There's no lack of advice on how to be a more effective speaker. You can quickly come up with hundreds of columns on the topic if you search the inc.com library for "public speaking." However, much of the advice that's out there focuses on helping you to develop skills that simply may not feel natural or comfortable to you. The intent is to "transform" you into a speaker.
Following a well-defined set of guidelines may help you to overcome a fear of public speaking, but it will do little, if anything, to help you truly feel comfortable on stage and ultimately to better connect with an audience.
While I deliver 30-50 keynotes around the globe yearly in front of audiences of hundreds and sometimes thousands, my journey to achieve mastery has been a long one. I've been speaking in front of audience for nearly 40 years now and I can honestly say that it's only in the last decade that I've truly found my own voice, a voice that I am imminently comfortable with.
What I've discovered during my four-decade public speaking journey is that ultimately the only skin any of us are comfortable in is our own. Trying to adopt the mannerisms or intonation, much less the personality, of someone you consider to be a great speaker, is absolute folly.
You also do not need to transform yourself at all. You are who you are; that's the most effective person you can be, the one who people connect to genuinely and authentically, and the one that you'll be most comfortable being on any stage.
"It's a ridiculously simple mannerism and one that we all use daily, yet it's magic on stage and it will instantly connect you to an audience, while it calms your inner critic; you know, the one who tells you to run for cover!"
Still, there's nothing else that will surface the insecurities of even the most confident person than being in front of a few hundred or thousands of people who are staring back at him or her, scrutinizing their every move, utterance, and even thoughts.
Your primordial reptilian brain has a very small vocabulary. When it sees hundreds of eyeballs staring back at you all it can say is RUN. I've seen it time and again. People who are lions in the boardroom fall to pieces on a stage. Even the best ones are relegated to the role of awkwardly stumbling through a contrived and over scripted reading off of a teleprompter,
If You Do Nothing Else, Do This!
So, let's start with the obvious. Give yourself a break. Few people can sidestep the instinctive reaction to hunker down and get uber-conservative when they get on stage. You're exposed, you're vulnerable, you're being judged. All of these these cause you to want to minimize the risk. It's instinct. Millennia of DNA have hardwired us to turn tail when faced with overwhelming odds. It's okay and it's perfectly normal.
So, how do you overcome that? Well, I could tell you to prepare and practice.
Yeah, but you don't want to hear that, do you?
While practice and preparation are crucial, I promised you just one peice of advice that you could start using right now. If you were to do nothing else then this is what would have the greatest payback. I'll warn you that while this one peice of advice is the most likely to help you right now, it's also the one people resist the most.
It's a ridiculously simple mannerism and one that we all use daily, yet it's magic on stage and it will instantly connect you to an audience, while it calms your inner critic; you know, the one who tells you to run for cover!
Ready for it?
Yes, I know. Seriously? I made you read through a few hundred words to get to that?
All I can tell you is that after decades of being on stage, what I've seen and experienced is that smiling throughout a presentation, from the moment you step onto the stage to the moment you get off, is the single best piece of advice I can offer you.
A natural smile is a clear signal that you are comfortable, that you're ready, and that you want to engage with the people that you're speaking to. As important is what that smile does to your own sense of comfort. According to an article in Pyschology Today, "The notorious party animals dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin start whooping it up when you smile." That same article pointed out that smiling is more effective as a way to induce joy than chocolate, that it's contagious, and that it makes you appear to be more likable and competent. In fact the science behind the physiologial effects of smiling is nothing short of astounding.
Smiling is one of the earliest mannerisms we exhibit. It's woven into our physiology. We smile long before we can express ourselves with language. It is how we connect without saying a thing.
Smiling also changes the intonation of your voice and how your delivery is perceived by an audience. It naturally conveys a greater sense of well being, confidence, and authenticity.
Lights, Camera, Action
So, let's make this actionable. Here's what you need to do next time you're speaking to a large group. Before you even get in front of your audience begin to think of something that makes you smile. Something which warms your heart. Maybe it involves your spouse, partner, children, or grandchildren. Make it specific, not just an abstract feeling, but an actual event that you can picture in your mind's eye. That's important because once the fight-or-flight or play-it-safe response kicks in I want you to have that image firmly planted in your mind. The reason is simple. The adrenaline released by a fear response can just as easily be interpreted by our brains as excitement and joy. Your brain is easily fooled by that smile and memory into believing that you're not scared but excited to be there.
By the way, I can assure you that no matter how much you may feel that you look too happy, you won't. I've done this with countless people and each time I make a $100 bet that they will look nowhere near as ridiculous as they may at first feel. I've never once lost the bet.
Can it really be all that simple? All I can say is that after 40 years and well over 10,000 hours of speaking to audiences around the globe, that smile is the one piece of advice I'd offer if I had to pick just one thing.
So, go ahead, try it. That smile is your message that you're open, you're OK with your vulnerability, and you want your audience to enjoy what you're about to do, because you sure as hell will!