She was just shy of her 17th birthday. I was a year younger. It was my first time, but she was like a pro. When she started, my back stiffened and even my knuckles started to sweat. You see, my classmate and I were giving a presentation to our entire school. I was so nervous I had to clamp my hands to the lectern to steady my shaking body. My only saving grace was so that no one heard the guttural sounds of fear groaning out of my mouth, because I was shaking so far from the microphone. Afterward, I was so embarrassed that I set myself a new goal. I would overcome my fear and become a proficient public speaker. I took a course in speaking, trained hard and even spoke in competitions at local Rotary clubs.
Now I travel the world to do several dozen paid speaking engagements a year. Public speaking is an invaluable skill no matter what your job is, whether you are in sales, need to talk to investors or just want to be better at getting buy-in from your colleagues. Considering how important a skill it is and how it scares so many people, it is amazing how few schools make it a course requirement. I assure you, though: If I could overcome my fears and get better at it, then you can, too. Here are three rules for successful public speaking that helped me:
The first rule is to ask a lot of questions. I usually engage the audience by asking questions, just as your professors asked you them in seminars. Asking questions helps get the audience really thinking about the issues you're raising and your solutions. Now, if I'm speaking to an audience of 3,000, it can't always be interactive. But I can still ask questions like, 'When you are buying a car, why do you choose a Ford over a Toyota?' 'What marketing campaigns do you think have failed, and why?' Those rhetorical questions help engage audiences and keep them away from their text messages and e-mails.
Similarly, try not to talk too much about yourself or your company at the beginning of a speech. Get right to what will matter to the audience. The first 30 seconds of a presentation are critical. That's when the audience decides whether to listen to you or surf for last night's box scores on its iPhones. No one wants to hear about how big your company is or where you went to school. The key: Don't talk at the audience. Talk with it.
The second rule of successful public speaking is to tell stories to illustrate your points. Don't just tell people what you think; show them, with specific examples and tales. I recently gave a speech aboutChina's Internet to corporate executives who had flown to Hong Kong from around the world. Most of them had never been to Asia before. Based on what they had read and heard about Google inChina, they thought Chinese people had little access to the Internet, and what little they had was like a black hole. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead of just telling the audience thatChina's Internet is robust, I showed them, by talking about Lily, a 21-year-old student in Chengdu my firm had interviewed about her Internet and mobile phone habits. Lily spends nearly five hours a day online, uses Twitter-like microblogging services on Sina and buys cosmetics and clothes online. She also actively uses her mobile phone to browse the Internet and play games. With that simple illustration, Chinese Internet users went from being a nebulous abstraction in the audience's minds to something tangible and even understandable.
The third rule is to go easy on the PowerPoint. I generally don't even use PowerPoint when I give a speech. It can be a useful tool for showing graphs or visual aids to complement important points, but too many people make it the focus of their presentations, in place of themselves and their actual message. Most audience members' minds go numb when they see too many slides or they're too densely packed withinformation.
How can you make PowerPoint effective? Be simple. Use short words and phrases to make large conceptual points, and never go longer than 10 slides. Get the audience to focus on you and your words, not the slides. Giving a speech is pointless if no one is paying attention. You need to grab your audience from the beginning by asking questions, telling stories and relying on your own speaking rather than a bunch of boring slides. If you can do those three things, then your battle is already half-won.