Practice makes perfect in public speaking

NO SHORTCUTS: Apple chief executive Tim Cook announcing the Apple Watch during an event in September. It takes practice to be "natural" in front of an audience.


    Nov 25, 2014

    Practice makes perfect in public speaking

    I WAS in college when I first learnt how awful public speaking could be. Having written an op-ed article for the student newspaper, I rose from my seat at a debate to say a few words about the subject. I hadn't prepared anything.

    The ease with which I had written my ideas disappeared with the realisation that 100 sets of eyes were locked on me. I stumbled through something. After what seemed like an eternity, I slunk back to my seat, vowing not to repeat the experience.

    Move ahead 15 years. I'm still writing about business and economics topics in articles and books. Now, a big part of book writing is speaking. To sell books, you have to talk to people about your ideas.

    At first, I thought this was something to be endured. But a few books in, I can honestly say I enjoy it. Few people are naturals at public speaking, but here's how I learnt to love it anyway.

    First, I have realised that being "natural" comes from practice. I don't know why this should be surprising. Maybe it's because many of us assume that we must project proficiency in all work-related matters. This belies the messy nature of learning new skills. The first time you got on a bicycle, you might well have fallen off; only later did it seem intuitive. Likewise, the more you get up in front of people, the better you are at it. In the past five years, I've given so many speeches that it no longer feels nerve-racking.

    Although some people have learnt to be eloquent about almost anything at the microphone, most of us are asked about just a few topics. The good news is that after enough practice, you should know those topics cold. You can write speeches about them, do drills on the delivery and hone your ideas into phrases that sound good. Then you can memorise those phrases.

    It took me a long time to get there. For a few years, I'd ask for lecterns where I could keep notes. Then a conference organiser pushed me not to rely on this crutch. In my hotel room the night before, I wondered what would happen if my slides didn't work, either.

    So I tested myself to see whether I could give my basic speech from memory. The answer turned out to be that you can wind me up and drop me into the middle of a corporate retreat, and I'll give you an hour-long talk on time management.

    Once I had my material memorised, I realised that I could focus on the part that's fun: Feeding off the energy that is always in an audience, and that can be harnessed if you try.

    Most introverts like myself enjoy one-on-one interactions. For my speeches, I have the organisers put me in touch with a few audience members beforehand. I ask them to keep track of how they spend their time for several days, then have them send me their logs.

    This exercise shows me the challenges that my audience faces. But a secondary benefit is that I get to know these people. I talk on the phone with them, often multiple times before we meet. When I say hello before the talk, they become friendly faces, nodding and smiling in seats near the front.

    Even if a conference doesn't lend itself to this format, I make sure to get there early enough to introduce myself to enough people so that the audience won't be all strangers. Someone, at least, will be rooting for me.

    Laughter is energising, too - and, over time, I have experimented to find lines that make people chuckle. Just as stand-up comics try out their material in small clubs, I try a new observation in each speech to see how people react. If they react well, I add it permanently, because there is little that is more thrilling than hearing hundreds of people chortle at something you've just said. Laughter is approval; it certainly beats blank faces.

    Finally, from watching other speakers, I've learnt strategies like giving audience members opportunities to talk with one another, because most people come to conferences to network anyway.

    I can't say that all my speeches go perfectly. I still struggle when I draw the post-lunch, nap-inducing time slot. Yet even this can be helpful: It makes me realise that sometimes you connect with other people and sometimes you don't. It makes any given speech less fraught. I can take it in stride - in contrast to that red-faced walk back to my seat in college.