Just two and a half years ago, Joshua Rinaldi would shake while giving a speech. Today he’s the president of New York Toastmasters, the New York City chapter of Toastmasters International, an organisation of 14,350 speaking clubs across 122 countries.
How did Rinaldi transform from someone who could barely stand in front of people to a public speaking teacher in such a quick time? Practice, he says, noting that this short learning curve isn’t uncommon.
“People improve very quickly,” Rinaldi says. The intense fear that people get before speaking to an audience, he explains, is simply based on unfamiliarity.
“I always tell members after they give their first speech, ‘That’s the hardest speech you’ll ever give,'” he says.
We asked Rinaldi how even someone whose palms sweat at the thought of being at a podium can start to become a better speaker. Here are his best tips:
While practicing, transition from a transcript to your memory.
Don’t think of a speech as the reading of an essay in front of an audience, but rather as a practiced performance.
Rinaldi begins practicing for every speech he gives by typing out a full-length first draft. He’ll start by repeatedly reading the speech until it starts to sink in, and then practices it without the transcript in front of him.
“The final speech I give is a lot like the one I wrote, but it’s never the same,” Rinaldi says.
Use notes sparingly.
Don’t bring your full speech to the podium, but you can bring some notes along. Rinaldi recommends writing down around four to five bullet points, not full sentences, that outline the main points of your speech. Remember that these are only to jog your memory and keep you on track.
Release nervous energy with controlled breathing and fist-clenching, and lay off the coffee.
Even a seasoned speaker can benefit from slowing down their breathing in the 30 seconds or minute before giving a speech. Rinaldi says that new speakers who get especially jittery before speaking can also subtly clench and relax their fists or squeeze their thighs while waiting to be called to the mic.
He also says that everyone should avoid caffeine in the hour before speaking, since it won’t mix well with the natural surge of adrenaline you get as you look out at the audience.
Don’t apologise at the start of your speech.
A common amateur mistake, Rinaldi says, is starting with something along the lines of, “Sorry if I speak fast” or “I didn’t have much time to prepare.” Similarly, a speaker may take you through a story about being tasked with having to give a speech and feeling overwhelmed. None of these are charming. Don’t lower expectations, he warns.
Play to your strengths.
When formulating your speech, find a way to instill your personality into it. If you’re funny, make some jokes. If you’re a good cook, toss in a cooking analogy.
You’ll likely be giving a speech that requires research. Since researched material takes effort to memorize, Rinaldi suggests formulating around half of your speech on material you could easily have a conservation about.
Take your time.
It’s important to remember that speaking in front of an audience is not a race. If you’re given a time limit, then you should practice refining your speech beforehand so that it fits comfortably into that time allotment. If you speak too quickly, you will be difficult to understand and will expend breath that you should be using to project your voice. Speak at a reasonable pace and don’t expend more energy than you need to.
Also, if you happen to misspeak or lose your train of thought, pause for a moment to collect yourself. Even if 10 seconds of silence is awkward for the audience, it’s still better than seeing a speaker become flustered, Rinaldi says.
Know your audience.
And finally, don’t forget that a speech is intended to benefit the people listening to it. You’ll usually need to simplify anything technical that you’ll be speaking about, but if you’re a professional talking to a group of peers, over-simplification will sound silly or patronizing.
While you practice, listen while you speak to put yourself in the minds of your audience.
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