"Nervous about getting up in front of a crowd? Just imagine your audience in their underwear!"
"Wondering how you can grab everyone's attention? Crack a joke to break the ice!"
There’s no shortage of well-meaning public-speaking advice out there—some of it familiar to the point of cliche, some of it novel.
The truth is that to become a great speaker, you need to be aware of what you shouldn’t do just as much as what you should do. And to get your head around both the dos that will help you become a more powerful communicator, you first need to ditch the bad advice. These six common ideas should be the first to go.
This is one of the classic public-speaking tips you’ll hear, but it’s ridiculous. You’re not going to feel any less anxious by picturing audience members with no clothes on. You might feel weird and distracted, but that certainly isn’t going to help your presentation.
This age-old adage rests on the false premise that speaking jitters simply comes down to a power disparity: It's you versus them, and if you can make "them" less intimidating, you'll feel more confident. But it isn't quite such a simple formula. You can get over your speaking anxiety, but you’ll need to make a greater effort than just using your imagination.
If you’ve been told that you need to improve your leadership presence, you might think that means you’re not "commanding" the space. Does that mean you need to get louder? Absolutely not.
Your presence as a speaker has little to do with your volume and everything to do with being focused, having rhythm, and being relevant to your audience. You can certainly have a naturally quiet voice and still project composed confidence and gravitas.
Read more: How To Command A Room Like Stephen Colbert
It's true that one of biggest challenges in delivering a presentation is deciding how to begin: How do you make sure you get your listeners' attention right away? You might have heard that you should break the ice, perhaps with a joke. The problem with this approach is that the audience is cold—they’re not ready to laugh. Even great comedians need a warm-up act to get their audiences in the right mood. Instead, engage the audience’s attention by talking about what’s most relevant. Start talking about what they showed up to hear about.
When Steve Jobs was at the peak of his popularity, people started to emulate his presentation style, particularly his habit of constant pacing. While Jobs was a uniquely electric personality, pacing around typically distracts your audience from your message. Movement can certainly be a powerful tool, but not as a way to help you relax. Instead, you need to use movement strategically in order to help your audience engage with your message.
It sounds reasonable enough, right? Another common piece of anxiety-reducing speaking advice is to take a big, deep breath to calm yourself down before you start talking.
But taking big gulps of air isn't smart: What happens when you take a deep breath? You hold it. And what happens when you hold your breath? You get tense, and your voice gets tight. The key is to take just a sip of air and focus instead on a relaxed, extended exhale.
Finally, a piece of fashion advice: While you may think buying a chic new outfit will give you the confidence you need to succeed, it probably won't. You need to be comfortable while you’re presenting. You wouldn’t wear boots you’ve never worn before on a long hike, would you? Instead, choose threads that make you feel comfortable. When you’re delivering a critical presentation, you don’t want to wear new clothes that might rub you the wrong way and distract you from your delivery.
While these six speaking suggestions are off the mark, they all touch on important issues: anxiety, presence, introductions, movement, breathing, and attire. Those are all real issues that many of us face when we're about to get up in front of a crowd and speak. But mastering them starts with knowing which "solutions" to avoid.