker Sourcing contest. I’d like to share some of my learnings from the leadup to my keynote in Helsinki at NBF 2018, as well as the 60+ events I’ve spoken at around the world since then. I hope you find them useful, whether you’re intending to enter the 2020 competition, or just aiming to improve your public speaking.
My Speaking Performance Model
I’m a human performance scientist, combining hands-on client work and original research to help people perform at their best. A large part of this work involves making complex science digestible and finding ways to enable people to translate theory into practice. Models and frameworks can provide helpful tools to achieve this aim, as they summarise large amounts of information, assist with recall and can be used to plan next steps and actions.
I’ve divided my speaking performance model into four broad categories relating to specific tactics and approaches that I’ve found particularly helpful.
- Psychology: This category describes approaches that we can take to prepare your mind for peak performance, such convincing yourself that everyone likes you, simple techniques such as ‘breathe and believe’ and the ability to focus on the process vs the outcome.
- Physiology: The human body is basically a walking chemistry set and a lot of the things that we do to, and with it, have a profound effect on the chemical reactions that are taking place, for good and for bad. The physiology category covers some of the most powerful ways we can influence our physiology, and thereby our performance, such as sleep, exercise and nutrition.
- Technology: Speakers use a variety of tools to enhance their communication, which I categorise as ‘technologies’. This could include everything from the clothes you wear, presentation systems, props and ‘vocal aids’ (more on that, later).
- Content: It goes without saying that good content is the key to an excellent presentation. There are too many ideas to list here, but some of my top content tips include how you approach your core message, the danger of getting too attached to specific pieces of content, and your presentation story.
In the future, I may write create a more complete resource, but, for now, here are twelve of the most useful tactics I’ve used to prepare for and improve my speaking performance.
1. Breathe & Believe
A technique called ‘breathe and believe’ can be a helpful way to manage your levels of stress, which generally means reducing your stress levels so you can perform optimally. If you choose to slow down, or speed up your breathing, it can have a powerful influence on how you feel. For example, if you were feeling too excited or stressed (in the ‘too much’ part of the graph), you can use your breathing to move back into the ‘just right’ zone.
If you don’t feel ready to perform at your best, try to pay attention to how you are feeling. For example, do you feel nervous, worried, stressed, frustrated or distracted? Take a moment to take four deep breaths. When you have made the four breaths, think of one simple, useful idea; something that you can put into action straight away, and that you believe will be helpful. This could be something that a coach would tell you to make the situation better. For example, refocus your attention on one part of your delivery or speaking technique that you can control, such as how fast you are going to talk. Try to put that one simple idea into action.
- Notice how you’re feeling
- Breathe deeply in and out four times.
- Think of one simple, useful idea
- Put it into action
2. Hack Your Way Out Of Negativity Bias
Imagine that you are living thousands of years ago among our ancestors. However, unlike many of your peers, you’re an outrageously optimistic prehistoric person, roaming the savannah feeling grateful to be alive.
One day, in the middle of a hunter-gatherer mission, you pause and take a moment to look around and scan the scene. Over to your left, lurking behind a bush, you see an animal. You’ve never seen this animal before. It’s a lion. “Wow, what a fascinating creature.” you think. “I’ll head over there and take a closer look”.
Perhaps the lion is friendly, in which case you may enjoy an exciting encounter. More likely, you’re mauled to death. For most of human history, cost-benefit decisions have favoured those with a pessimistic view. We may have missed out on some opportunities, but in a threat-filled world, expecting the worst significantly increased the probability that our DNA would remain in the gene pool. A negativity bias in our thinking was adaptive.
Fast forward a few millennia, and our bodies and brains continue to be built according to much the same genetic load that influenced our ancestor’s predispositions.
“Our brains continue to operate in accordance with this negativity bias. Many forms of evidence suggest that ‘bad’ is stronger than ‘good’, as a general principle, across a wide range of psychological phenomena” (source).
For many people, the idea of performing in front of a group of people is a sure-fire way to get your primal instincts firing. Sometimes, this can manifest itself in being concerned that people in the audience don’t like you (which can make you present in a defensive or nervous style) or, equally unhelpfully, in an over-eagerness to try to get the audience to like you (which can come across as desperate or over-bearing).
So how can you combat this basic instinct? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but one simple ‘hack’ has served me well. Every time I stand in front of a group of people to present to them, I repeat a mantra. I tell myself (not out loud, obviously) that “everyone really likes me, everyone is really interested in what I have to say”.
But what if they don’t like me, and they are not interested? Who cares. I can’t control that. It’s much more helpful to work on the assumption that everyone likes me and is interested, as a default position. That way, I’m much more likely to present in a relaxed, engaging style.
3. Process vs Outcome
It can be helpful to remind yourself that you can’t directly control the outcome of your performance in terms of the response or judgements of the audience. The outcome of the presentation is important. However, you only have control over how you deploy your skills and experience on the day – everything else takes care of itself. This is called a ‘process vs outcome approach’. It is an important concept in performance psychology, and a process focussed approach generally results in being able to manage your levels of stress and perform closer to your full potential.
An outcome approach focusses on what you are trying to achieve (e.g. impress your peers, win a contest). A process approach focusses on how you will try to perform at your best, by concentrating on the steps that you can take to perform as well as you are able. Setting both process and outcome goals can be a useful way to prepare for your performance.
- Outcome goals: What you want to achieve (e.g. perform well in a particular speaking engagement).
- Process goals: What you need to do to achieve this (e.g. deliberate practice, try out ‘breathe and believe).
Sleep plays a crucial role in learning, memory formation, recall and cognitive performance. If you don’t sleep adequately during your practise and performance phases, you will significantly impair your performance. Forgetting what you were saying, or struggling for words, is every speakers worst nightmare.
Reducing sleep from 7.5 hours to 6 hours could reduce your brain’s opportunity for learning and memory consolidation by 40%, so ensure that you sleep at least 7-9 hours per night if you want to ensure peak performance.
On the day of the presentation, you should also remember that 18 hours of being awake can result in declines in cognitive performance equivalent to being legally drunk (source), so staying up and rehearsing all night is a bad idea.
Physical exercise is one of the most effective ways that you can boost your cognitive performance, but the timing and type of exercise is critical. Public speaking is a memory-intensive task. During the practice phase, when you are learning your presentation content, you need to maximise your capacity to memorise and retain information. During the performance phase, you need to maximise your ability to recall information. In 2016, a group of researchers investigated how best to incorporate physical activity into the day (source), as a means to improve memory performance.
The researchers concluded that:
- If you are trying to commit information to memory, it is better to be sedentary for a few hours afterwards, as exercise seems to interfere with the memory encoding.
- If you are trying to improve your ability to recall some information, it could be helpful to do some moderate to vigorous physical exercise 1 hour before.
In practice, try not to exercise too soon after a rehearsal, and consider doing a vigorous (i.e. relatively high-intensity) aerobic exercise session, the morning before your presentation.
6. Sugar And Caffeine
If you’re feeling nervous about presenting, it can suppress your appetite. Unless you have a condition such as diabetes, the human body does an excellent job of maintaining blood glucose, even if you haven’t eaten much, so there’s no need to worry about skipping breakfast on the day of a big presentation. However, various studies have demonstrated that increasing blood glucose can improve verbal memory performance, i.e. your ability to remember words. (source)
Caffeine is also powerful cognitive performance-enhancer, with effects including improved alertness, vigilance, attention and reaction time. However, there’s a temptation to consume more caffeine than we need to, which could result in feeling ‘jittery’ on the day. You don’t actually need very much caffeine to boost cognitive performance. Studies suggest that a dose as low as 0.3mg/kg/hour is sufficient (source). I weigh 73kg, which means a dose around 22 mg; equivalent to an espresso cup filled with French press coffee each hour, would be enough.
This is certainly not a health recommendation, but a single shot of espresso, with a lump of sugar, is my go-to pre-presentation drink.
Clothing is obviously a very personal subject, but I received some advice from Professor Alf Rehn during the process of the Speaker Sourcing Contest that really stuck with me. He challenged me to make sure that my clothing was not a distraction. I’m sure there will be differences of opinion on this point, but in the context of my presentation, I was initially trying too hard to communicate some of my personality and individuality, which was risking distracting the audience from the message. Picture the scene: in the semi-final in Stockholm, I was wearing trousers and shoes below, which was fine, but up top, I had an EEG headset on my head (see the picture at the top of this article) as well as wearing glasses, a tie, shirt and waist-coat. There was just too much going on. By all means, I would encourage you to be yourself, and wear whatever you want to wear, but I would also urge you to make sure that your message is the main event, not your outfit.
8. Vocal Aids
This is a bit of a weird title, but it was the only one I could come up with to encompass a couple of different ideas. Even if you are the calmest and most collected presenter on the planet, air-conditioning in the hotel, transport you use to get to the venue, and likely the venue itself, can leave you with a dry throat. At best, you’ll rasp your way through a few words, at worst you could find yourself choking on your favourite phrases. Singers have known this for generations, and I actually received this next tip from a musician. If it’s available, I sip on a thermos containing tea and honey in the hour leading up to a presentation. If that’s not possible, I always carry throat lozenges when I speak at an event (you can even find specific products for this), to try to make sure my voice is silky smooth on stage.
9. Props And Visual Aids
It’s common for presenters to use slides, but in the last two NBF speaker contests, both winners (me in 2018, and Anssi Rantanen in 2019), used props, as well. I used the EEG headset to record and display my levels of stress and focus during the presentation, and Anssi somehow launched a new brand and chatbot, from scratch, in about 5 minutes, using his laptop. Personally, I’m a big fan of bringing in new ideas and technologies to engage the audience but, in a similar vein to my clothing recommendation, my advice is to make sure it truly enhances your message and isn’t a distraction from it. To be honest, when I look back on my winning NBF presentation, I’m not sure how much more the EEG demonstration added to the performance, but it was memorable. Nonetheless, my advice would be to proceed with caution and, as I describe in the next tip, focus on the content.
10. Core Message
I have a simple rule for the content in my presentations: if I can’t sum up the main point in a single sentence or short phrase, I refine the content (which usually means cutting out material), until I can. The core message of my winning NBF keynote was “we can’t always be on”; a phrase I repeated several times in the presentation. If you’re being asked to present on something, you likely know a lot about it, but even if you’re presenting on a new topic, most presenters (me included) vastly overestimate both the amount of content they can fit into a given time and the capacity of the audience to comprehend and retain this material. Crafting and consolidating your content into a simple, memorable phrase or sentence is a helpful discipline to keep your message and volume of content in check.
11. Don’t Be Afraid To ‘Kill Your Darlings’
This is a hard step, but it’s an important one. As you’re planning and delivering presentations, you will become attached to particular pieces of content. Perhaps it’s a pithy phrase, a short story, or a specific model. You may have had great success with these pieces of content in the past. Audiences probably love them, and you feel proud of them. Unfortunately, often in fact, you need to ‘kill them’.
In writing, to kill one’s darlings is to get rid of the sentences, paragraphs and even chapters that you love the most. If you become too attached, it can hold you back. The fact that you have a special relationship with a piece of your presentation can cloud your judgement about whether it really matters and enhances the message for your audience.
After one of the qualifying rounds in the NBF contest, I made the difficult decision to kill a segment of the presentation that got a laugh every time, because it didn’t fit well enough with the core message and flow of the presentation I was planning for the final. I’ve revived the segment in other performances, after the contest, but it was the right decision for that final keynote. In summary, be aware of when you feel very pleased with a specific part of your presentation, and don’t be afraid to experiment with eliminating it, as you iterate and create various versions of your presentation.
I believe that the best presentations invite the audience into a story. I’ve used several frameworks to guide the creation of the stories for my presentations. I’ve found that the two most helpful are Nancy Duarte’s ‘sparkline’ model. I’ve also used the ‘story brand’ approach developed by Donald Miller. Don offers a solid framework to shape your message, which you can find here, but one of Don’s points, in particular, really stood out to me.
Don argues that most brands and, by extension, many communicators, make the mistake of thinking that they are the hero of their story. They believe that they are the Luke Skywalker their audience needs.
Many speakers spend a lot of time trying to convince the audience that they are the hero. They share their credentials and achievements and tell you how great they are. Of course, your audience wants to know something about who you are and why they should listen to you, but this emphasis is a misstep. As speakers and communicators, we need to remember that our audiences are the heroes. We are merely the guides. Our audiences are full of Luke Skywalkers, all with real problems, looking for a plan that calls them to action, to help them avoid failure and succeed in some way that we can help them with. As a speaker, you are Yoda.
I have one final piece of advice to improve your presentations. Don’t practise until you get it right, practise until you can’t get it wrong. This isn’t my quote, but I can’t find a reliable source identifying the original author (several authors are listed online, but please let me know if you have a good idea about who to attribute it to). Regardless, this is a sound recommendation in my experience. I’ve found an exercise called “3 good, 3 to work on” to be useful in this regard.
After a presentation or rehearsal, when you reflect on your delivery, write down three aspects of your performance that went well, and why you did them well. Following this, list three aspects that didn’t go so well, and what you need to work on to do better next time. Ideally, you would also ask at least one person in the audience to share this kind of feedback with you, as well.
Hopefully you’ve found this list of ideas to be useful. If you have some top tips to improve your public speaking, please let me know in the comments.