Lots of people dread public speaking. It’s also something most professionals will need to attempt at some point. Consequently, there’s a lot of advice out there on how to conquer your fears and engage the audience. Unfortunately, a lot of this advice will do nothing of the sort, and may make the situation worse. I asked frequent speakers for the worst advice they’ve been given. If you want to feel comfortable on stage, ignore anyone who tells you these gems.
Sam Horn, author of Got Your Attention?: How to Create Intrigue and Connect with Anyone, says, “This mentality ridicules your audience. The audience is not your enemy, they are your ally, your equal. You are not superior to them, they are not inferior to you. You don’t want to feel arrogant, you want to feel aligned.” Plus, trying to picture people in their underwear (or naked) is distracting. You want to be focused on your message, full stop.
This is “simply not true,” says Michael Parker, author of the forthcoming book, It’s Not What You Say: How to Sell Your Message When it Matters Most. The most natural-sounding speakers are those who know their material cold. So “rehearse to someone, not a mirror, and your performance will become more confident, more natural, and yes, more spontaneous.”
If you’re a comedian, great. But, says Parker, “telling jokes is an art that few can master. The chances are it will fall flat or lead to an embarrassing silence. This means you have blown the vital opportunity to make a good first impression and will struggle to regain the audience and your confidence. A personal anecdote will be a better opener in most cases.” Bonus: You’ve no doubt been telling your best anecdotes at dinner parties for years, so you’ve got a lot of practice with format and pacing.
Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, says, “I think the advice to ‘get the audience involved’ by demanding that they yell back responses to you is bonkers. Too many rookie speakers do alienating things like scold the audience for not giving a hearty enough ‘good morning’ or not roaring at the moments the speaker deems appropriate. The audience isn’t there to entertain you, and you’re not leading a revival.” As with any situation, you want to “treat people like adults and professionals.”
Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, says that she’s gotten advice to “use slides to make your speech more visual, easier for people to follow, to glean takeaways from.” It’s well-worn advice; witness the ubiquity of PowerPoint. However, says Mohr, “I’d say what I learned from my own experience and from watching other speakers is that some people give a better speech with slides, but many give a better talk when freed of their slides.”
They look at the audience, rather than the screen, and carry on a conversation, rather than reading words aloud. “The alternative advice I’d give is to experiment with both (slides and no slides) and see which works better for you,” says Mohr. If you’re trying to present a lot of technical material, slides may help the audience. But if you’re mostly telling stories, they may not add much, and could detract if you experience slide malfunctions.
John Coyle has spoken for a TEDx talk and as part of Chicago Ideas Week. “One of my hardest challenges in speaking is condensing a complex subject into a short talk,” he says. “I think some of the worst advice I’ve received is, ‘You know, you can probably just cut out the charts and math.’
Non-math-oriented people assume others are like themselves. Fortunately I didn’t, and after this particular talk, I had a number of people share that ‘it wasn’t until I saw the math that it all came into perspective.’ People will anchor to different parts of a talk, so it pays to ask what parts of the talk resonated most.” The feedback will often surprise you; be sure to ask for it.
Public speaking is a journey. The more you do it, the more you’ll figure out that what works for other speakers–even those you admire–may not work for you. If you naturally gesture with your hands, gripping the podium to appear more solemn and distinguished will make you feel stiff. Conversely, if you’re not a pacer, trying to go all over the stage because you think this makes you look like a TED pro is also misguided. As in most situations, “be yourself” is better advice than trying to be someone else.