Are you a timid first-time speaker or a talented expert?

Public speaking tips for the timid and the talented

Whether you are a health IT professional, in the PR world or a practicing clinician, chances are you’ve spoken in a public forum at some point in your career. Perhaps you’ve delivered a presentation at a HIMSS conference that included a great health IT ROI story. Maybe your biggest presentation was in front of a hospital finance committee to expound the virtues of a particular software platform. Or, possibly the highlight of your public speaking career so far has been the delivery of a departmental update for other company leaders.

Regardless of the size of your audience or your level of expertise, you likely remember your first big public speaking opportunity. Mine was in my early 20s while working on my MBA.

All incoming MBA students were required to take a core introductory course that included the development of a business plan and culminated with an in-class presentation. I don’t recall all the specifics about my presentation, but I do remember having the highest average in the class prior to my big public speaking debut.

Here’s something else remember: I was scared to death at the thought of standing up before my professor and 20 or so peers to deliver my business plan. I am sure I was reasonably prepared and knew my content, but I was still terrified. I vividly recall three things about that presentation: 1) I was sweating profusely; 2) when I spoke, my voice was squeaky, breathy and about two octaves higher than normal; 3) I earned the lowest grade in the class for the delivery part of my presentation.

Public speaking comes easily to many people. Most of us, however, are at least a little nervous that our audience will somehow reject us and view us as uninformed, unintelligent, ill-prepared or boring (the worst reaction in my mind!). If you share these fears – and it is preventing you from stepping up in front of a crowd to expound your great wisdom, wit and/or work and life experiences – then consider a few public speaking tips that have worked for me over the years.

Preparation breeds confidence
I spent the first half of my career selling billing and EMR systems to physician offices, which required doing product demonstrations of the software to doctors and their staffs. Before I ever gave my first demo, I knew my stuff cold and had spent hours practicing what to say and how to say it. When I demonstrated the software in front of prospects for the first time, I nailed it – and I didn’t break out into a sweat, nor speak in a squeaky voice. And yes, I made the sale.

What I learned from that experience is that I was not one of those type of people who can “wing it” when giving a presentation. And truthfully, even those presenters who appear to be winging it have probably spent hours practicing so that the delivery appears effortless, authoritative and off-the-cuff. Practice breeds confidence.

Get help
Over the years, I have benefited from some excellent mentors who provided constructive feedback and helped me overcome my public speaking fears. I also had the incredible opportunity to work with a professional speaking coach who helped me with some speaking nuances, such as how to stand and how to project my voice. I’m still not the most dynamic and accomplished speaker out there, but over the years I’ve given hundreds of presentations and have even been paid to speak on various health IT-related topics.

Almost a year ago, one of my Amendola mentors encouraged me to join Toastmasters to further hone my speaking skills. While I was initially skeptical – would everyone be a nerd? or shy introverts with no personality? perhaps retirees with nothing better to do? – I have been pleasantly surprised by the mix of people in my club. It includes a variety of professionals in diverse careers, all of whom are fun and dedicated to self-improvement. Toastmasters has given me the opportunity to deliver prepared speeches once or twice a month, as well as speak extemporaneously on random subjects. It’s provided an excellent forum for practicing speech organization and delivery, and for receiving feedback that pushes me to strive for continuous improvement.

Content counts
One key to making sure you don’t bore your audience is to talk about something that is interesting to you. If you’re enthusiastic about the topic, your audience will feed off your energy, even if they previously never knew a thing about the subject.

If for some reason you must present on a topic that doesn’t inspire you, find a way to personalize your speech. No one wants to just hear facts and figures, so if you’re talking about the history of widgets, bring in some sort of human element to make the subject more compelling. Perhaps share your personal experience with widgets and throw in a little widget humor. Let your personality shine, regardless of the topic.

Finally, if you are discussing a topic that the audience knows well, don’t spend too much time repeating what they probably already know. Instead, introduce a fresh angle, whether it’s your unique insight or an analogy that connects the topic with a current news story. And humor never hurts!

Say it with style

Sometimes what makes for a great presentation is not so much what you say but how you say it. If I ever need inspiration for a Toastmasters speech, I will search Youtube and watch a few experts in action. Little things, like vocal variety, facial expressions and body movement can make a speech so much more captivating. I also believe that short sentences, vivid words and dramatic pauses are a great way to keep your audience engaged.

When you first try stylizing a presentation in this way you might feel like an imposter putting on a performance. But, the more you introduce these creative elements into your speech, the easier it gets. In time, you will find a style that feels comfortable – or at least like less of an imposter.

Finally, my best public speaking tip is to try to have fun. And, don’t be Robin!

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