The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Public Speaking

When you decide to become an entrepreneur, you willingly or unwillingly become a public speaker as well.

You speak publicly in front of potential partners, you speak in front of industry insiders, you speak to clients. If things move along well, you talk to tables of frowning people who have the power to invest in your business or – and we all dread this scenario – not invest at all, only ask difficult questions and deconstruct your idea.

Truth of the matter is, whether you foresaw how much public speaking you’d end up doing or not when you started out as an entrepreneur, getting up in front of people and talking about what you’re doing is not something you can get away from.

You might think: “but this is why I’m starting this with a co-founder” or “I’m hiring a Sales VP to do this as soon as possible”. You might be convinced there are always things to do that are more important than talk in front of a bunch of people. But here’s the thing: no one can tell the story of your business like you, the founder, can. No one else has the same perspective you do. And while we empathise with the jitters of public speaking, you have to remember people have been figuring out how to do this since ancient times. We’re here to share with you some wisdom, so you can figure it out too.

1. Fear is a superpower

The trouble with speaking publicly is that we tend to associate the nerves before it with the reaction we’ll get from the audience. The truth is your harshest judge isn’t going to be sitting in a seat somewhere at the sides, they are going to sit right behind your eyeballs. Because no one will care about the topic more than you do or feel as exposed as you will, you are your own harshest judge. Look on the positive side, and realise that the anxiety that gnaws at the back of your mind makes you prepare better, keeps your senses alert, makes you think faster and improvise when you’ll need it the most. So don’t take the nerves before a presentation as a predictor for your failure. Take it as a measure of your dedication.

2. Body language (or how to fake it till you make it)

While we’re on the topic of managing your nerves, here’s how you give yourself away without knowing when you’re feeling jittery. When you pay attention to your body language, you become aware of what emotions you project. So make sure to:

  • Stand on two feet. Distribute your weight evenly on both feet, keeping them aligned with your shoulders (think of a softer superhero stance, without the hands on your hips). Especially if you’re a stress walker or tend to balance from side to side, this position will keep you in place. You will feel more balanced if you don’t have to worry about actually keeping your balance in front of your public.
  • Don’t hold sheets of paper in your hands. Use a clipboard. The extra hardness will give you stability, especially if your hands tend to tremble under stress or if you tend to play with whatever you’re holding to give an outlet to your nerves.
  • Look for the nodders. While it’s a strong temptation to perceive your audience as a many-headed monster, remember your audience is made up by individuals. Always search and make eye-contact with people who are nodding, smiling or looking interested. It will connect you better with your audience and more importantly, it will boost your confidence. And one more thing: if you expect a difficult audience, invite your colleagues or friends to be your nodders.

When you start doing instances of public speaking, it will take a while until you get over your nerves. But until then, knowing the tricks that will keep your audience from recognising your nervousness is just the way to build confidence.

3. Know your audience

Here’s the paradox of public speaking: while the topic is about you, your expertise or your business, if you don’t make it about the audience and how it impacts them, your speech will tank. So before every presentation, make sure you know your audience: ask about them, see what interests them, look them up on social media.

Understanding their interests and objectives outside your meeting with them will help you frame your talk in terms that will pique their curiosity. Moreso, it will help you understand the limits of your presentation: things like how much media you can include, what type of humour you can express, what the main takeaways are.

4. Follow the red thread of structure

When it comes to structuring a pitch, Guy Kawasaki recommends following the 10-20-30 rule. Build your presentation in 10 slides, present it in 20 minutes and don’t use a font size lower than 30 pt. He also recommends deciding on three main points you want your audience to understand.

You might think rules are made to be broken, but the truth of the matter is that sticking to these basics will help you get the best out of your presentation. If you still feel you need to break the rules, own the changes you make. Do something differently – whether it’s how you structure your content, what media you include, what you decide to share – because it helps your audience or it helps in the context you will have your presentation. Don’t break the rules just for the sake of being a rule breaker.

5. The rhetoric tricks you don’t realise you know

Have you ever noticed how some speeches just resonate with you from the start, while others quickly lose your interest? The interesting thing about human beings is how stories and talking in front of a public have been part of our social structures since we started figuring out how speech works. So there has been significant thought put in what makes a speech captivating. The basics say this:

  • Present your arguments in threes
  • Use the same opening in three consecutive sentences
  • Use balancing sentences to make a point
  • Use metaphor to lead people or make them recoil
  • Exaggerate for impact
  • Pay attention to rhyming and alliterations

You can always learn from others if when you start listening to speeches not just paying attention to the content, but also to the structure. The famous TED and The Moth are great places to get started.

6. Visual assets should enrich, not distract

It’s true that a picture says more than a thousand words, but in the context of a speech, those words should be explanatory, not steal your steam. Use videos, visual diagrams or infographics as support in bringing your point; especially when you have to explain complex points or data analytics, a picture will save the day.

Nevertheless, make sure not to use enriched media for the sake of the visuals only. Your aim as the speaker is to be the centre of attention and a guide in what you’re presenting them. The moment your audience jumps ahead of you, you’ve lost them. And most importantly, you have to prepare for the situation when you won’t have a laptop or a projector available to you. Your presentation has to stand on its own and be just as meaningful as one supported by media.

7. Always get back in the saddle

Doing public speaking is like learning to ride a bike. There will be times when the nerves might get the better of you and a friendly public will save you. There will be times when you won’t have the right information and the audience will eat you alive (hint: being able to say ‘that’s a very good question and I will get back to you after the presentation is over’ has saved many tense situations).

The truth is you will tank. And tank again. And maybe again. People are so scared of that moment of shame when they get blocked, they will do anything to never have to be in that position again. But the best way to never be in that position again is to actually get back in the saddle. There will always be a second chance. You can always start small and go big later. You can always rewrite the speech and learn from your mistakes. Like with everything in life, public speaking has very little to do with talent and a lot to do with persistence. So push through the nerves!

You control the narrative

When you try to express what scares you about public speaking, it probably comes down to the lack of control: you don’t know how your audience will receive you or what they will say afterwards. But the truth is you are the one in the position of control. If you take ownership of the message you want to bring across, the audience will recognise that. There’s an exhilarating rush in realising you control the narrative. And once that happens, you can adapt your language and frame it to best suit your points.

The best public speakers don’t say the same canned material over and over again; they adapt to any given situation and learn to connect with any audience. And once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to get off that stage or stop telling your story.

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