As a communication coach who works with top CEOs and entrepreneurs, I cover many advanced communication concepts in my column, but sometimes it's important to take a refresher lesson on the basics.
I was reminded of this when I joined my daughter for a golf lesson on the first day of the new year. She's just starting to learn the game, whereas I've been playing for years. So I asked an instructor to work with my daughter on fundamentals and to help me with advanced skills like shaping shots.
"Sure, let's see you hit a few," the instructor said. After watching about five swings, the instructor stopped me and said, "You need to fix some basic flaws before getting to an advanced level." After we made a few simple tweaks, I hit the golf ball better than ever.
Golf is a skill that takes practice. In the same way, public speaking is a skill that you can learn and get really good at--once you apply the fundamentals.
As a communication coach, I often start by watching videos of clients giving presentations. In most cases, they've picked up some bad habits that need to be fixed before they can climb to more advanced levels. Here, a few things to keep in mind.
1. Make eye contact.
Our brains have evolved to assess whether a person may pose a threat. That's why we form impressions in as little as a few seconds. Since eyes are one of the first things we scan, we quickly lose trust if the other person avoids eye contact.
The fix is simple. Make eye contact. One way to force yourself to engage with your audience is to minimize the text you write on PowerPoint slides. You'll have less to read, and less text means more eye contact.
Eye contact is critical for remote presentations, too. Avoid placing your computer or device at an awkward angle that forces you to look up at the webcam or down at it. Instead, set your webcam at eye level, internalize your content, and deliver it confidently.
2. Release the hands.
Once again, our ancient brains evolved to assess threats. We tend to trust people when they make eye contact and when we see their hands.
A tense body leads to public speaking faults. Most people make the common mistake of looking too stiff. They keep their hands locked tightly by their sides or tucked into their pockets.
Free your hands. Make hand gestures to complement your words. One study published in the Harvard Business Review found that, when it comes to successfully pitching a new idea, gestures matter more than words.
In a remote setting, make sure your audience can see your hands by positioning your camera two or three feet away so more of your upper body remains visible.
3. Eliminate filler words.
We use filler words like um and ah naturally in conversation to fill the silence while we're thinking, but too many fillers become annoying because they break up the rhythm of speech.
For example, "So, um, if you look on this slide, you'll see that it, ah, shows the company's revenue for, um, 2021, compared with, ah, you know, our annual goal."
By simply eliminating filler words, we can make the sentence shorter and easier to follow: "This slide shows the company's revenue for 2021 compared with our annual goal."
Filler words are annoying and distracting. Get rid of most of them.
4. Smile to radiate confidence.
We all want to hear from people who are excited about the topic they're speaking about. If you love the topic, then put a smile on your face.
In one set of experiments, Swiss researchers discovered that a simple smile made people appear more "attractive" both in their facial expressions and personalities. When speakers are nervous or concentrating on what they're going to say next, they frown or pinch their lips.
The easiest fix is to remind yourself to smile. When I deliver a keynote or virtual presentation, I've put so much time into creating the content that I often forget to have fun. My solution: I draw a big smiley face on my notes as a reminder to express my enthusiasm for the topic.
Great public speakers are made, not born. Public speaking is a skill that anyone can sharpen. Get comfortable with the basics, and you'll see yourself improve in no time.