What Are Public Speaking’s Critical Success Factors?

Over the last few months a few readers wrote asking about a post of mine regarding speaking in public.

For those who get nervous about speaking in public, let’s recognize that unless you are being filmed for the Discovery Channel’s television show Life Below Zero, you speak in public every day—to your friends, family, and colleagues.  They listen, you speak.  You don’t read from notes; you don’t pull out a PowerPoint deck.  Rarely do they heckle.  That was easy, wasn’t it?

So what is the difference between what you do every day, speaking in public, and public speaking? Maybe it comes down to the adage about it being best to keep quiet and have people wonder if you are a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Unfortunately, you have probably sat through more poor presentations than good ones.  Within thirty seconds of the start of a meeting or a speech, I have already decided whether I am willing to invest another thirty seconds.  The good news is I do not think I ever saw a presentation where the material presented was flawed.

It may have been uninteresting. It may have been gnaw-your-arm-off dull, or difficult to hear, or too much material, or too tiny to see.  But more often than not the material is correct, so let’s not worry about fixing that part.

So everything else that makes a presentation a success or a failure comes down to you; and those things can be fixed provided you know what they are.  But the first thing we ought to address is the fact that most presenters telegraph fear just like a gazelle wading into the watering hole in the Serengeti—Hey, look at me. I know you will eat me alive.

One way to deal with your fear is to become a regular at the nearest karaoke bar, try to be entertaining—unless you are delivering a briefing to the Joint Chiefs in the Situation Room.  Worst case, your goal should be for people in the audience to conclude that you or your material or both were interesting or entertaining.  Your presentation will be no worse than your singing performance, and if you can get comfortable singing in front of a room full of people doing tequila shots, or at least you can survive your rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, your presentation in front of people who want you to do well will be much improved.

So, you are now feeling more confident, and you look out from the front of the room and everyone is looking back at you.  You need an opening, and it needs to be good.  Every pair of eyes is watching you, waiting for you to win them over.  Try starting with, “It’s okay to record this and to take pictures.  I’ll be doing the same thing.”  Then pull out your phone and tell everyone, “Lean in.”  And take their picture.

If you cannot get over the fact that everyone is looking at you, you will wind up looking at your feet to avoid eye contact; and once you do that you lose.  When you look at your feet, your head is pointing to the floor, and when you speak you are speaking to the floor.  If someone needs to be looking at your feet, why not get your audience to be the ones doing the looking?  But you have to give them a reason to look.  That is where the socks come in.  Find a pair of great, colorful, patterned socks.  Then pull up one leg of your pants and tell the crowd, “My wife told me that if I was going to wear these socks that I’d better deliver one heck of a good talk.” (This technique may not be as effective for women.)

So, you are now feeling more confident, you are not looking at your feet—they are—now what?  You’ve got to say something—and this is your last make or break moment.  This is where most people fail.  Your audience cannot remember what they ate for breakfast, and here you are ready to give them hundreds of unmemorable facts, typed in 8-point font, on dozens and dozens of PowerPoint pages.  And how will you deliver those facts? If you are like most presenters, you will turn your back to the audience and you will begin to read.  Do that and you have just lost.  You are now speaking to a wall.  Nobody can hear what you are reading.  Nobody can see what you are reading.   And if you turn around quickly, you will see everyone looking at their watches or texting away on their phones.

When I give a presentation I make I bold assumption—everyone in the room can read.  If they can read and I can read then one of us doesn’t need to be there; one of us is superfluous.  You do not want to read and you do not want them to read.  That is another reason I never provide handouts until after the presentation.  If you give them a handout, they will skim through it before you’ve even told them about your socks.  Then they will tune you out and pull out their phones and you will have lost them

The best way to avoid that mistake is to put ideas on your slides instead of words—they cannot read ideas, but neither can you.  I like to use pictures instead of bullet points.  Bullet points, if they are any good, lead people to taking notes, and if they are taking notes they are not paying attention to you.  I People do not take notes at the symphony, they do not take notes when you are talking.  There will not be a test at the end of the presentation.

Now that you have addressed everything that could go wrong start talking.  You’ve thwarted the issues of public speaking, and are now simply speaking in public—something you know how to do.  Tell them why the ideas are important to your topic, and give them an easy phrase they can use to remember each idea.  The phrase should be more memorable than what they had for breakfast.  And if at any point in your presentation you feel like you are losing control of yourself or the audience, you can threaten to start signing.

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