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3 Public Speaking Survival Skills

Posted on September 5, 2012 by Leslie Dickson

A couple of weeks ago I participated in an urban obstacle course through downtown Cleveland, Ohio.  Run by the WooHoo Foundation, a group dedicated to helping the local breast cancer community, the course runs a little over nine miles and features eight obstacles including a run through Progressive Field (home of the Indians), and section that has to be completed with a tire on your back, and a climb over a semi. A week and a half before the race I won a free registration through my gym.  Not exactly an ideal amount of time to train for a daunting event like this.

Considering my rushed training schedule and inexperience in such races, my initial goal was simple: FINISH. If you have a speech coming up your goal may be quite similar. Just get through it at any cost. Thankfully, my run through downtown Cleveland taught me three skills to survive and thrive in a grueling race or a business presentation

#1 Preparation

There’s a lot more preparation to running a race than just showing up.  First, you need to train to get your body comfortable with the effort demanded.  Next, be sure to eat a reasonably sized meal at an appropriate time before your race.  Finally, you have to plan your run.  At what pace do you want to run? Are you aiming for a fast start or a strong finish? If you don’t make these decision ahead of time, your body may give out and you won’t cross the finish line.

A quality presentation needs a similar amount of preparation.  Your material must be organized in an audience-accessible fashion. You need to check your speaking space and technical equipment beforehand. And practice until your ideas flow smoothly from one to another. It may be uncomfortable at first, but practicing at a performance level is a great way to develop muscle memory and create comfort onstage.  You can then focus on your audience instead of trying to remember what comes next.

#2 Positivity

As I ran through the city, I was encouraged to keep going by the other participants, by cheering volunteers, and even by the policemen who were keeping the streets clear. The positive reinforcement was marvelous, and I noticed an increase in my speed every time someone cheered.  This, combined with my own positive self-talk, gave me the strength to keep going when my entire body was screaming for me to quit.

Aside from a normal rush of adrenaline, one of the leading causes of pre-speech stress is negative self-talk. Whether your go-to phrase is “I’m going to screw up” or “I hope I don’t fall on my face,” negative statements prepare your mind and body for failure.  Embrace positive thinking instead.  Find a positive affirmation to repeat, picture yourself nailing your speech, and if you can, get encouragement from a friend or loved one.  Armed with positivity and confidence you can muscle through your doubts.

#3 Flexibility

Before the race began my goal was simple.  I wanted to finish without stopping. As it began to wind down, I found a new reason to keep going.  I wanted to catch the people in front of me. Then, once it was clear that I wasn’t going to beat out anyone else, I made sure no one would catch me from behind with a mad dash to the finish line.  Thanks to my ability to adapt, I was able to achieve my ultimate goal with a much faster time than I expected.

If you’re a business presenter, your speech probably has a clear objective with a step by step plan.  So what happens if step two takes too long? The ability to adapt is crucial in such situations. Whether your equipment explodes or your audience begins asking questions you need to be ready for the unexpected. Adjusting accordingly will make you a more effective presenter.

As I barreled through the finish line drench in sweat and water, I could barely stand.  However, once I caught my breath, downed some water and snacks I began to feel something else: pride. Your next presentation can have a similar feeling once the adrenaline wears off. Prepare, stay positive, and be flexible to deliver a presentation you can be proud of.

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