Have you ever noticed how many public speakers sound the same? It's almost as if you could take the speech of one, hand it to another, and get exactly the same effect. There are the dramatic pauses, the obligatory jokes, the winning smiles.
What's more difficult to find is a genuine person who happens to be giving a talk. If you've ever caught someone who does this well, it can be a great experience. Such speakers are comfortable and you get something from what they say. That's a lot different from the parade of Audio-Animatronics you might expect had escaped from the Walt Disney Public Speaking Factory.
Being genuine when you speak has two great benefits. One is that you'll be more effective, which means that concerns about looking foolish will begin to fall away. The other is that you can ultimately be more comfortable, because you're not trying to be someone else. Here are a lot of tips that mostly come from my own experiences in performing, public speaking, and giving presentations.
1. Care about what you're doing
I've seen people who want to become professional speakers on virtually anything. The topic doesn't matter so much as long as it's sellable. But to be genuine, you need to care about what you're doing. Even if it is a topic that doesn't seem to initially resonate, think about what it means and find connections to what is important to you. That might take some time, but let your mind ponder associations that can bring you and the topic together.
2. Know why you're talking
Communication is always for a purpose. It might be to entertain, to inform, to create a true discussion, to shake people out of their conventions, or even to practice. Know why you're doing it, because the reason affects the way you develop the talk.
3. Talk about what you know
Some people are so excited about talking in front of an audience (or so hungry for speakers' fees) that they'll volunteer to do it on almost any topic. But when you drift away from what you actually know, you become a performer who has cobbled together a part from the work of other people. Not that there's anything wrong with performing, but it is different.
4. Find what you know that others generally don't
You've got a topic that you want to do and you know why you're doing it. But if you can't find something new to say -- which could mean something others have said, although with your own unique connection and way of explaining -- then why should anyone listen? To be genuine, find what you genuinely know, and that's likely to be different from the take anyone else would give.
5. A talk is writing, only more relaxed
Writing a speech can be challenging. But try it as though you were writing a moment, only talking through what you were going to say. Forget about oratorical flourish. Just talk to people.
Don't wait for the last minute to put things together. Give yourself enough time to choose the topic, mull over what you have to say, and write a couple of drafts so it's conversational. If, like me, you often work from notes instead of a full text, then have everything outlined so you remember the points to make. Practice giving the talk, though not in a mirror. Yes, heretical advice, but you're trying to avoid becoming absurdly robotic, and paying attention to yourself in a mirror is a quick way down the wrong path.
7. Actually talk to people
When you're giving a talk, it's really a conversation in which you don't get to hear the other people until the Q&A section or after the event. Treat the people as human beings. Have a sense of the type of language they respond to and then use it, with the understanding that you still want to sound like yourself. If you're in a general crowd, phrase things so that everyone can understand you. However, if talking to a professional crowd, you might add some professional slang because they will understand it and feel odd if you address them as people outside the industry.
8. Think about questions people might have
Part of reaching people is talking about what is important to them. If they've come to your talk, at least the topic grabs them. But go further and anticipate the types of questions that could come up. You could even give your talk to people you know and ask them what questions occur to them. Anticipating someone's desires is a powerful way to make a good impression.
9. Learn how to relax
There are two problems with being wound too tight before a talk. One is that it can encourage fear. The other is that you'll start to talk so fast that no one will be able to tell what you're saying. Research and study some relaxation techniques. Maybe you'll use an exercise like progressive relaxation, during which you tense and loosen all the muscles you can, but one set at a time. Or you might try meditation. Find what works for you.
10. Don't rush
Ah, one of my biggest challenges. Talking fast when feeling pressure may let you get through things faster, but you may be making it less understandable for the audience. Relaxing will help. You can also try to deliberately speak more slowly than your nature says is reasonable. Chances are good that even when you think you're in the middle of the Bob & Ray bit about the Slow Talkers of America (click the link and listen if you're not familiar with them), you're still racing along.
11. Pace your talk
In addition to not rushing your talking, see how it plays out ahead of time and be sure the pacing works. Does one part lead to a question that a second answers, but so far along that people may have forgotten their question in the first place? Are you speaking so long that anyone with sense will run off in search of a blanket and pillow? Pacing is one of the more difficult aspects to learn, but the sooner you pay attention, the sooner you can pick it up.
12. Don't lie
Never, ever lie to an audience. I'm sure you have too much self-worth and integrity to do it intentionally, but it's easy to do so accidentally. You pick a statistic here, a quote there, and pretty soon you've got lots of material that you don't realize was actually fabricated. Do enough research to see whether something that sounds too good to be true actually is.
13. Speak louder
Many people talk too softly and, when asked by someone else to speak up, rally their strength and say the same thing without a change in volume. Don't be that person. Speak strongly and clearly so people can hear you. That's why they're showing up.
14. Use your hands
This is one tip I'm picking up from elsewhere, because it is intriguing. One of the standard bits of advice you'll hear is to artfully use your hands to illustrate your points. Don't pose, but let your hands speak. In an analysis of TED Talks, the blog Science of People found that the more gestures, the more views. Go ahead and use your hands to help describe what you're saying. People like it because they get non-verbal communications in addition to the words.
15. Kill the slide deck
Come on, you know you hate them. Slide decks almost never convey anything useful. If you have graphics that really, really illustrate what you're saying, then maybe you can add a few slides. But you're better off not bothering, because otherwise your audience will fall asleep.
16. Provide handouts
If you do use graphics, then provide copies to the audience. Also, put together resource lists, summaries, and other materials that might make it easier for people to connect after the talk and get something practical out of it.
17. Leave them asking for more
Shorter is better, so you go out on a high note.
18. To be better, do it more often
If you want to be more natural giving a talk, give more talks. Like anything else, practice may not make you perfect, but it will help you improve.
19. Let questions teach you what you didn't do right
At least some of the time, have an open Q&A session. See what questions people ask. That will let you see if there were points you didn't make clearly or if there is additional information that should be included in the talk.
20. Be ready to improvise
There will always be times when things go wrong. Be prepared. Have multiple copies of your speech or notes (paper and on a phone or tablet). Know how you'll walk around not having graphics pop up (and be sure you have backup copies on a laptop or USB drive, or both). If the handout copies don't arrive, at the end of the presentation clearly give people the URL where you will upload the PDF. If the sound system dies, plan on talking louder than usual. In general, the show must go on.
21. Screw the rules
Don't get so tied up with what you're supposed to do that you undercut what you're trying to achieve. Sometimes you have to toss the rules out the window to make your point. Here's an example of a speech the president of the National Education Association gave that connects with her audience at an increasingly manic pace.