You’ve read the first part of the “Confident Public Speaking” series. You have your talking points firmly in your mind, you know your audience and you have taken a look at yourself on video. Now it’s time to fine-tune your delivery. Here are some tips on how to avoid common public speaking problems that can drag a presentation down.

1- Breathe 

Effective breathing makes everything about public speaking easier. Many folks mistakenly think that you have to calm down and then your breathing improves, but it actually works better the other way around: improve your breathing, and your speaking will improve as a result.

Many actors and professional speakers use the Alexander Technique approach to improve their breathing and ability to project their voice, and I have found it transformative for myself. Here’s a video to explain it.  Key to the approach: rather than focusing on your nose to inhale, focus on expanding your diaphragm to draw air in. When breathing effectively, your belly and ribs will expand outward. Then they naturally move in as you exhale.

Calmly inhale (from your diaphragm) when you find yourself needing to pause, instead of saying “um,” or any other verbal placeholders. This is a simple and effective fix for an annoying problem.

2- Improve Your Body Language

Here are the body language suggestions that I offer to speakers most often:

  • Slow down. Breathing well will accomplish this, and your audience will appreciate your relaxed nature. You may not get to say everything you want, but saying less could actually be more effective. 
  • Glance at notes, don’t read them. Don’t read your notes to the audience – it lowers your head and will keep you from connecting with your listeners. Type a phrase to remind you of each talking point, and use a large font size so you can just glance at the page.
  • Engage people with your eyes. Are you looking at the folks you’re talking to or are your eyes darting around? Don’t just look at one person either. Pick a couple of friendly faces in the room and let your eyes connect with them as you present. 
  • Don’t play with things in your hands. It distracts the listeners. Instead, rest your hands and focus on your breathing to calm you down.

3- Show Your Passion for the Topic

Of course we want to come across as professional, but the real reason you do social justice work is that you care about it. Be sure to let people know what your connection is to the issue you’re talking about. Use your personal connection and caring as a source of energy for your public speaking. Showing your passion for the topic can draw people in to a place where they can feel passionately about it too.

It can be feel risky to show people that we really care about the issue we’re presenting on. But it can also be energizing, and a great means to draw people into the struggle for justice you’re leading.

4- Give Others a Chance to Talk

When you know that you’re talking to people affected by your issue (and hopefully you are if you are choosing your speaking engagements well), take advantage of the chance to be talking with people, not just talk at people. Think creatively about how you use your time in front of a group.

  • Are there questions you want them to ask you?
  • Are there questions you want them to ask each other?

The goal of public speaking is to build relationships, and your talking points are a tool. Don’t get so focused on delivering talking points that you miss a chance for connection.

At a minimum, allow time for question and answer. If you have enough time, consider the option of pairing people up so audience members can take turns sharing their thoughts on the topic. Even giving three minutes each can give folks a chance to think aloud and lead to a more energized post-presentation discussion where you can connect with people.

So, breathe, pay attention to what your body is doing, show your passion and give others a chance to talk. You’ll feel more confident and both you and your audience will get more out of the experience.

There’s More

This is part two of a three-part series on public speaking for social justice activists. Part One is on Effective Preparation.

And what about when you’re speaking to the media? That’s Part Three of the Confident Public Speaking Series: Being a Media Spokesperson. 

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