With the Olympics and Paralympics keeping so many of us awake and excited in the wee hours, I got to thinking that we can draw a lot of parallels between Olympic sports and public speaking. Getting up to deliver a presentation can feel like you are standing on the blocks of the pool, and the crowd of 40 can like 40,000 through our fearful eyes. Certainly for many of us, the adrenaline rush before we go on stage can feel approximately equal to the level you might experience before a high dive.
So what tips we can learn from these first class athletes who perform on the world stage, to make our experiences of public speaking a success on any stage?
1. Warm up your voice
Just as athletes warm up their muscles before an event, so the muscles of your voice and your mouth will benefit from a warm up too. Singing, humming, tongue-twisters are the speaker’s equivalent to avoid a cold start. The non-vocals in your presentation are a big part of how you and your message are perceived by your audience; give them the best chance to win by having them ready for action before the starting gun.
2. Warm up your inner coach
The level of confidence we have is a strong influence on the level of competence we will display. Self-talk is one of the most powerful ways to build or to undermine your confidence, so use it carefully. What does your inner voice tell you before you step up and start? Is it encouraging or diminishing you? Athletes employ a Coach, they don’t employ a Critic. Ensure your inner voice is telling you what you need to hear to ooze confidence.
3. Find your outer coach - the cheerleader in the audience
The roar of the crowd is a powerful motivation for athletes. Unless you are presenting to the most hostile audience imaginable, there will be somebody who is giving you back positive energy: nodding, smiling, silently encouraging you as you speak. Find that person with your eyes quickly when you start, and focus more on them to help to quell nerves more quickly. Once you settle in, though, remember to share the love (i.e. the eye contact) equally around the room.
4. Don’t move in ways that don’t help you reach the finish line
For an athlete, every move must bring them closer to their goal. For a presenter, your body language should do the same. Do you have nervous gestures, hop from foot to foot, and wander aimlessly around the stage? Do you um and ah? Most speakers do a bit of that, but too much can distract your audience from your core message.
5. Find your own style
Each swimmer, each rider, each athlete finds their own style that is a winner for them. It’s not going to be successful to try to swim like Ian Thorpe if you’re shaped like Steve Irwin. Presentation skills are the same: you can learn from watching and analysing engaging speakers but ultimately you will be most engaging when you are being yourself, and being authentic and honest. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
6. Be clear on where or what the finish line is
Running a marathon takes a lot longer if the finish line is not known and the course is not a clear path. Your presentation should have a clear goal, and a plan of action to get to that goal. Thorough preparation, clearly identifying your outcomes and a clear structure will ensure you stay on course and don’t run through the rough.
7. Wear the super suit
Many of us have something special that makes us perform better. Cathy Freeman’s bodysuit, the winged keel on Australia II. Sometimes that may be simply because it makes you feel more confident. Lipstick, a favourite suit, nice shoes, even a token in your pocket. Find the thing that has the magic power of confidence-boosting for you - it’s performance enhancing without being illegal.
8. Get up onto the blocks early so you’re prepared
A last minute rush to get to the pool just in time for the race start doesn’t set a swimmer up for success. Be early, be calm. Arrive early to your presentation to avoid any panic and then use the time to rehearse a bit more, manage your nerves with breathing, warm up your muscles, or check the set-up of the room - any equipment problems can be handled now, rather than waiting until they play up halfway through your presentation.
9. Correct technique
You may or may not have a natural talent for running or public speaking. Either way, you can learn the techniques and polish them with practice for world-class performance.
10. Get ‘flow’
The first 30 seconds of the presentation are often the hardest. Once you’re past the first hurdle, you often get a sense of ‘flow’ and the presentation takes on its own momentum. It’s like pushing the toboggan furiously at the start and then the momentum takes over. Who knows, you might even find yourself enjoying the ride.
11. Train, train, train
Practise, practise, practise. 10,000 hours supposedly will make an expert. A fraction of that will get you on the road towards expertise: the bigger the fraction, the further along the road you’ll be.
12. Get feedback and advice from your coach
Either ask a colleague or manager for feedback, or even better arrange to video yourself. It’s a powerful insight into what your subconscious is doing to your body when it’s under stress.
13. Sometimes things go wrong, so expect it
Athletes can have all sorts of mishaps and misadventures before or during the race. How did Steven Bradbury come through and shine? Whatever happens, the show must go on. If you know your stuff you can handle the non-co-operation of the data projector or the YouTube video. Learn to expect that Murphy’s Law will come into play, and make sure you’re prepared by asking yourself the question beforehand “What will I do when that thing goes wrong?”
14. Sledging doesn’t help
Athletes now realise that sledging is actually not as helpful as once thought, and in fact sours one’s own focus prior to a competition. Unless you are presenting as a stand-up comedian, sledging a member of the audience won’t help to engage them with your key messages. Get them on board, not overboard.
15. You are the star not your equipment
In equestrian events, it’s the rider not the horse that is the star of the show. In your presentation, your slide deck is helpful to get your message across, but it’s not the star either. If you are reading aloud from your slides you are making yourself redundant. The slide deck could give the presentation without you.
16. Strong start, strong finish
Opening and closing in a presentation are equally important. Just as in a race, your presentation run needs a strong start and to keep the pace up through to a strong finish. Ensure you have power and impact at both ends of your presentation, as they are the parts most easily remembered by the audience.
17. Give ‘em what they came for
Everyone in the crowd is watching the race for that exciting moment. In a race it’s the finish: in a presentation, that moment is when the audience member gets the answer to their burning question - “What’s in it for me?” Answering that WIIFM for everyone is the key to motivating and engaging your audience.
18. They can’t smell your fear
Nerves are normal. This race, this presentation, is not a sabre-tooth tiger facing moment, it’s a moment in the spotlight. The adrenalin rush is normal, and when managed, can be a powerful performance-enhancing drug. Legal, with no detectable trace elements in post-presentation testing.
19. You made it this far: you’re already a winner
Anybody who makes it to world-class competition is a winner by being better than the rest of us watching. There’s a reason you’re up on the stage in front of an audience: you know something about the topic that they don’t, and you can share your knowledge and experience with them. Remember that they are here to listen to your message.
20. Go for the personal best
Most of us will never win gold, but we can keep working toward another personal best. Keep improving your performance, benchmarking against yourself.
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