In this article I interview Matt Abrahams a highly talented educator and public speaking coach. Matt’s Ted Talks and talks at Stanford University on effective communication and public speaking have been seen over 17 Million times online.
This article contains everything you need to know to thrive in your next presentation or speech.
- How to prepare a speech
- How to structure a speech
- How to practice a speech
- How to calm your nerves before a speech
- Public speaking dos and don’ts
- How to improve your improv skills
- How to be a good storyteller
The antidote to the curse of knowledge
Michael Frank: Let’s get straight into it. I want to go super deep in this interview. I want to know everything you know… I want you to rain down public speaking tips on me…
Matt Abrahams: Okay, let me start by saying that a lot of people make the mistake of being very self-centric when they do public speaking, or run meetings.
They think about:
“Here is what I need to say”
Instead of asking the question:
“What does my audience need to hear?”
The reality is that most of us in a public speaking situation, know more than our audience, and then we suffer from the curse of knowledge. We make assumptions, we use acronyms, we use jargon, we rush through things, because from our perspective, we know it.
But if you take time to say:
“What does my audience need to know on this topic?”
Then that’s the antidote to the curse of knowledge, because then you start thinking, well you need to know this, you need to have this expectation etc.
Reconnaissance and reflection
Once you have a topic or an idea, ask yourself:
“What does my audience need to know about this?”
And in order to answer that question, you really have to understand who your audience is.
So you need to do reconnaissance and reflection:
What is their knowledge level?
What are their expectations?
What are their attitudes?
What questions might they have?
We have to think about all of these things before we start crafting our presentation.
Think about the context
Once we’ve thought about the audience and what they need to know, the next thing we have to do is think about the context.
How are we communicating?
Is it face to face?
Is it virtual?
Are some people in front of me, with others on the phone or video?
That influences how I structure and create my messages.
Think about timing and time zones
You also have to think about timing and time zones.
If I’m giving a presentation at 9:00 AM and I’ve had my coffee and I’m ready to go, I have to realize that maybe I’m speaking to you on the other side of the world and it’s your evening and you’re ready to go to the pub. You might be in a very different psychological space than I am, which means I have to change what I say and how I say it.
Finally, around context, we have to also think about sequencing.
Remember: Most of us are not the only people speaking at a meeting or a presentation.
How does what goes before me and after me influence what people will think and remember?
If you are working in a company, and you have to go to your executives to ask for something, do you think it might matter if the person who goes in before you tells them bad news?
Of course it would.
So you need to adjust and adapt your content, not just based on the audience, but also the context.
What do you want the audience to think, feel and do?
Once you’ve thought about your audience and the context that leads you to your goal.
I believe all high stakes communication fundamentally must have a direct goal, and to me a goal has three parts:
- What do you want your audience to know?
- How do you want your audience to feel?
- What do you want your audience to do?
So after you’ve thought about your audience and the context, you should be able to articulate your goal in one sentence. And this goal will serve as your magnetic north for everything you do in your presentation. It will help you to fix the structure, the examples, the stories, and all of that is predicated on having a clear goal again, which comes from your audience and context.
Structure your content
Once you have your goal, you then need to structure your content.
I have a huge bias towards structure. Many of us have listened to speakers who just ramble. And when they do that, you as an audience member really have to struggle to figure out:
- Why are they saying this?
- What’s important about this?
- How is this relevant to me?
And that’s a lot of effort.
Some people will make that effort, but begrudgingly, and then they have a negative attitude towards you because you’re making them work so hard. And other people just give up. They go to their phones, they go to their friends, they go to sleep, they’re not paying attention to you. So it’s really critical to have a structure.
Matt’s fav structure: What? So What? Now What?
There are lots of structures you can use.
My favorite structure is:
- So what?
- Now what?
In this structure, you explain:
What is it you’re talking about?
Why is it important to the people you’re talking to?
What can people do with this information? What comes next?
It’s critical to come up with a structure, and I don’t care what that structure is, but it needs to be clear.
And the added benefit of having a structure is not only does it help your audience, but it helps you as a communicator.
If I get lost in my presentation, I just have to remember my structure. A structure is a map, and you can’t get lost if you have a map. So the structure not only helps you, it helps your audience as well.
Memorizing vs. being familiar and spontaneous
Now good speakers will memorize their content, and some people will write out everything they want to say word for word, and then they will create an outline from that script.
That’s okay, especially if you have to be very specific about certain arguments and language, or if you’re a non native speaker presenting in a language that’s not your own. Writing out a script and then creating the outline can be helpful.
Great speakers however, tend to not only be very familiar with their content, but they will have some spontaneity and connection with the audience in the moment.
And as an audience member you feel that, because it’s happening there in front of you, and it’s not some pre-rehearsed, pre-remembered oration.
So there is a big difference between memorizing vs. being familiar. A lot of people struggle with that. They say, “Oh my goodness, if I don’t have those words memorized, I’m going to forget”.
Create a question based outline and learn it well
If you’re worried about forgetting your speech, I’d like to suggest a couple things:
Create a question based outline and learn it well. A lot of professional speakers do this, and I do too. So it’s not bullet points and key phrases. It’s just a list of questions.
There’s a lot of research in the field of memory and cognition that says if you quiz yourself about what you’re saying or trying to remember, you’re more likely to remember it.
So after I practice a few times I’ll say to myself:
What’s the best way to give that example?
Where is the best place to use that transition?
And by asking myself those questions, it helps me to focus and remember.
If you have a question based outline when you’re presenting, you will be more conversational by definition, because you are simply answering your audiences unasked questions, and when we answer questions, we are more engaging, we’re more conversational, and we’re more connected.
The second thing is if you’re really afraid of forgetting because you haven’t memorized, realize that there’s some things you can do:
Go back to go forward
First, if you forget and blank out, go back to go forward.
In other words: Just repeat yourself.
If you lose your car keys, how do you find them?
You retrace your steps.
If you lose your place in your speech, how do you get back on track?
Repeat what you just said.
Most of us can remember what we just said. Even if we can’t remember what comes next, by simply repeating what we just said it helps us to get on track.
Have a back pocket question to buy time
Second, have a back pocket question.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: There are times when I’m giving my lectures that I’ll forget what I need to say next, and when I forget, I simply stop speaking and ask my audience a question.
What I’ll say is something like this:
“Let’s pause for a moment, and I’d like for each of you to think about what we just discussed and how you can use that skill and apply it to your own life”
My students never think:
“Matt has forgotten what he wanted it to say!”
Instead they think:
“Wow, Matt’s really concerned that I really get this information and learn how to use it!”
And while they’re thinking that, I’ll figure out where I need to go next.
And if I’m really lost I’ll say:
“I’d like to stop for a moment and have you think about something valuable we just covered and how you can apply it. I’d like you to turn to the person next to you and share”
That gives me extra time.
So if you blank out:
- Go back to go forward, repeat what you just said
- Ask your audience a question to buy yourself time
There are ways to get out of that situation and simply knowing that you have those ways makes people feel much less nervous about blanking out or forgetting.
Practice out loud
When you’re practicing your presentation or speech it’s really important to practice out loud.
Most of us, especially in high stakes business presentations, create slide decks. And when we practice, what we do is we look at our slide decks and we just think about what it is we’re going to say. And I often joke that in my mind I’m amazingly eloquent, but when I open up my mouth, I’m not always as lucky.
You need to actually vocalize when you practice, and actually speak out loud.
That’s a big one. People just don’t take the time to practice. And when they do, they don’t vocalize.
Chunk the content
When I’m practicing my presentation or speech I will also chunk the content so I’m not practicing it from beginning to end, beginning to end, again and again.
I might practice the beginning a couple of times, and then I might practice the middle, and then I might practice the end a little later.
And then another time I might practice the end first and then the middle.
When I’m practicing, I might practice in front of people, or I might record it. I believe digital recording is a wonderful tool for practicing because then you get to watch it.
Watch your recording 3 ways
When you watch your recording, I challenge people to watch it in three ways:
1. Watch it without sound. That way you’re focusing on your nonverbal behaviors only.
2. Listen to it without watching it. This allows you to hear what your voice is doing in a way that you can’t when your body’s moving at the same time.
3. Watch and listen to it. And in doing it in those three ways, every single time you will see something different.
I’ll also tell you about a wonderful tool, and I have no connection to this company at all except I really like their tool. It’s an app called Virtual Speech
You get yourself a pair of VR goggles, cheap ones or really expensive ones, it does not matter. You get the app on your phone, you put the goggles on, and this app allows you to create a virtual audience to speak in front of. It can be a large audience like a Ted Talk, it could be a small conference room, or it could be one on one.
You even get to set the level of engagement the audience has. Sometimes they’ll nod and pay attention. Other times they’ll literally fall asleep or look at their phones. And this is a great way to practice because it gets you used to people’s responses.
A tool like virtual speech is a great way to just prepare yourself, so that you’re used to what might happen in front of you.
And what’s cool about this is if you have slides, you can actually upload the slides and in the virtual environment turn behind you and see your slides. It’s cool.
Get to the venue 30-45 minutes early
Michael Frank: In terms of the actual presentation of the speech, whether you’re speaking to 50, 500 or 5,000 people, how early do you typically get to the venue?
Matt Abrahams: I like to get to the venue maybe 30 minutes in advance. Sometimes you need to get there earlier if you have technology to deal with.
I don’t like to be there too soon. And the reason for that is it’s very easy to get into your head. I’d rather just show up 30 minutes early. It gives me time to go meet people, to get some cold water to hold, and some warm water to drink.
So I wouldn’t get there too early in advance. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury and you have to do what they ask of you. But I’m thinking 30-45 minutes tops in advance of the event.
Try to get into the room beforehand
You should also definitely try to get into the room where you’ll be doing the presentation or running the meeting beforehand, just so you can get a sense of it and desensitize yourself.
Dealing with anxiety and nervousness
Michael Frank: What do you do to calm your nerves before a speech?
Matt Abrahams: Well when we get nervous:
- Our heart beats faster
- We feel tighter because things tense up
- Some of us get a little shaky
- Some of us perspire and blush
- We talk fast
All of these are normal and natural fight or flight responses to the threat that we feel in high stakes speaking situations.
There are a number of things we can do to reduce those symptoms.
Take a deep belly breath
First and foremost, taking a really deep belly breath, the kind of breath you would take if you were doing Qigong, Tai Chi or Yoga, really deep belly breathing, slowing down that breath, will reduce the autonomic nervous systems fight or flight response.
Do big gestures
Do big gestures, and gesture more slowly. What that does is it helps to give that adrenaline, that epinephrine that’s running through you that causes the shakes, a place to go.
I’m not saying to move in slow motion, but just by expanding your gestures, by having your gestures go out a little farther, it will slow them down, and we are unable to speak fast and gesture slow. We sync up our gesture rate with our speaking rate, so the slower you gesture, the slower you’ll speak.
Nervous speakers make themselves tight and in so doing they make the shakiness worse.
Hold a cold bottle of water
If you’re like me and you perspire and blush, that’s because your core body temperature goes up when you tense up, and as your heart beats faster, you get hotter, and it’s like you have a fever.
Much like on a cold day where you would hold something warm in your hands like coffee or tea to warm up, by holding something cold in your hands like a cold bottle of water, it will help to reduce your core body temperature, the blushing, and the sweating.
Drink some warm water
I also make sure that I am drinking some warm water, even though I’m holding something cold, just to make sure I don’t have a dry mouth.
Get yourself present orientated
Michael Frank: If you were going to give another Ted Talk or another talk at Stanford or another talk in front of a large audience, and you had the adrenaline going through your body, what would you be doing five minutes, one minute, thirty seconds before you went on to focus your energy and yourself?
Matt Abrahams: I would do a couple things: First and foremost, I would make sure to get myself present oriented.
Many of us get nervous because we’re worried about potential negative future outcomes. We’re afraid of what could go wrong or what might happen.
So if you get yourself present oriented, you’re not worried about the future by definition, and you’re able to really focus on the task at hand.
Speak tongue twisters
How do I get present orientated?
I do a few things: One, I actually speak tongue twisters out loud, not where others can hear me, but I speak tongue twisters because you can’t say a tongue twister right, and not be in the present moment.
Second, saying a tongue twister warms up your voice. Many nervous speakers get stuck in their head and they think about a lot of things, but they don’t warm up your voice. If you’re an athlete preparing to do your sport, you would warm up before you started. Same thing with speaking.
Michael Frank: What are the tongue twisters that you use? Any you can recommend?
Matt Abrahams: I’ll share two with you. One is very simple and it’s not really a tongue twister. It’s just saying two rhyming words. It’s a couplet.
So if you say the words “Tea Cup” and “Hiccup” multiple times:
You can feel where those words are being vocalized.
When I say the word “Tea Cup”, it’s right in the front part of my mouth. And when I say the word “Hiccup”, it’s in the back part of my throat. So by simply saying, “Tea Cup-Hiccup”, “Tea Cup-Hiccup”, “Tea Cup-Hiccup”, I’m warming up my whole mouth so that when I speak, it’s already to go.
I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit, and on that slitted sheet I sit
My favorite tongue twister of all time, and the reason I like this one is if you say it wrong, you say a naughty word.
“I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit, and on that slitted sheet I sit”
But any tongue twister works, it just gets you focused and it warms up your voice.
Go out and meet the audience before you start
One of my other favorite ways to get present oriented, and I do this about five minutes before I speak, is I go out and meet my audience. I shake their hands, I talk to them, and this gets me present oriented. I can’t be worried about the future if I’m staring somebody in the face, shaking their hands and getting to know them.
Second, this can also help because it makes me realize who these people are. They’re not mean, they’re not evil, they’re there to get some value from me. So if I’m five minutes out, I’m addressing that source of future orientation.
Remind yourself: There is no “right” way to do it
When it comes to a minute out, I’m reminding myself that what I’m doing is not about performing. Many of us come to high stakes communication thinking we have to perform, that there’s a “right” way to do it.
When we’re at school or when we play a sport or do acting or singing or dancing, there’s a right way to do it, and we bring that mentality of “I have to do it right – I’m performing” when we’re in front of people in high stakes communication situations.
But the reality is this: There is no right way to communicate. There are better ways and worse ways, but there is no one right way.
So I remind myself that I’m not performing, and instead I like to see my communication as a conversation with my audience. So I’m not performing for them. It’s a conversation. This changes the way I look at the whole interaction.
I might be the only one speaking at the moment, but they’re giving me feedback through their nods, through their eye contact, or if they’re distracted and looking at their phones, all of that is their contribution to our conversation.
- 5 minutes out: I’m trying to get present oriented
- 1 minute out: I’m reminding myself that I’m in conversation, not performing
- 30 seconds out: I’m doing some things to manage the symptoms that I’m having
5 seconds to go: “FOCUS”
Five seconds before I go on, I say a quick mantra to myself.
My mantra is very simple: “FOCUS”
When I tell myself to “FOCUS”, it not only helps me to focus, but it helps to bring me right into the present and tells me that what I’m about to do is important, and it gives me the energy that I need.
Reframe the fear to excitement
Now a lot of our nonverbal symptoms that we can get when we’re anxious, can be similar or exactly the same as those that we experience when we’re excited.
If I came up to you and said: “I just found $1 million and I’m going to share it with you!”
You’d be really excited. You’d get sweaty, your heart rate would go up, you might get a little shaky, and those are the same symptoms you might be feeling if I said:
“Hey, I can’t speak right now, can you get up and speak in front of this crowd?”
So the symptoms are the same, but in one case you’re really excited, in another case you might be filled with dread.
Michael Frank: So you would reframe the fear to excitement:
“I’m not feeling fearful – I’m feeling excited!”
Matt Abrahams: Exactly right. And that’s the last thing I tell myself before I go on, because as you mentioned earlier, you want to engage your audience, you want to be relevant for your audience, and this will allow you to bring excitement and passion to your topic.
How to hook the audience at the beginning
Michael Frank: How do you go about hooking the audience at the beginning of a speech?
Matt Abrahams: I’m glad you asked that question.
I so want speeches and presentations in meetings to avoid starting like:
“Hi, my name is, and today I’m going to talk about…”
I would say upwards of 90% of presentations and meetings start that way. And the humorous part of it is that people are often standing in front of a slide that has their name and their topic, so they’re just repeating what’s up there.
I believe all presentations and meetings should start like a James Bond movie. There should be action, and then after the action, then you can introduce yourself and your topic.
What might the action look like?
It could be:
- Showing a video clip
- Asking a question
- Taking a poll
- Giving a startling statistic
- Having people look at a very enticing or engaging image
All of that gets people’s attention.
Help people to understand the value they’re going to get
Once you’ve got their attention, the next step is to help people to understand the value they’re going to get.
You have to justify why people should continue, so you have to share with them what they’re going to get out of it, and why it’s important. Then and only then, might you introduce yourself, give a preview of what’s coming etc.
Public speaking dos and don’ts
Michael Frank: Are there any specific public speaking mistakes that we should seek to avoid?
Matt Abrahams: I always like to share what people should do, rather than what they shouldn’t do, just because I think it makes people feel better, and it’s more empowering.
So I’ll frame these as should, rather than should not.
Speak spontaneously rather than scripted
People should speak more spontaneously than scripted. That’s the number one thing.
You content should focus on your audiences wants and needs, desires and fears
You should make sure that your content is audience centric, rather than being focused on the self. It’s about them, not you.
Be concise and clear
You should make sure that you’re concise and clear rather than rambling.
Package information in a way that makes it easy to digest
You should make sure that you package and present information in a way that is easy for the audience to digest.
So instead of going through everything and then taking questions at the end, you might take questions throughout to make sure people are following what you’re saying.
Take Improv classes
Michael Frank: Let’s talk Improv because a lot of people like me find it extremely difficult. Speaking off the cuff and being put on the spot can be tough.
Matt Abrahams: Well one of the recommendations I always make to people once they’ve begun on their journey to becoming a better speaker, is I encourage them to consider taking improvisation classes.
Improv is not just about being funny. In fact, very little of it is about being funny. It’s about being comfortable in spontaneous and undefined situations. It’s about being willing to put yourself out there, and you learn to do that by playing silly little games, but in that experience you learn a lot about how to have poise and confidence in situations.
Improv 4 step process
Michael Frank: What are some things that we can do to improve our Improv skills apart from the obvious “practice”?
Matt Abrahams: To me it’s really a four step process.
1. Address the anxiety you’re feeling
It starts first by making sure that you address the anxiety that you’re feeling whenever you’re in these spontaneous situations. Whatever the symptoms are that you’re feeling, address those first.
2. Get out of your own way
Once you feel like taking a deep breath, or moving around to get rid of the shakes has been dealt with, the next thing you have to do is get out of your own way.
A lot of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do it right. Whatever the “it” is.
We want to do the best we can, but by putting that pressure on ourselves, from a cognitive point of view, cognitive neuroscientists study this, it’s adding cognitive load. It’s putting a lot of pressure on yourself, which gives you less bandwidth to actually focus on what you’re doing.
There’s a wonderful phrase in Improv that really addresses this:
“Dare to be dull”
I have the audacity to stand up in front of Stanford MBA students, some of the brightest business students in the world, and say: “Dare to be dull” and the room gets hushed and you can just hear a pin drop, because they’ve never been told to just “Be dull”. They’ve always been told to overachieve. To be amazingly successful.
And I would argue, and research actually backs this up, that if you remove the pressure of trying to do it so well and just get it done, you then actually have the resources available to achieve greatness.
So after dealing with anxiety, the next step is to get yourself out of your own way, and reduce the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Just do it.
3. Reframe: See it as an opportunity
The next step after that is to make sure that you are seeing the situation as a positive one.
Many of us in spontaneous situations see them as negative, as challenges, as things we have to defend against. Think of a Q&A session. You finish a presentation or a meeting and people start asking questions. Most of us get very defensive.
Instead, see it as an opportunity. This is an opportunity for me to extend, to expand, to help, and by seeing it as an opportunity, it changes my whole demeanor. I relax, I’m less stressed, and I can answer questions more fully.
So get out of your own way, and then stay open to the situation rather than getting defensive.
4. Address what’s being asked
The next step is to make sure we’re actually responding to what’s been asked.
A lot of us, because we’re nervous, or we get in our own way, we don’t actually address what’s being asked of us in the moment.
So if somebody asks you to give feedback, or somebody asks you a question, you really want to make sure you’re answering the right question and giving the right type of feedback. So you have to listen intently.
And this is where paraphrasing comes in.
A great way to validate that you’re getting the right question, or getting the right feedback, is to paraphrase and say:
“So what you’re really asking is this”
“You’d like me to give you feedback about this”
Once you get that validation, then you can answer, and that’s where structure comes in.
Rely on structure
The final part of this process is to rely on structure.
When you have to speak spontaneously, you have two fundamental tasks.
You have to address
- What you’re saying
- How you’re saying it
Structure gives you the how you’re saying it, so that you simply need to plug the what you’re saying, into the structure.
It halves your challenge, it halves your burden.
So again the 4 step improv process is:
- Manage your anxiety
- Get out of your own way
- Make sure you’re open to the opportunity
- Listen well and address what’s being asked
And then provide a structure.
If you practice that process in low stakes situations and begin to feel comfortable with it, speaking spontaneously becomes much, much easier.
When you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to
Michael Frank: I laugh when you say, make sure you’re answering the question because there have been a number of times on the podcast where I’ve received a brilliant answer to a question I’ve never asked.
Matt Abrahams: These people are preparing to be politicians Michael!
Michael Frank: Any thoughts about answering a question when you’re put on the spot, and you don’t really know what you’re talking about?
Matt Abrahams: I’m a big fan of being honest, so I wouldn’t make anything up.
I would simply say:
“I don’t know the answer to that, here’s what I’m going to do to find the answer”
Or if you have an inkling or a hunch, then I would say:
“My hunch is, it’s going to be something like this… but I’ll make sure to get back to you”
If you do that once or twice in an interaction, people forgive that.
If you’re doing it to every question, then there’s a problem.
But I am a big fan of being honest.
The other thing you can do in those situations is you can reframe it. I’m not saying to be a politician, but if you can reframe it to something you’re more comfortable answering, then that might be a wise choice.
I’ll give you an example that comes from the business world.
Often a very uncomfortable question for sales and marketing people has to do with pricing.
So if somebody asks you:
“Why are you so expensive?”
That’s a hard question to answer.
You don’t want to say “We’re not expensive” because then you’re insulting the people, and you don’t want to agree and say “We are expensive” because that’s a problem too.
So you can reframe that question and say:
“What you’re really asking about is value”
And then you can give your value proposition, and then at the end of that you can come back and say:
“Because of that value, we charge the price we charge”
So you always answer the question, but you can reframe it to something that’s a little more comfortable.
Anticipate questions before they’re asked
This of course requires forethought in advance of that communication.
I have to think:
“What are the challenging questions I might get asked?”
“How could I reframe them so they’re less challenging?”
So I’m not doing that on the spot. That’s really cognitively demanding. I’ve already thought of it in advance, and I have thought of it such that when it comes up, I immediately can go there.
Michael Frank: Very smart. Prior to going to meetings in particular you should anticipate questions which are likely to be thrown at you, and anticipate subjects which are likely to come up instead of going in there blind.
How to be a good storyteller
Michael Frank: Let’s talk storytelling. I feel that the best speakers are master storytellers, but it’s not something that is often taught. A lot of people are clueless as to how to tell a good story. What are the elements of a good story and how does one become a better storyteller?
Read and listen to good storytellers
Matt Abrahams: First, you need to become sensitive to what good stories are. That’s important.
You need to listen to good speakers who tell good stories, and you need to read good stories yourself. Getting a sense of story is important.
It’s hard to take somebody who really hasn’t thought about stories, and make them good storytellers. So that’s a foundational principle. Read good stories, listen to speakers you like, and listen to their stories.
Read: Made to Stick
The next thing to think about is stories are more than just narrations of facts and ideas. There’s an emotional component, there’s a cadence, there’s surprise etc.
There are many books on storytelling. One of the best, and it’s not sold as a storytelling book, but it’s a book called Made to Stick written by Dan and Chip Heath. They articulate six key principles to make ideas stick. And all of these ideas have to do with good storytelling.
Make things concrete
One principle is to make things concrete. So when you describe something, describe it with concrete detail.
I don’t know if your listeners will remember when I was telling about my horrific experience I had as a 14 year old boy giving my speech. I told you it was a cold Saturday morning. It was a large room. Lots of people in it. I was trying to put you in the room with me. So there’s a description. It’s very vivid.
Use inclusive language
Another key element is to make sure that you are using inclusive language.
Say things like:
“What do you think?”
“Have you ever wondered how…?”
“Imagine what it would be like if…”
That kind of language invites people in and it’s really important to do that.
I’ll give you a classic example. Many people end their presentations by saying things like:
“Today I discussed”
Instead of saying:
“Today you learned”
You’re saying the same thing.
But by saying “Today I discussed” that actually puts a distance between you and your audience. Whereas “Today you learned” engages the audience. So this notion of warmth and connection and engagement, that’s really, really important for your audience. So think about ways you can do that.
Keep it concise
You also want to make sure that your storytelling is concise.
Long winded storytelling gets people lost, so we have to practice telling our stories.
I teach people to stockpile stories.
Everybody should be able to tell a story about:
- A success you had
- A failure you had and what you learned from it
- An embarrassing moment you had
- Somebody you respect and why
You should have all of these are stories stockpiled. You should have thought about them. You should have practiced speaking them so that you can invoke those stories. So it’s about preparation. It’s about using certain ingredients like concrete detail and vivid language, and it’s about having a stockpile that we can pull from when needed. That’s how you get better at storytelling.
Michael’s favorite public speaking tips
Michael Frank: I want to share with you some of my favorite public speaking tips:
Join Toastmasters – because you need a place to practice.
Toastmasters teaches you everything you need to know to become a great public speaker including:
- How to write a speech
- How to structure a speech
- How to present a speech
- How to give an impromptu speech
- How to evaluate someone else’s speech
- How to tell a story
- How to use the stage
- How to involve the audience
- How to use props
- How to use visual aids
Start a podcast
Even though you’re not in front of a live audience that you can see, starting a podcast is a good idea for a lot of people because it helps you to build upon your communication skills, and you get a feel for your communication style, your pitch, your tone, and things like that.
Know your outcome
Know what you want the audience to:
Having that goal before you start to write or outline your speech is crucial.
Know your audience
Who are they? What do they know? What do they need to know?
Shift your focus from surviving to thriving
Instead of asking like I would have as an inexperienced teenage speaker:
“How do I get through this?”
Switch your focus to:
How can I make this speech awesome?
How can I make this speech incredible?
How can I make this speech the best ever?
When you shift your focus from surviving to thriving it really does direct your energy in the right way.
Put yourself in the shoes of your audience
What kind of speech would I like to see?
What kind of information would I like to learn?
What kind of story would I like to hear?
When you ask those questions it puts you in the shoes of your audience, and it makes you lift your game higher than you would ordinarily.
Be creative in your presentation
There are a million ways to say anything.
Instead of just telling your audience the information you can:
- Ask questions without giving the answers
- Drop clues and hint at it without saying it directly
- Show a diagram, picture, or newspaper headline
- Play some audio or music
- Recite poetry, rap, or sing
- Tell a joke or a story
- Do a celebrity impression, or a foreign accent
Be Creative. Be Different. Be Interesting.
Read the audience in real time
Instead of drifting off into your own world, or getting stuck in your own head and ignoring your audience, look at the audience in the eyes when you speak to them, one by one, and pay attention to how engaged they are.
- Do you need to speak louder?
- Do you need to move closer? Or further back?
- Does your audience seem to be ‘getting it’?
- How engaged is your audience?
- Do you need to clarify anything?
- Do you need to do something right now in order to grab them and get them to listen in and really focus?
Watch the best speakers and steal their ideas
What do the best actors, comedians, speakers etc. do that you should do?
Start stealing the best ideas, strategies and techniques from the world’s best speakers and make them your own.
Don’t try to be like anyone else
Be the best you that you can be. Don’t try to emulate another speaker.
How would I give this presentation if I knew it was my last one ever?
I got this great question from Darren LaCroix the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking.
How would I give this presentation if I knew it was my last one ever?”
Asking that question really brings you out of your shell and it makes you leave everything on the table.
Hold nothing back
The best speakers are not afraid to make a fool of themselves, they just leave it all out there. They’re completely open, vulnerable and uninhibited on stage.
Often there’s a bit of charisma there too, but the best of the best are almost willing to die on the stage.
Michael Frank: Is there anything you would add to those Matt?
Matt Abrahams: Oh my goodness, those are fantastic bits of advice. I agree with all of them. I would simply add this, have fun!
You know, for many of us to think that presenting in front of others could be fun and something we can enjoy is, is an anathema. We’re like, what the? No way.
But when you think about this as an opportunity, when you think about this as a dialogue, as engaging, it can actually be a lot of fun, even if you’re introverted.
So the only thing I would add to that list is enjoy yourself. It does not have to be a traumatic, painful experience.
Repetition, reflection, feedback
Michael Frank: Any final thoughts?
Matt Abrahams: I’d like to suggest one thing, and that is that all of us can improve in our speaking. If you are a seasoned communicator, you can still get better. If you are nervous and new to it, you can improve for sure.
And it boils down to three things:
You need to practice. You need to put in the reps. An athlete doesn’t get better just by thinking about it. He or she actually has to do it.
You have to take time to reflect. Think about what’s working and what’s not working for you, but also what you like about what others do.
There’s some definition of insanity that says doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Many of us treat our communication that way. We just keep doing what we do instead of reflecting and trying to change.
You need feedback. You need feedback from coaches, from teachers, from Toastmaster groups, that’s how you get better.
So it all really boils down to repetition, reflection and feedback. Leveraging podcasts like this, taking courses, reading books, getting coaching, all of that is the way that we get better.
Matt Abrahams: Bold Echo
Michael Frank: I love it Matt. How do we find you online?
Matt Abrahams: Thank you. I invite all of you to take a few moments to check out the things that I have.
So first and foremost, the consulting practice I co-founded is called Bold Echo. We want people to be bold in their messaging and we want it to echo long after they’re gone. You can check out boldecho.com to become a more confident speaker.
The book I’ve written: Speaking up without freaking out
I also curate a website: No Freaking Speaking and there are a lot of free resources from me and others I know who study this, and they’re all easily accessible and hopefully it will be very helpful to anybody wanting to become a more confident and compelling speaker.
Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative and innovative educator and coach. He teaches Effective Virtual Communication and Essentials of Strategic Communication at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Matt is also Co-Founder and Principal at Bold Echo Communication Solutions a presentation and communication skills company based in Silicon Valley that helps people improve their presentation skills.
Matt recently published the third edition of his book Speaking up without freaking out a book written to help the millions of people who wish to present in a more confident and compelling way.
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