Public speaking without fear

I made countless business presentations in my career and yet I perfectly remember the awareness not to be a seasoned show-man, how negatively it can affect the behavior on stage, especially when contextually to a lack in experience you perceive to be mercilessly scrutinized and evaluated by the audience.

COLD SWEATS. An unpleasant misgiving to loose control...sometimes even a genuine dread...multiple and mixed feelings can overwhelm the speaker even before getting on the podium, relentless and untimely as ever.

The first thing I learned over the years is that there is no drama: it's natural to feel unsettled under that kind of pressure, nobody is born with the ability to speak in public and all human beings have emotions that cannot be ruled with a push button.

Good news

The good news is that with perseverance and methodicalness, even the most introvert person can turn fear into positive energy and become a master of presenting. It is all about practice and determination.

The very good news is that once well trained, even that introvert person may have fun in presenting and drawing the audience's attention. Right, I am referring to enjoying a presentation in front of people! That's probably a big step for those who never practiced public speaking, but it is a good long term target to motivate a change in that direction.

What I am going to share is not a magic formula to change a shy person into a master of public speaking in few minutes. Personally, I guess it would sound 
not credible nor achievable.

On the contrary, I will write down here few practical tips, grounded by personal and concrete experience, which helped me to substantially and progressively improve in public speaking. 

Because of my role, such ability has always been very important. Anyway, regardless of your particular duties and responsibilities, I am of the idea that a very good speech in front of the right people can bring more opportunities than one hundred of excellent reports developed in months of hard work. Simply because of the spotlight. The suggestion here being not to underestimate the advantages for a career boost coming from being a good orator, whatever it's your job.


Again, not being in possess of a magic stick, the few suggestions listed below are quite extensively described. The intent is just to be clear, hopefully not boring. If you have other items to add, please feel free to leave a comment down here.

1. The importance to be well prepared: I have always given a lot of importance to the slides shown to the audience. In general, business does not like surprises and bad planning, any effort spent in preparing the pitch is therefore well invested in my view.

  • The slides must be concise, including a good number of pictures and few bullets splitting the message into portions. Those parts are to be delivered to the audience playing with breaks to let them absorb the content.
  • The presentation has to be supported by the slides, not the other way around. The slides can help to keep the time, to cover a memory blackout, to impress the audience, but everything in synergy with a contextual and elaborated speech.
  • Although I can't cover the 100% of the possible scenarios with the following statement, I usually tend to think to a presentation as the "tip of the iceberg". Presumably, before a public event called to discuss or present something, a pertaining work has been done. In that connection, if you are the speaker, you have been probably selected because of your leadership role in the relevant project, or because you know that issue better than others, or because you have been coordinating the execution of that work. Here is the tip: the idea that there are high expectations on you is where the stress might come from, the energy that comes from reminding yourself that you deserve to be where you are and from being proud to be at the podium can be of primary importance to balance and fight that anxiety.
  • An additional advice: try to start your presentation selecting a glaring topic, something significant to cause a stir and capture the attention of the audience. As example, if you are about to present the outcome of a long negotiation, start with an impressive number.. the overall weeks spent, the amount of resources used, the amount of money gained. Then, explain what you mean. It's amazing to see how is possible to catalyze the attention on you  with few, right, words.
"Be well prepared" is definitely on top of my list, as many drawbacks are caused by a wrong pitch and/or inadequate practice. With a good homework and the mastery of the relevant subject, we are already at step 2 with a decreased probability to fail or be scared. That's it.

2. On stage: this is where emotions can have the upper hand. Nobody is an exception to that, you can be a novice or an executive, emotions can come out of the blue any time. It is just a matter of practice, as I mentioned. 
The more you had chances to discuss in public, to negotiate, to see how the others react, the more you will be relaxed at the podium.
From my experience, there are three things you can explore to minimize negative feelings, in addition to devote time to the pitch in advance to the event:
  • Focus on the target. The target is not to resist on stage for half an hour as the fear  instinctively leads to believe. The presentation is a media and the real goal is to confirm yourself as an excellent resource. Whether you present the outcome of a work on which you spent energies or an open issue still to be fixed, the audience considers the speaker as the subject matter expert. If you play fairly, you can profit of that and the podium can be a diving board to show your qualities. That's a priceless opportunity. Keep in mind and repeat to you this positive thought: you are there to show something that nobody knows better and people in front of you are willing to reward if you offer an interesting content, like any other deal.
  • Eye contact. That's a pretty inflated topic, and actually it's very important. By nature, our brain searches for an "emergency exit" whenever we are in a new scenario. A new room, a large audience and you are instinctively instructed to move repeatedly your eyes everywhere to identify threats and comfort zones. You can rationalize that natural behavior just by forcing yourself to look at few individuals for few seconds rather than random. Select a person to start (you do not need to confess whom...obviously) and you deliver the first message, an introduction for example. Then move to another person and deliver another portion of the pitch. If you find difficult to look directly into their eyes, which may be the case if the room is not big, look at their nose, or the mouth. It works.
  • Breathing. This is fundamental. Breath slowly, mainly with the belly, less through the chest. Don't stop and do not let any muscle to be too rigid.

3. How to speak: I happened to hear people using a no-tone voice for hours and orators speaking big, very loud, using threatening tone like a lieutenant instructing his troop. I witnessed presentations done by people using trembling, hoarse, weak voices, babbling...and speakers visibly intentional to to get done with their speech as soon as possible, running so fast to consume the assigned window and end up with much more time for questions (which was probably the last goal they had in mind).

Let's face it. All the above is just detrimental for an effective speech. If you want to draw the attention of your audience, you just need to strive to be normal while you speak;
  • Not too loud, not too slow, not too fast. The advice here is to manage the pauses. There is nothing  more rewarding for the audience than few moments of silence to digest the message.
  • Modulate the tone based upon the topic to arouse the right attention.
  • Avoid to abuse of common interjections, like "hum...well....I mean.." and strive to be fluent. A pause is better than a steady stream of interjections.
  • If you are overwhelmed by fear, remind step #2. You are probably veering from your memorized speech, or looking again everywhere random. Not good! So, take a long breath, do a pause and look at the slide to remind yourself about what you should mention. Think again that you are the subject matter expert and there is nothing to be scared of. If you feel more comfortable bringing a little pointer with you, a stick, a pen, or a little object you love, it is OK. Do it.
4. Gestures: being the last section of the list, it might appear the least important tip. Conversely, the non verbal communication is a fundamental factor to be taken into consideration, both in a presentation and in any other discussion. 
Statistics prove that non verbal signals are even more important than the words we use to deliver a message.
Even a quick look to Wikipedia brings out illustrious studies (ie. "the body language" written by Dr. Albert Mehrabian), according to which the percentages the delivery is fragmented in are quite astonishing:
The statistics tell us that the words are essential in terms of meaning, but the way we move and we modulate the tone of the voice are of the utmost importance to be effective while we present something.
We conclude that:

A speaker who moves his body with confidence and personality, smiling, walking on stage from one hand side to the opposite one, moving shoulders and hands in such a way to reinforce every sentence, is able to persuade the audience easier than an individual visibly unsettled, biting the lips, keeping the arms crossed or the hands behind the back until the speech is complete.

Although the numbers above are self explaining, in my humble opinion the number of people looking at the non verbal communication as a key for an effective pitch is still quite low.

More in general I would say that, from experience, the time devoted to improve presentation skills as part of the career development is not the preponderant one for the professionals working in the project management field.

If you are not already part of training programs in your company do not worry.

There is plenty of very good organizations providing services to deepen the various aspects linked to the art of speaking and help to improve the non verbal communication. A good one that I know is called ToastMasters, it is a non-profit organization which organizes meetings in many parts of the world for practitioners.

If you know other good providers please feel free to add a comment down here.