A public-speaking coach gives 5 tips for nailing your first performance or meeting back in person

woman speaking public speaking
Public speaking doesn’t have to be scary – again.

  • Eileen Smith is a public-speaking coach and frequent keynote speaker.
  • She suggests planning how you’ll project a professional image when returning to offices and venues.
  • Connect with the audience before you speak, make eye contact, and move with purpose, she says.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I can feel the electricity in the room when I’m in front of a live audience. I know if there’s spirited conversation before the event begins, and I can read people’s faces and body language.

Eileen Smith
Eileen Smith.

All these cues feed my energy and how I project it back to my listeners.

Of course, when everything moved online during the pandemic, I had to figure out how to get these cues back. I found myself reaching out through chat rooms and using polls to take the pulse of my virtual audiences.

As we move back to the office again, even if it’s in a hybrid workplace, many of our public-speaking skills might be a little rusty. Here are five ways to dust yours off and excel in that first in-person gathering.

Read more: 10 tips for landing and delivering your own TEDx talk, from a TEDx speaker whose talk has over 15 million views

Remember your performance starts when you enter the room

The beginning of an event or meeting is not the time to tuck into your phone or study your notes. When you enter a venue, your performance has already begun.

Project a strong executive presence by walking in with your eyes up and shoulders back. Say hello to people you know and introduce yourself to people you don’t. Engage in conversation until the meeting begins. Greet everyone like a boss or old friend.

For a more formal speaking event, once you’re set up with your technology and materials, stand by the door and introduce yourself to people as they arrive. If you’re holed away in a green room, you can find your fellow speakers or even a few staffers to talk with.

This approach has a few advantages. First, it gives you the opportunity to ask people what brings them in and what they most want to learn from this event. Then weave their stories or questions into your talk to make it more personal.

Second, keeping yourself involved in conversation until the event begins may help calm your nerves. Otherwise, you might spend those last minutes building anxiety about how your first foray back into a live audience will go.

Third, audience members who have had a chance to say hello will feel more connected to you as a speaker.

Make eye contact

Your goal when speaking in person is to make actual eye contact. Don’t look above your audience at the back wall, don’t stare at a spot on the table, and don’t look at the forest, but miss the trees.

I like to separate my audience into three sections. In each section, I seek out my new best friend. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve met this person before. I’m looking for someone who’s giving me positive feedback – smiling and nodding at what I have to say.

Once you’ve found your three new best friends, one for each section of your audience, take turns making direct eye contact with them while you’re speaking.

Wait until you reach a punctuation mark in your sentence before you move on to your next best friend. This helps you regulate your eye movement. If you switch between people too fast, you risk giving off the windshield-wiper effect. If you linger on one person for too long, it can become uncomfortable.

Gesture with meaning

At home on a video screen, small gestures are the rule. Perhaps you’ve been consciously keeping your gestures within the camera frame so they aren’t lost from view. Or perhaps the low-key work-from-home environment has depleted your inspiration for big gestures.

Either way, in person you can spread out.

If you’re someone who naturally talks with your hands, that’s wonderful. However, make a recording of yourself on your phone so you can check to see that your hands are saying what you think they’re saying. A little emphasis is good. Too much is, well, too much.

An important thing to keep in mind after hunching in your home office for so long is to keep your posture strong and body open. Crossed arms, hands clasped down in front like a fig leaf, and fidgeting with your hands are signs of discomfort.

Look self-assured by deploying confident hand gestures. Steepling “is a universal display of confidence and is often used by those in a leadership position,” Joe Navarro, a retired FBI agent and author, told Insider. You can also try nesting your hands together lightly or holding them separately at your midsection. Hands down by your sides is another confident position. This is a favorite for many world leaders, as seen at the recent G7 Summit

Move with purpose

Moving around when you’re speaking in front of people is an effective way to hold their attention.

Step to one side of the stage or conference room to connect with that part of the audience. Stay there until you finish your thought. Try out that solid eye contact. Then move to the other side of the stage or another spot. Finish your thought before you move again.

Be measured in your movement. When you’re standing still, avoid shuffling, tapping, or otherwise letting your legs betray your nervous energy. When you’re not walking, take a strong stance, keep your posture straight, and hold your feet firm.

Treat nerves as excitement and energy

Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed – if only for the simple reason that it’s uncomfortable to watch someone who’s outwardly nervous. Turn that tension into positive energy and project confidence on the outside.

If your nerves are threatening to get the best of you, take a moment. “The breath is a direct line to the nervous system and the brain,” Tara Antonipillai, a corporate wellness expert, told Insider. “Remind yourself that you can turn off the panic response in the brain and turn on that thinking reasoning part of the brain by simply slowing down and deepening the breath.”

Also, try mentally reframing your nervous reaction into excitement. Build your confidence through preparation and practice, print your notes as a safety net in case you forget what you want to say, and focus your thoughts on all the wonderful things that can happen, instead of thinking about what might go wrong.

Eileen Smith is a public-speaking coach, keynote speaker, and former diplomat. Find her tips to help business executives, policy experts, and rising professionals achieve preparation, confidence, and career success at Spokesmith.com.

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Why introverts can often make the most compelling public speakers

woman public speaking
Public speaking is more about connecting with the audience than putting on a performance.

  • Neil Gordon is a communication consultant who helps thought leaders improve their speaking skills.
  • While many speakers emphasize theatrics, Gordon says introverts can deliver equally effective speeches.
  • What makes a good speech isn’t a big personality – it’s the power to enact change in the audience.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I once listened to a podcast where the guest was said to be an expert on public speaking

“What is the single most important thing for being an amazing public speaker?” the host asked.

“Theatricality,” the guest expert said.

The guest then elaborated on how important it was to use dramatization to convey the emotional richness of what is being said on stage.

I was driving in my car when I was listening to this conversation, and as I made a left turn onto a busy city street I was struck by how adamant and confident the guest was in her answer.

But I was struck by something else as well.

This public speaking expert was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Yes, theatricality is indeed a valuable tool in one’s speaking.

I’m fond of being particularly theatrical in my own speaking, don’t get me wrong. My childhood love of Monty Python means that I’ll look for any excuse to do my terrible impression of a British accent.

But theatricality is not the most important thing.

And it’s not even necessary.

You’ll notice that, like that speaking expert, I too am being adamant and confident in my position.

But my fervor stems from the heartbreak I feel when I have conversations with those who are considering becoming public speakers but resist the possibility – because they’re introverts.

Indeed, there are many folks who see the value in putting themselves out there as speakers because of the trust and authority it’s possible to earn from giving a compelling presentation.

Speaking leads to many rewards, like the opportunity to spread the word about their expertise, and even more tangible outcomes like clients.

But they hold back from doing anything about it because they don’t think they belong on stage.

They hear someone say “theatricality” and rule themselves out because, well, they’re introverts.

The introvert’s public speaking dilemma

It’s understandable why an introvert might be reluctant to put themselves on stage. They see loud, larger-than-life speakers show up on big stages in front of thousands of people and compare themselves unfavorably.

Why would anyone want to listen to me when that guy over there is so warm and boisterous? they might ask themselves.

And when they hear of how important theatricality is, they’re pretty sure speaking is a non-starter for them.

I’ve known so many introverts who come up with some of the most brilliant insights when they’re left in the solitude they crave. These are the kinds of insights that would be a slam-dunk when matched with the gravity and authority that comes from delivering those insights to hundreds or thousands of people at a time.

I’ve had discovery calls with folks who were considering delving into the act of speaking, but are apprehensive because they’re introverts and don’t think they have the personality for it.

One particular call comes to mind, in that I spoke with a lovely man who as about as mild-mannered as anyone I’d encountered in my line of work.

He had an upcoming presentation to give at a trade conference for his industry: agricultural efficiency. It is such a niche field that it was one of the only conferences in town. But if it went well, he would not only attract some clients but would be able to better position his company as an authority in the industry.

But based on the apprehension he stated in the call, and the shy and subdued way he said it, I knew that getting up and speaking in front of others wasn’t at the top of the list of things he wanted to do in life.

Being an introvert, he was confronted with the possibility that his was not a personality suited to the task.

The larger myth among public speaking experts

This is only conjecture, of course, but I imagine if the gentleman in agricultural efficiency had instead taken advice from someone who valued theatricality above all else, he either would have shied away from even working on his presentation or, in an effort to be more theatrical, he would have looked a bit like Ben Stein from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” trying to do Shakespeare.

At least, that’s what I’ve seen happen with other introverts when they’re told to embrace bolder presentation styles.

There are numerous public speaking experts out there who agree with the person I heard on that podcast who said that theatricality is the most important quality for a speaker. Still there are others who are quite evangelical about making the speaker’s personal story their most central and therefore most important asset. Others state how it’s all about one’s presence on stage or even how much they directly engage with the audience with interactive experiences.

But once again, these assumptions are wrong.

There is a larger theme in these ideas, which is the common flaw. Those who tout these directives of basing a talk on how theatrical the speaker is, how poignant their personal story is, or how much interaction they build into their presentation are all perpetuating the idea that the speech someone gives is only as successful as the speaker’s ability to give it.

But when my mild-mannered prospective client became my actual client, we put together a presentation that he gave at the conference. As a result, several highly qualified leads asked him to come visit them about providing his company’s services.

The reason they invited him out to pitch his services wasn’t because of his theatricality, his personal story, or any sort of interactive tools.

It was because of something else.

A speaker’s most important asset

The talk we put together for my agriculture client did indeed have stories. But it also had the types of things that many speakers and experts rail against. It had charts. It had bullet points on slides instead of just pictures.

It also had a central, key takeaway that could be summed up in as little as a sentence. He was able to boil the entire presentation down to a single, light bulb moment that helped the audience to have a collective epiphany – to understand how to solve their problems with agricultural efficiency in a way that didn’t seem possible twenty minutes earlier.

But still, not a single one of these ingredients is absolutely critical to the kind of speech that will make someone a successful public speaker – and it’s a big deal that I’m saying that, as I’m quite passionate about the value of a central takeaway.

Ultimately, the reason he got such warm leads from his presentation wasn’t because of the qualities he possessed as a speaker or the specific ingredients that he featured.

It was because of how empowered his audience to make positive change in relation to the problems they were facing.

In their world of agriculture and farming, they were struggling with rising costs of resources. They had to navigate what was often a complicated subsidization model with the government. They had to negotiate the increased demand for an organic classification but an expectation from the marketplace to pay similar prices to that of conventional produce.

The reason why those folks came up to him was because they believed my client could solve those problems.

It turns out that a public speaker’s most important asset isn’t their theatricality, their story, or how extroverted and boisterous they are.

It’s their capacity to help their audience to believe that change is possible.

Our return to how things once were

A number of my speaker clients have reported back that they’re doing very good (and even well-paid) work presenting virtually as we work our way through the pandemic.

There are even some folks who are once again getting invited into hybrid models of presenting wherein they’re flown to another city and are presenting to a few people live but primarily are presenting to virtual audiences as well.

But as vaccinations and herd immunity become more of a reality in the coming months, there will be a rush of activity for people to re-position themselves in an industry that has otherwise been devastated.

This means that never has it been more important to get clear on the value you can deliver, and value doesn’t come from being the most boisterous, extroverted speaker out there.

Value comes from getting clear on how your expertise can empower others to live a better life than they have since this calamity began and beyond.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re theatrical, subdued, aggressive, or heartfelt – as long as the audience member is compelled to take positive and meaningful action in response.

The value of our speech isn’t based on what we say on stage, but rather what our audience does once we’re done saying it.

Introverts will make the best speakers not when they change their personalities but when they take the insights that have grown from a lifetime of productive solitude and show their audience how these ideas can help them to live a better life.

They merely need to convince their audiences that getting from point A to point B is possible.

A speaker in crisis

A handful of years ago, I was volunteering at a children’s hospital for a program that gifts books to children and reads to them bedside. The director of the program came into our main reading room all flustered because she had a 10-minute presentation to give later that day. I understood why she was in distress; she had previously described to me how glazed over people usually looked when she presented on the program.

Plus, she was an introvert. She wanted to be there as little as her audiences did.

I took her aside and asked her if she wanted some help. She said yes.

We then spoke for only two minutes, simply rearranging a few elements of what she usually said.

When I saw her later that day and asked her how it went, she told me that, upon her starting her talk, it was so deathly quiet that, yes, you could hear the pin drop. She then described how, at the end of the presentation, while people usually just politely clapped, this time they lined up with business cards and even invited her to apply for a grant.

My supervisor didn’t become an extrovert in two minutes. And she didn’t suddenly become theatrical, either. By rearranging her talk we simply took the audience from the painful thought of children staying at a hospital to the possibility of these kids feeling minimally feeling better because of books being incorporated into their hospital stay.

And when the audience saw this change as possible, they rushed to the director with interest.

So I call on you to put aside commonly held beliefs about what it takes to be an effective speaker. It’s not theatricality, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert.

It’s showing your commitment to your audience’s ability to change and doing everything you can to show them that such a transformation is possible.

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