I’m mostly an extrovert, so I get excited about meeting new people and connecting with colleagues at conferences and other industry events. I look forward to conversations with those who get what I do, share the same pain points, and even more so, the opportunity to meet with others who may even become potential clients.
However, not everyone feels the same way. At Skyword’s 2017 Forward conference, I talked with an attendee who shared a drastically different opinion. She confided that she barely slept the night before and spent the morning repeating affirmations to calm herself before the big event. She joked about feeling clammy just at the thought of approaching other attendees, and considered hanging out in the bathroom near the hand dryers in case her armpits got too sweaty out of fear. Was she a speaker? No. She was a writer, like me, and she was super funny, charming, and had she been more comfortable speaking in public, would have made a ton of connections.
When I saw her at the closing event, I asked how she felt.
“Terrible, and great.” she said. “I loved the conference, but I wish I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I’m definitely signing up for a public speaking class when I get home.”
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard fellow writers begrudge the fact that they don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight. In fact, I’ve heard many times that people wish they communicated as well in person as they do on the page. So I asked Carrie Sharpe, a communications consultant and speaker, for public speaking advice she would give to writers who wanted to break out of their shell and present themselves professionally off the page. Here are seven tips to put into practice immediately if you need help feeling comfortable speaking in public.
Image courtesy of Carrie Sharpe
What do you want to accomplish when you’re speaking? Each speaking or networking opportunity creates different possible outcomes. Think about the people you come in contact with when networking. Do you want to woo them as potential clients? Are you hoping they will become colleagues with whom you can brainstorm writing assignments or share work? Maybe you know some aren’t your ideal client, but you’re hoping they can introduce you to someone who is. Having an idea about the relationship you’d like to build will make you more confident about what information you’ll share.
Also, defining a purpose isn’t simply needed when networking; it’s integral for the times you may address an audience, such as during a speech or training. Sharpe says, “A goal should always be defined before speaking. That’s the takeaway the audience will remember. Once the takeaway is defined, developing an outline for the talk is much easier as only the elements related to the takeaway should be included in the outline. Every story told during the talk should support and illustrate the takeaway as well. If something doesn’t support the takeaway, save it for a different speech.”
As a writer, you know the importance of details in a story. You could go on and on, and sometimes, if you don’t have word count restrictions, you do. However, when you meet someone for the first time or you are speaking to a large audience, first impressions count. You want to be succinct while still making a strong impression.
“Writers can build speaking skills by using an outline rather than a script,” says Sharpe. “The goal of speaking isn’t to memorize a speech and then regurgitate it. Rather, the goal is to tell stories and share a message that resonates with the audience. Think of it like a performance. There’s an element of entertainment that must be present. Body language and stage presence are absolutely vital for captivating an audience.”
The easiest way to feel comfortable speaking is to develop an introduction that is natural to deliver and easy to remember. Enter the elevator pitch. It’s quick, gives your audience the right information about you, and helps keep the conversation going.
However, Sharpe says, “I love elevator pitches, as long as they don’t sound like speeches. Usually people sound too rehearsed and unnatural. They sound like they’re reading a script, or they complicate the wording. It’s better instead to memorize a few points for the elevator pitch and deliver it in a conversational tone.”
And don’t be worried about crafting your elevator pitch. Sharpe says, “A basic elevator pitch includes your name, what you do, what pain point you help others overcome, and a specific example of something amazing you’ve helped your clients accomplish.” You can tailor that talk to the person you’re talking with and keep it fresh every time you share it.
It’s not just the words you say that make or break an interaction. Your body language tells a tale of what type of person you are. It’s important to portray confidence, but also approachability. Sharpe agrees. “Nonverbal communication is very important. What your body does speaks louder than the words you say. Leaning forward shows you’re interested. Direct eye contact tells the audience members they are important. Crossed arms show you are unapproachable. Be open, inviting, and fun to be around. Control your nervous habits so they don’t distract from your message.”
Of all the public speaking advice Sharpe suggests to freelance writers, the most important is to practice so that you’ll feel comfortable in the moment. If you create an outline ahead of time, memorize the main points so you know how to stay on track. “Practice speaking while you’re in the shower or while driving,” says Sharpe. “Networking can be practiced everywhere—standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in a waiting room, or even at sporting events. Get in the habit of meeting those around you. Ask them questions so they talk about themselves. Open-ended questions and active listening are the ultimate networking tools.”
But, if you’re really serious about becoming a strong public speaker, she has one pro tip that will help you the most. “The best way to practice public speaking is to videotape yourself giving the speech and then watch it back. Show the video to friends, family, and a communication coach to get feedback and make changes.” You’ll notice any random tics, habits of speech, or anything else you need to work on when speaking live and in person.
I know I just told you that practice makes perfect, but I lied. There’s no such thing as a perfect speech, regardless of whether you are addressing a crowd twenty thousand deep or simply introducing yourself at a networking event. Sharpe agrees and says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect (nor should it). Practice makes prepared.”
So why am I telling you this as part of your public speaking advice? Well, I want you to treat yourself kindly, be calm, and know that this is a work in progress. The more pressure you put on yourself to perform a perfect speech, or make an ideal connection, the bigger chance you’ll mess up. Relax. Attempt to make speaking natural for you.
Finally, there’s one thing you need to learn about public speaking that doesn’t have to do with you. Think about the other person or group of people you’re talking with. The key is being an active listener. Sharpe says, “When networking, the best way to connect with the person you’re talking to is to use direct eye contact and be friendly. Ask lots of open-ended, thoughtful questions. Don’t interrupt or talk about yourself too long. The best conversationalists talk the least and listen the most. Be genuinely interested in other people. Follow up later by sending a relevant article, thank you note, or by making a useful referral. Build real relationships.”
Do you feel more prepared to address a crowd, or at least work it to your advantage and get to know new people in your field? Share any advice you have in the comments.
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Featured image attribution: Priscilla Westra