The order of the day is self-improvement. We live in an age in which we understand the benefits of marketing and branding ourselves. An age in which we are prepared to admit our weaknesses, and embrace change.
There are, of course, many moments when we question our inner-strength. That glance in the mirror when things don't quite look how they did. The moment we press send on an email knowing it could have been so much more incisive and relevant. The moment we run for a train, sucking-in breath in a way that screams 'out of shape'.
We have to confront each of life’s hurdles as we arrive at them. That’s all we can do, but we will never surmount them, unless we are able to approach each jump confidently. Self confidence is key. No personal trainer can transform the body of a man who doesn’t believe it can be transformed. No dietitian can convince you to put down the fried chicken, unless you want to.
It’s about combining an attainable goal with the confidence that you can achieve it. This is never truer than when we come to the greatest self improvement challenge of them all: Public speaking.
You can be aware of your strengths, but if you can’t confidently communicate them, then what use are they?
There is nothing that gnaws harder at our self-belief than the thought of standing-up to speak in public.
More Americans fear public speaking than death. There is a long-standing joke that suggests an American would rather be the one in the coffin, than the one giving the eulogy. And it's hardly surprising that we find public speaking difficult. We become the centre of attention. There's no doubt we're being judged. Every one of us has sat in an audience - at work, at a wedding, at a dinner - and scrutinised the speakers. We want to be amused and inspired, but if those expectations aren't met, we're all too quick to become the cynic. To switch off. To wink at a friend who is equally bored. To surreptitiously check the phone.
So when our turn comes around, we know just how high the stakes are. Which is why it is so easy to go about things the wrong way. Because in my experience (and I work with hundreds of different public speakers every year), the majority of our self-doubt is easily avoided.
It's all about confidence. Not arrogance of course, because anyone who believes they can just step up in front of a microphone and effortlessly charm and engage his audience is either supernaturally gifted or completely misguided. But for all the experts who suggest you conquer the public speaking nerves by breathing deeply, or sticking your chest out, or waving your arms in the air, or smiling, these can't create confidence. They just disguise our lack of it.
Confidence comes from a genuine belief that your audience wants to hear what we are about to say. And if they don't, our smiling and deep breathing will only hold us together until we look across the room into a sea of drowsy, disinterested faces.
So how do you create that innate sense that everything will be OK?
It comes from preparing strategically for your speech.
This may sound like common sense, but the vast majority of us are asked to speak on a subject in which we are considered an expert. The technical guru at a business conference; the medical specialist at a fundraising do; the best man at a wedding. These events may be very different, but the speaker is typically the person who knows most about the subject. And they tend to plan for it by listing everything they know and want to say, and then trying to weave it all together into a coherent speech.
Which is why so many speeches are too long, too detailed and too introspective
The sad reality is that the morning after we've listened to a speech, we are unlikely to remember more than a single piece of information. It could be a story, a fact, or a joke. But there is no way we could repeat more than thirty seconds of what we've heard. Even if the speech lasts for an hour.
This should guide our entire preparation, and should reverse our entire planning process. Rather than starting with what we want to say, we should imagine ourselves in our own audience. What would we want to hear? What's the key message we should take away? What sort of tone is most appropriate.
By putting the audience first we make an enormous step on the journey to confident public speaking: we become relevant.
By deciding on our key message, and building our speech around it, we can maximise our chances of being heard. Of captivating our audience. Because the moment they feel we are here for their benefit, they will be hooked.
And speaking of 'hooks', our audience will make some pretty significant judgements about us in our first thirty seconds on the podium. So let's start with a bang. The businessman who starts his presentation by listing the number of staff and offices his organisation has around the world, is falling into the same trap as the bridegroom who begins by saying ‘thank you’ to everyone who has ever played a part in his life. It's dull and predictable. Which are not reactions you'd choose to elicit from your audience.
There are hundreds more tips I will share in future posts. From the different way we should write sentences for the spoken word to the way we link subjects. From the way we rehearse to the way we pause between certain words.
But none of these will have the instant, measurable impact on our levels of confidence as holding a script that we trust to be engaging and relevant. That puts our audience first. That translates what we know into what they will enjoy listening to.
In 80% of cases, clients who classify themselves as ‘glossophobic’ are transformed when they understand that once you become relevant, confidence son begins to flow.