The Most Important Lesson I Learned About Public Speaking
When I was a student at Penn State, speech class was required for all business students. I’ll never forget how scared I was of taking this course. Even though I had done some group presentations in classes before, it was another thing to stand up there by myself and present.
In my first speech for the class, I stood in behind the podium, placed my notes on it, and held on with both hands as if my life depended on it. I thought I was going to break the podium with how hard I was holding it. My right knee was also shaking uncontrollably. To keep it from shaking the rest of my body, I shifted all of my weight to my left leg and raised my right leg an inch off the ground. With my body somewhat under control, I read my speech right off my notes, occasionally looking up at the class. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.
For my second speech, I had to talk about a product of some kind and discuss it in some depth. I’m not sure why, but I chose to talk about breakthroughs in DVD technology – yes, at some point, this was cutting edge. I’m not sure why I chose this since I didn’t know much about the technology behind the DVD. Again, I was dreading this speech and started to prepare my notes for the talk. I found facts, figures, and pictures and started to prepare slides and notes.
Breakthrough Advice from a Mentor
But then a mentor offered me some of the most impactful speaking advice I have ever received. Twenty years later, this advice still serves me. He told me to learn about DVD technology to the extent that I could explain it to someone else.
At first this sounded strange because my task was to present to a group of people, not explain it to one person. But then he shared that presenting to an audience is not so different than explaining it to one person. People are still people, there’s just more of them and the message lands on each individual as if they were the only one in the room. He added that if I were to explain it to a friend, I would make sure to keep it simple so that it could be understood. This definitely helped me feel less scared about presenting because it made speaking about helping someone. By making it about serving someone, I got me out of my own head and into my heart, where I can be passionate and enthusiastic.
At its core, speaking is communication. If you can communicate with one person, you can communicate with 100 people.
Good things take time.
When I delivered that speech, I was still nervous, still shaking a little, but it flowed much more naturally than my first one. I actually remembered more of the experience and even enjoyed it a little – very little. I was still incredibly scared and it would be another year or so before I started to feel comfortable with speaking at university events. It took another 12 years of deliberate practice before I started getting paid to speak regularly.
Twenty years and 500 talks after that class, I’m still learning and developing as a speaker.
5 Lessons from My Journey as a Speaker
Here are some lessons I’d like to share that have helped me along my speaking journey. Perhaps these will help you along yours too.
- Never accept to speak about a topic you don’t know well. You don’t have to be an expert, but you have to know your topic. Ultimately, your mission is to add value to your audience. To do that, you have to know what you are talking about.
- Prepare for your talk as if you were going to teach it to a class. The reason for this is because in many ways, you are going to be teaching. This means you have to find out what your audience already knows and what they want to know about your topic. Meet your audience where they are and take them where they want to go.
- Keep the scope of your talk as narrow as possible. My favorite strategy is to only talk about 3 things. Each thing might have 3 things of its own but the point is to keep the scope narrow. In one hour, you’ll be lucky if the audience even remembers three things, so don’t make the scope broader than that. Less is more. I still fall into this trap because I get so excited to share everything I know about a topic!
- Review your speaking notes and cut out anything that doesn’t pertain or add value to your key points. Warning: this is easier said than done because of our desire to give lots of value. Just remember that anything outside of the scope of your topic will only distract your audience.
- Lastly, review your notes again and cut out some more. Even when you think you’ve removed everything unnecessary, there is always a little left.