4 Tips for Not Being an Awkward Public Speaker (Even if You're Awkward)

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I'm an awkward guy. The only perfect test score I've ever gotten in my life was on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I score 100% on the introvert scale every time.

Starting new conversations are terrifying for me. Add to that a five-minute attention span and you have: Awkward.

Yet, I make a living as a professional speaker, consultant, and classroom instructor. 

I thrive in front of really big crowds. 

The front of the room or on-stage are the only places in my life where I don't feel any semblance of anxiety or hesitation. Some psychologists call my state of mind while speaking flow, or the optimal state of consciousness.

I feel really lucky. For a lot of you, public speaking can be a waking nightmare. 

Over my career, I've been drawn to helping hundreds of people who self-identify as "awkward" learn the art of public speaking. I have been amazed and inspired by seeing people who never thought they could speak in front of five people come alive on-stage in front of thousands. 

These are four simple tips (among many) I've learned along the way that can help you deliver an authentic and amazing presentation. 

1. Find a way to fall in love with your topic

Most people don't have the luxury at work and in life to choose the topics they speak about unless they are a professional speaker.

You do, however, have the luxury of choosing how you feel about it. Becoming authentically passionate about your topic is one of the most overlooked steps in preparing for a talk.

Early in my career I was tasked with training part-time office workers on how to stuff materials into folders for an event.

As I was preparing for the presentation, I decided to imagine where each of the handouts were going and what might happen if someone actually read and used them.

It happened that the office workers were stuffing materials for an orientation program at a university. 

In the training, I decided to tell a story about how one of the handouts with a tutoring resource could enable a student to graduate and go on to change the world.

I didn't train the office workers on how to stuff folders, I trained them on how to "design a world-changing experience." 

A few weeks after the training I was leaving the office after-hours and I saw one of the trainees carefully straightening a label on a folder.

"What are you still doing here?" I asked.

"I am creating an experience Zach!" she replied.

Try to approach everything you speak about as the most amazing thing in the world. 

2. Ditch the script

While meticulous preparation is critical for any talk, scripts are like anchors. They only bring presenters down. I've never left a talk and said to myself, "That script was so well-written!"

Communication researchers have found that just 7% of what people learn about you comes from the actual words you are saying. The other 93% comes from your body language and tone of voice.

In preparation, you should spend as much or more time on the delivery as you do on the content.

Try this exercise once you've prepared your talk to work on authentic delivery:

  • Find somewhere you won't be interrupted and set a timer for the length of your talk.
  • For the first run-through, practice with the script, filling the entire time until the timer goes off.
  • Set your timer again. Now, toss the script. Again, talk for the entire time no matter what. If you start stumbling, make yourself keep talking until the timer goes off.
  • When you're done, use the script for a review of key points or data you may have missed, then toss it again. 
  • Keep repeating this exercise.
  • Oh, and keep a notepad nearby. You'll be surprised at the amazing ideas around your topic that come out when you ditch the script!

3. Don't test the microphone!

Right when you tap the microphone and whisper, "Is this on?" you've lost credibility and it's an uphill climb to regain the audience's confidence.

Have you ever been really pumped up for a talk that started with awkward microphone tapping?

Check with the tech staff before your talk and trust them.

One time I was giving a talk to around 100 people in a lecture hall. I tested the microphone about 10 minutes before my talk, but right when I got on-stage the battery died. I literally threw the microphone to the side, went and stood on a chair, and started like nothing happened.

The group loved it.

Afterwards, people were lining up to talk to me. But most of their comments weren't about the presentation. They were complimenting me on how I handled the technical issues at the beginning.

Remember, it's not what you say, but how you say it that people truly remember. 

If you can see the stage or the front of the room, it's too late to not be confident.

Commit 110% and trust your preparation (and your microphone).

4. Name the weirdness

Finally, if something is weird, name it. If your PowerPoint slide is out of order, name it. If there is a weird loud sound coming from outside of the room, name it. 

I always make it a point to verbally name anything my audience might be thinking. Naming shows that you're in it with the audience and that you're authentic.

The most awkward presentations I've ever been to are when something really strange happens in the room and the presenter acts like nothing is going on. 

One time, I was in a conference presentation and all of a sudden the projector fell half-way down from the ceiling.

The audience was having a good laugh at it, but the presenter kept going on, eyes glued to his PowerPoint slides.

Unfortunately for the presenter, the audience bonded over this "near-death" experience and were laughing and joking together.

Instead of being in it with them and capitalizing on the energy, the presenter droned on and the audience tuned out...for forty-five more minutes.

Remember you are a human. Your audience members are humans. No one expects you to be perfect, they just expect you to be...you. 

Zach is a speaker, instructor, and trainer who speaks and writes about purpose-driven living, leading and working.

Follow Zach on Twitter: @ZachMercurio

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