Tips for Getting Better at Public Speaking

I was skimming through the BC Labor Market Outlook (2021) when I noticed something interesting: Top Skills of the Future. Now, this is nothing new; they always have a section on in-demand skills, but it was interesting what was in the top demand skills. If I threw this out to a class of students, they’d probably say something like technology (I support this by the way, but they’d be wrong), mathematics maybe (also wrong), and writing (actually, that’s sort of correct, but not really). My surprise came from the fact that the top skills of the future were:

  • Active Listening (71% of total projected job openings will require good listening skills)
  • Critical Thinking (56%. I support this, considering the absurd amount of disinformation on the web)
  • Reading comprehension (55% of job openings, which makes sense)

And:

  • Speaking (a whopping 63%!)

It’s interesting that speaking was actually separated from things like writing or listening, meaning that the ability to communicate orally has been singled out as being very important to the majority of employers out there.

Unfortunately, speaking up (public speaking, speaking to panels, talking to coworkers, talking to bosses, talking to customers, etc) is something which puts a lot of fear and nerves in people, particularly introverts, those who are shy, and those who are neurodivergent and some people who are disabled. Talking is hard (I can say this as an introvert who taught hundreds of classes for over five years and managed teams across the province. It’s hard.) But as you can see, the ability to talk to other is also critically important.

So, let’s take today and go over some ways to make it a bit easier, or at least make it so you can pretend it’s easier. I promise nothing, but here’s hoping that something here will help you if you dread talking to others and you’re about to dive into a job search, wage negotiation, new project at work, school, and so on.

The Parts of a Good Orator

An orator, as a side note, is someone who talks. It’s often tied to storytelling, but honestly, we can say that anyone who can communicate well with others is a good orator, ok? Ok.

In order to be a good conversationalist, it’s important to have both sides down: talking and listening. Only being good at one and cruddy at the other isn’t actually very helpful – you’ll either come off as brash, obnoxious, overly talkative, or annoying; or you’ll come off as shy, unwilling to step forward, and difficult to work with. Either way, not really good for your career. We’ll tackle the talking part first.

Tips for Being Good at Talking

My brother can talk for days. My boss can go on for hours. Books are written about becoming more like an extrovert and being able to talk and chatter for long periods of time.

I, on the other hand, burn out after ten minutes unless I’m teaching and even then, I need my breaks. But there are things you can do to make it easier for you to carry that conversation or even run that presentation without burning yourself to the ground:

  • Take a moment and make sure your thoughts are lined up in a row. I have to laugh because many of my extroverted colleagues and friends will talk themselves straight into a wall. I have learned the fine art of filtering what they say to get to the meat and ignore the rest before it gets overwhelming. Getting your points all lined up in your head before you talk is important because then you don’t get lost in the weeds and you don’t lose others.
  • Say what you mean and be concise. Organize your thoughts so that you don’t waste words or cause others to get confused or glazed. And get directly to the point. (Do I come off as curt? Maybe, but I only rarely get misunderstood – and when I do, it’s because I didn’t get right to the point)
  • Be true to who you are. I am garbage at reading body language and I’m upfront about that.
  • Use images to help people visualize what you are trying to say.
  • Know your audience. Some people prefer to get right down to it (hi), others like to small talk first (side eye at brother).

If you are presenting to a group, figure out the dynamics of the group ahead of time so that you can tailor your style of presentation to them. If you’re talking to your manager, make sure you know how your manager likes to communicate and tailor yourself to that as best you can. But always respect the time of yourself and others – why take fifteen minutes to talk about something that should only take two?

Listening

But speaking is really only half the battle. We all know that manager who can talk forever but is still lousy at communicating because they don’t listen and end up making more work and stress for themselves and everyone around them. Listening is an important part of talking, otherwise, how are you going to know how best to respond? (Or if to respond at all?)

  • Active listening. Active listening tops out the most in demand skills from employers (71% of job openings require it, even if they come out and say it). Active listening is not just hearing what the other person is saying – it’s paying attention to what is being said, how it’s being said, the context of what is being said and remembering what was being said. By listening more actively to those who are talking to you, you will learn more and be more effective
  • Learn nonverbal signals and body language – and if you struggle with it, be open about that. Ill kept secret (because I warn all my students): I am quite garbage at reading body language, and I have shoddy self esteem. So, if students are glowering, I worry that they are glowering at me and then I used to make an idiot of myself and get glared at even more for trying to help. Now I warn students that I don’t read body language very well and if they need help, they need to be upfront and ask about it. This is also, sidebar, good practice for being on the job, so I’m not being entirely ineffective. Still, people who are neurodivergent may also struggle with this and practice more. But even if you’re just able to decipher facial expressions or things like tapping feet meaning impatience, you’re well ahead of people who don’t pay attention at all.
  • Always clarify. Ask questions if you’re not sure and reword what was said back to the person to be sure you understood it. A good communicator won’t mind this.

So much for some tips on conversation and making it work better for you, but what about that scourge for so many people: public speaking?

Public Speaking

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking and is believed to affect up to 75% of the population! Unfortunately, being one of the most common phobias around does not mean that up to 75% of the population is exempt from doing it. Younger people are more prone to it than older people and it’s more prevalent in females than males. The phobia can manifest across a large spectrum, from nerves at the very thought of public speaking to a full-on panic attack and fear.

Unfortunately, public speaking is also a very common thing to do. From panel interviews to giving presentations at work to teaching (heh), public speaking is a common skill in the workplace, so it behooves you to start practicing and work on swallowing the nerves. So here are some tips to start getting yourself prepared for the inevitable:

(As a note, for most people, the worst symptoms of glossophobia occur in the first minutes before the speech and the first minute of talking – after that, they tend to recede).

  • Stay organized. Yeah, the same thing that helps with talking to coworkers and your boss: be organized! Know what you are going to be talking about, practice, and make sure you are well prepared. You can also use breathing exercises and self-talk to turn your nerves into motivation.
  • Sneaky side: Did you know that to many people, nerves and excitement look the same? So if you’re nervous, tell yourself you’re actually excited about the opportunity you are about to partake.
  • Talk yourself up: Positive self-talk is one of the best ways to overcome the fear of public speaking. Instead of telling yourself all the ways that it could go wrong, or all the ways it has go wrong, tell yourself all the ways it can go right and that any mistakes are just lessons learned.
  • View the venue ahead of time. Test your equipment. Practice your speech many times on other people.
  • Focus on the audience, not on you. Think of the audience as people you already know, or focus on one person and think about what their story could be and how you are there to help them out.
  • Breathing exercises. Deep breaths help the blood flow and force your muscles to relax which then forces you to relax.

Why Should You Work on Your Public Speaking?

Public speaking doesn’t just cover speeches, lectures, or presentations; it also covers speaking up in meetings, panel interviews, and talking to your coworkers. Oral communication skills are one of the tops things that employers look for, so if you cannot talk to others, you are cheating yourself of a lot of career opportunities and the chance to show off your talents, experience, and skills.

Communication skills are one of the top skills that employers look for and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. From the interview to talking to coworkers to giving presentations, oral communication is a top skill to have, and you can certainly practice it anytime, anywhere. And it is valuable to do so; after all, if you never speak up, how will anyone know what you bring to the table?

What do you do when you have to take part in an interview, do a presentation, or talk to others about what you have and want? Is it hard or easy?

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