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Three Quick Tips For Speaking With Presence And Power

It's all about freeing up mental bandwidth in order to concentrate on what's going on in the moment.

Three Quick Tips For Speaking With Presence And Power
[Photo: Flickr user NZatFrankfurt]

What do the best surgeons, skiers, and speakers have in common? They all know how to be present in the moment. Their success depends on it.

As anyone who's performed surgery, skied the black diamond slope, or delivered a masterful talk knows, maintaining that focus isn't easy. It takes a more heightened presence of mind than what we're used to moment by moment. What's more, you need to think hard and continuously about everything you do: Surgery is much more than thinking about your hands; skiing is much more than thinking about your edges; and speaking is much more than thinking about your words.

These three quick tips can help you keep all the necessary behaviors and habits in line without getting overwhelmed, so you can speak with more power and presence.

1. Zoom Out

Ever heard someone deliver remarks and it sounds like a dry recitation? To speak with real presence, you need to pull back, away from the script. Focus on your ideas, not your words. The more you try to remember exactly what you wrote yesterday or the week before, the more likely you are to lose track of where you are right now, speaking in front of an audience.

Focusing on your words keeps you at ground level. Your speaking becomes linear, and your mind can only focus on the next step forward: "Where am I going next?, not, "Where am I now?" And when you aren't in the moment, your audience loses focus and stops paying attention.

So go from "micro" to "macro." Pull back and take a higher-level perspective. Somewhat paradoxically, that will place you right back into the present—immersed in the immediate flow of things. That's where you can concentrate best on the big picture. You can help your audience see what you’re talking about, rather than just hear you make your way systematically through your ideas. As a result, your communication will be more engaging and compelling and will leave a much greater impact.

2. Pick A Rhythm And Stick With It

When you pull the car over on the highway, you lose momentum. In order to get back up to speed, you first need to take your foot off the brake pedal and regain that momentum. Stopping to think about what you just said or what you're about to say has the same effect. It lurches you out of the flow of ideas, and your audience will feel the sudden slowdown immediately. They'll also feel the uncomfortable acceleration you'll need to make in order to pick up where you left off. If you want to stay in the moment—and keep your listeners there—you need to let your speaking flow. Find a rhythm that suits your ideas and stick with it.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about the value of "losing yourself" in what you're doing. "The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia, but being in the flow," he writes. In much the same way that slowing down suddenly can be jarring, it isn't about racing toward a crescendo. By focusing on rhythm, you can get into that flow and stay there.

3. Find Your Balance

Speaking with presence also takes a bit of bodily awareness. Make sure you have the right balance—not just metaphorically but physically. Whether you're standing at a podium or sitting in a chair, finding a comfortable position to keep you centered is key. Think about how you felt the last time you sat in a chair that wobbled. Speaking in any situation that leaves you feeling off-balance means spending too much energy (consciously or unconsciously) trying to get comfortable again. As a result, your body will be less engaged with what you’re saying. Just like in baseball, your power comes from a solid stance.

This may all sound obvious, but the fact is that when many of us get up to speak, we aren't quite sure what to do with our bodies. Speaking is often an uncomfortable, unfamiliar experience, and even if we don't feel as though we're literally about to fall down, feeling out of balance is more common than you may think. In her book How the Body Knows Its Mind, University of Chicago cognitive scientist Sian Beilock explains that the mind doesn’t just communicate to the body; the body communicates to the mind as well.

So when you're balanced, you feel strong. Deliberately find a posture or pose that makes you feel secure, centered, and comfortable. Once you do, you'll be better equipped to stay present in your remarks, without working about your body.

The point of each of these tips is simply to cut out the main variables that take you out of the moment. So think about each of them as a matter of subtraction. Focusing on your big idea, your rhythm, and your balance may seem challenging to do all at once, but that prevents you from doing a whole range of other, counterproductive things to compensate. Get it right, and you'll free up much more mental bandwidth to help you be in the moment and speak with power and purpose.

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