Tristan De Montebello was a volunteer to Scott H. Youngs Ultralearning challenge. Ultralearning by the way is a strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning. The prior experience De Montebello had to public speaking, however, wasn’t really comprehensive. Although he was a musician and used to play in front of crowds, he was surprised how little of it translated. “I cringe every time I think back to it,“ he remembers a talk he once gave. “I could tell I wasn’t really connecting.“
“What followed, however, exceeded both our wildest expectations” writes Young in this article. “In less than seven months, Tristan went from near-zero experience to competing in the finalists for the World Championship of Public Speaking.”
Similar to De Montebello many of us have just little experience with public speaking. Mostly only from school or college. We are getting instantly nervous when we just think about standing on stage. Although we have impressive stories to tell, we get nervous in the spot light. What helps the best story when you can’t deliver it?
Tristan De Montebello in Ultralerning:
“Public speaking is a meta skill. It assists with other skills: confidence, storytelling, writing, creativity, interviewing skills, selling skills.“
Alexis Kuchel is a former Australian Radio Host, Engaging Presenter and a dear friend of mine. She knows how to handle a crowd. She has talked to thousands on air and has been on many live stages and TV. To her mastering public speaking comes down to five points:
Confidence, Preparation, Practice, Feedback, and Engagement
Not everyone is blessed with the self confidence to stand in front of a group of people and deliver a talk. Also professionals feel that anxiety. The difference is that they have learnt to accept and to appreciate this feeling. “I am fortunate that crowds don’t phase me,“ says Alexis. “However, I will always feel anxious. I think of it as a primal instinct where my senses are sharpen with adrenalin. It allows me to use every corner of my brain to deliver the presentation.“
Fight or flight – how to control that feeling
We all know that feeling: Stage fright. Our hearts start beating faster and we feel butterflies in our stomach. It’s an ancient instinct taking over: Fight or flight. But what once helped us to survive a sabertooth tiger is not very helpful in the business world of today.
Alexis regularly used a technique she learned in an Emotional Intelligence education by Angela Heise. Angela is an Emotional Productivity Trainer and Coach, and fellow German who moved to Australia 25 years ago. She has helped Alexis to tame her fight or flight instinct. “It’s called accessing your high-performance state. It’s a simple exercise where you visualise a time of great achievement in your life, then physically step forward into that feeling and press your little finger and your thumb together as a way to store this feeling physically in your body. Continue to fill up your awareness of these moments. When you feel fight or flight taking over, take some deep breaths and then squeeze your little finger and thumb together. So you access your high performance state, and ease yourself into your power and calm.”
This technique is perfectly combined with deep breathing. By just taking two slow and very deep breaths – inhale down into your belly, and exhale completely – you will feel an immediate effect. Deep breathing stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (the one that is responsible for fight or flight response) and will set you in a state of calmness.
There is nothing wrong with feeling this way. Professionals like Alexis have learnt to acknowledge it, and turned down its volume. This is the first step in becoming confident.
Preparation – a plan that delivers
The second step is to have a pretty good concept, and to be prepared. In her most failed presentation, Alexis learned the significance of purpose. “Without a clear and direct purpose, even my most entertaining and confident performance missed the mark of my audience,” Alexis remembers. “All that hard work and effort in delivering my killer presentation was wasted. I was asked as I concluded, if I was taking the task seriously! Lesson learned!”
Preparation is the crucial part. Without a plan that delivers in the core reasons you’re speaking to many people you’ll lose their interest. In the first article we have shown you a very useful concept to customize your presentation for any audience.
Practice and Feedback takes courage
No one becomes good at anything without practice and feedback. This takes courage and commitment. “Feedback on rehearsal is key,“ Alexis points out. “Presenting is a vulnerable experience and that vulnerability takes courage. It will give you an authentic connection with your crowd if you can be comfortable in that state.“
The concept of feedback is also an essential part in Scott H. Youngs book Ultralearning. Although De Montebello hasn’t had any mayor prior experience in public speaking he made it to the Toastmasters World Champions Finals in just seven months. He recorded every of his speeches, and at some point even gave them to seventh graders, “knowing [they] would give the most ruthless feedback of all”.
Although De Montebello is an exceptional example, he could only succeed with feedback. In our business environments however we’re faced with the opposite. When you give a presentation you receive very little useful feedback, if you don’t specifically ask for it. When I gave a presentation at a conference early in my career, I could tell from the immediate reaction that people seemed to be very pleased. However, weeks later I received the feedback forms, and boy they were crushing. It took me a while to get over and acknowledge it. Since then, I have learnt that feedback is key, and without it there is little improvement.
Practice in a low-risk environment
There are many things you can use to receive honest and helpful feedback. Joining a local Toastmasters group like De Montebello will not just improve your skills in public speaking, but also in leadership. It is important that you practice in a low- or no-risk environment. Before you give a presentation, ask your partner or a good friend for comprehensive review of your rehearsal. Try video recording yourself to improve your speech. We’re often our biggest critiques but don’t forget: all of this takes bravery and it is an important step towards mastering a new skill.
All the concepts have just been a preparation. The audience is forming their opinion about you in the first couple of minutes. Unfortunately, it will stay with you for the rest of your presentation. To make things worse this is when stage fright is at its peak. If you use storytelling and open with a fascinating hook you will not only surprise your audience but you will for sure have their attention until the end of your presentation. Read our first article to learn how you can come up with one. If you have survived the first couple of minutes your body adapts, and you will be much more comfortable. This is when you start connecting with the audience. “Then, try to have some fun,“ Alexis recommends. “This is how you can keep your audience engaged.“
“In business and relationships it’s all first about people.”
To master stage fright make sure you prepare very well for your opening. This will calm your mind. To emphasis on your words prepare visual aids. “Use elements for interest, whether it’s props, a slideshow, a short video, Q&A.“ Alexis recommends. “These things can enhance the interaction which keeps your crowd interested and listening.“
A skill that can be learnt
For De Montebello his journey of public speaking was life and even career changing. Not only has he mastered a new skill, he also saw an opportunity to help others improve and is now a public speaking coach.
De Montebello in the book Ultralearning:
“I was learning for this very narrow world of public speaking. It was only after that I realized the depth of all these skills I had worked so much on: storytelling, confidence, communicating”
The constant iterating cycle of learning he went trough made him master this new skill. He was able to turn a weak point into excellence. His example shows that with dedication and commitment everyone can learn and become an awesome public speaker. All it needs is the courage to start this journey.
The idea to this article came from a question we have received from a reader who wanted to know how to prepare for an important presentation. We love your input. If you have a topic you want to read more about, or have an idea for an article contact us, or leave a comment below.
When this article was published many of us started slowly going back into the offices. But it will take many months until we will get the opportunity to stand in front of a crowd again. We think this is the best time to acquire a new skill.
As many presentations will be remote until things have normalized we have collected a few tips for you to avoid Zoom fatigue:
- select your audience wisely as people will zoom out or get distracted
- deliver your message quickly before the end of your audiences attention span
- There is no immediate feedback to you and you can’t ‘feel’ the audience, and vice versa. This is a huge disadvantage. Make sure you make your presentation extra engaging: focus on a clear story and engage your audience with a Q&A, or an electronic quiz. Have you heard of Kahoot?
A TED-talk worth watching
Body language expert Allan Pease explains how you are perceived by your audience just by the position of your hands.
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