I have never in my life experienced nerves like I do before public speaking. My stomach flips, heart rate quickens and brain goes blank. What if I sound stupid? How can I stop the pounding in my chest? Will I forget all my preparation? I feel constantly stressed in the days leading up to the event. So why do I put myself through it?
A few reasons; the only way to conquer fear and get better at something is through practice; as a journalist, it’s a useful skill to have; and most of the time, it’s been fine and I’ve grown more confident in my ability. There’s one more reason too. In the music industry, there is a wealth of opportunity for public speaking thanks to the huge amount of conferences, training events and panel discussions that take place worldwide. Despite that, it’s rare to see a woman on stage. Perhaps they’ve not been asked, perhaps they’ve declined the invitation.
“In the music industry, there is a wealth of opportunity for public speaking. Despite that, it’s rare to see a woman on stage.”
The only way these discussions will start to better represent the range of views and experiences that exist in the world is if event coordinators make efforts to ensure a diverse line-up (which they can do through Let’s Be the Change), and if a more diverse range of those invited accept. By accepting the invitation, I’m doing my small part in helping to achieve a music industry that isn’t ruled by middle-aged white men.
By being visible, there’s also the chance of showing someone in the crowd, who might be similar to you, that they can do it too. And thanks to a few tips I’ve picked up along the way, some of which came from WIN CEO Alison Wenham’s recent public speaking training, it gets easier every time. So whether you’ve never spoken on stage before, or haven’t yet got past the debilitating fear of doing so, the following is written with you in mind.
Don’t accept an invitation to public speak unless you’ve got time for a good few hours of preparation beforehand. Ideally, scattered over a few days. Your duty is to give the audience as much interesting and useful information as possible. By sauntering on stage with a few lines of notes scribbled down on the tube ride, you’re disrespecting the audience and they’ll dislike you for it. It’s not about you, it’s about what you know.
“Don’t accept an invitation to public speak unless you’ve got time for a good few hours of preparation beforehand. Your duty is to give the audience as much interesting and useful information as possible.”
There’s a technique in feature writing that’s called ‘imagine your Pookah’. The Pookah is your average audience member. How old are they? At what point in their career? What do they care about? What three questions would your Pookah want answered? Whether you’re appearing on a panel, chairing it, or giving a keynote, the above applies. Put yourself in the Pookah’s shoes, then work out what you’re going to tell them. Structure is important too. Don’t start with your best material, leave that for the middle as you ease the audience in with something that sets the scene like an overview, brief history lesson or stats relating to the subject in hand. Then, give your brain a plot to follow like a story does with a beginning, middle and end. Some things to consider:
- How much time have you got? If you’re appearing on a panel with three other people that lasts an hour, you need to have enough material that takes up fifteen minutes. A keynote is all yours. If you’re chairing a panel, you need enough questions to keep the discussion going until time is up. Prepare, then practice out loud and time yourself at least three times. Ideally, get a critical friend to give you feedback. I remember more if I write everything I’m going to say on paper after I’ve typed the final edit. It’s an arduous task, but one that results in a better flow of conversation on stage because I’m not reading from a sheet of paper the whole time.
- Unless you’re giving a keynote speech, you won’t need to know everything you’re going to say by heart. It’s a discussion so conversation will flow. However, rehearsing exactly what you’re going to say in the first two minutes will make you feel confident and relaxed having started on a good foot. You’ll need to introduce yourself so think of a few things you’re proud of career-wise to share (which shows you know what you’re talking about). For notes, Wenham uses a stack of A5 cards that she writes a headline on, followed by three main points, with the subject of the next card on the bottom right to stay ahead of herself.
- On a panel, if you’re not the moderator, the person that is should get in touch with you to discuss what you’re going to talk about, and how that ties into what the other speakers have to say. That will ensure there’s little overlap and will help direct your own preparation. Something to suggest if the moderator doesn’t take the initiative themselves.
There’s no avoiding feeling nervous, but there are steps you can take to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm you. This routine works for me: Go and find a quiet place beforehand where you can take 10 minutes to mentally prepare. Take ten deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, relaxing any tension in your shoulders and jaw at the same time. Then practice what you’re going to say out loud in those first two minutes a few times, slowly. If your inner voice starts being bitchy, override it with positive phrases instead; it’s cool, this is going to be fine, you’ve done lots of prep, you know what you’re talking about.
“There’s no avoiding feeling nervous, but there are steps you can take to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm you.”
It’s only you who knows you’re about to climb a metaphorical mountain, the audience are just there to hear some useful information before getting on with their lives. Speaking of which, I find it helps to have something to look forward to at the end. Knowing that whatever happens, life goes on, seems to alleviate some pressure.
The most important thing to remember while on stage is to be you, and don’t compare yourself to the way other people conduct themselves. My presenting style is minimal but considered. Perhaps you’re high energy and full of jokes. Any style is great as long as it gives the audience what they came for, has some heart and effort, and is genuine. You’ll make it hard for yourself if you try to be something you’re not. A few more points:
“The most important thing to remember while on stage is to be you, and don’t compare yourself to the way other people conduct themselves.”
- Remember when Adele asked to start her George Michael tribute at the Grammys again because she wasn’t happy with how it went? Did everyone laugh her off stage and bully her in the media afterwards? No, she was loved for it because it made her human. If you muck up or get lost in the middle of a sentence, all you need to do is apologise, start again or return to the point later when you’ve collected your thoughts.
- Never say, ‘I have x points I’d like to make’ without notes. It’s a sure fire way of forgetting what you had in mind after the first point.
- If you’re not directing what you’re saying at fellow panellists, look to the back of the room with your head up and move it around. One of the most common mistakes in public speaking is when the speaker finds one person who’s listening and focuses on them. Don’t find that person because your eyes will inadvertently keep going back to them, resulting in an awkward staring competition that makes the rest of the audience feel left out.
- Don’t use big words, speak to the audience as if they are 12-years-old. If you start using complicated language people stop listening to what you’re saying because their brains are trying to decipher the meaning of the words themselves. And say everything super slowly, far slower than what feels normal in your head. Speaking fast risks losing the audience and holds a host of opportunity for excessive use of filler phrases and words.
- Use your hands if you want, it conveys weight and is another way of expressing meaning.
- Finally, smile, and try to enjoy it. No decent person is sat there judging you, and we’ve all got to start somewhere. Practice makes perfect!
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