If you Google "public speaking tips," you'll find a plethora of articles on the subject. Some are helpful, but others ... not so much. So, how do you distinguish between useful methods and shady tricks that will only diminish the quality of your presentation?
The short answer is to avoid the same strategies we've all exhausted. How many times have you heard "Picture everyone in their underwear," or "Don't over-rehearse?" The goal is to connect with the members of your audience, and picturing them naked and refusing to prepare is only distracting and counterproductive.
Tips like "Always use a PowerPoint" and "Start with a joke" should be jettisoned in favor of more relevant strategies used by the pros. Steve Jobs, for instance, didn't rely heavily on slide shows but instead rehearsed extensively to tell an effective, emotional story. Jobs is a prime example of a presenter who successfully subverted hackneyed speech tactics.
The New Age of Public Speaking
If you've been practicing and still can't get your speeches right, using the following modern strategies could give you an edge over others whose speaking techniques are still stuck in the past.
1. Leverage tenets of behavioral science to surprise and delight your audiences.
Often, your head is spinning when you first approach the podium, usually due to a variety of unconscious factors. Studying behavioral science is a good way to understand this phenomenon and ultimately gain control over it. Maritz Chief Behavioral Officer Charlotte Blank recommends assessing your body's state before giving a speech or presentation. When you feel nervous, don't try to calm your nerves. Instead, tell yourself you're excited, as it's much easier to adapt your framing of an experience than to change the intensity of the experience itself.
Behavioral science offers a slew of other insights that can up your speaking capabilities. For example, Blank once began a speech by asking if her audience would prefer a small piece of chocolate shaped like a heart or a larger piece shaped like a cockroach. While asking that question, she put a visual on-screen for the audience. "The crowd squirmed, giggled, and leaned in," she explains. "I was giving a presentation on behavioral science and customer experience at the end of a long conference. Sure, I could've hit my listeners over the head with an academic discourse on predicted utility versus value-seeking, but showing it on the screen drove the point home."
Neuroscience studies show that novelty, or presenting new information in an unexpected way, is an effective strategy to get and keep someone's attention because it triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical that's associated with pleasure and rewards, in the brain.
2. Don't pay attention to what you're doing.
There's no such thing as over-rehearsing, but overthinking is a credible threat. According to Sian Beilock, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has studied why people "choke," distraction is a common reason people falter on stage. When they're too focused on what they're doing rather than the content of their speech, they're more likely to blow it.
In his 2017 book, "Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed," Daniel McGinn describes the methods Jonathan Jenkins, CEO of WithMe, uses to prevent overthinking. One of those methods is to recite the same autobiographical introduction for nearly every speech he gives.
"As a result, Jenkins doesn't have to think about what he's saying during the first few moments of a speech," McGinn explains. "Like a trucker changing lanes or a nurse who's taking a temperature, he can go on autopilot, speaking without a hint of nerves before he segues into the custom-tailored portion of the speech. By that point, he's won over the crowd." Using a technique like this one can help eliminate the distractions that cause overthinking and make you a more engaging presenter.
3. Instead of mimicking great public speakers, be authentic.
Studying the pros is helpful, but simply imitating them will make you a watered-down replica of someone else. Instead, try experimenting with elements of different speakers' styles and use that combination to find your own unique voice. The key to separating yourself from the crowd is to know who you are. Unsuccessful speakers may have good presentation tactics, but they may not have anything that differentiates them from their peers.
Rather than thinking of yourself as a "Steve Jobs type," try identifying your style in more general terms. Maybe you're more of a "thinker" than a "feeler," or more of a "responder" than a "leader." As Jason Teteak, international public speaking coach and TEDx speaker, argues, "The crazy thing is that it's so much easier to be authentic. Once you know your style and embrace it, you connect with your audience, and they trust you."
These tips will give you a more concrete approach to speaking than the tricks we've all tried to no avail. By using scientifically sound practices and identifying what style works best for you, you may find yourself giving speeches one day about how you mastered the art of public speaking.