We have a reader’s question: how to make a public appearance without making embarrassing mistakes.
We all have something in common with Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Herman Cain; we all make mistakes during speeches, public presentations and media interviews. Those of us in government, associations, nonprofits and everyone else finds public presentations both scary and difficult.
First, no presentation is flawless. The best quarterbacks throw interceptions. The best scientists misread data. Why should you be any different?
I’ve been in public relations for over 30 years and I’ve done hundreds of formal speeches, live radio and television shows and endless media interviews. I’ve been on national television and radio dozens of times. I’ve hosted radio and television programs for 20 years.
Have I screwed up? Yep, more than once and sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. Want to see me at my worst? Schedule me for an opening-keynote conference speech at 9:00 a.m. after spending the first night at a hotel. Not sleeping well does nothing for my presentations.
I’ve had moments during live interviews when I completely lost my train of thought.
But the point is that 98 percent of my public presentations are good to good-enough to great. So how do we avoid making mistakes?
First, when you accept a speaking engagement (and then you ask yourself why) understand that you are bonding with with everyone. Speaking in public is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Simply acknowledging this and the fear that comes with it is the first step. If anyone ever tells you that they don’t get nervous during a public appearance, they are being less than honest.
Second, we all forget our lines at times. You cannot do a speech or public presentation and remember everything without notes.
Third, understand that no one expects perfection. And quite frankly, a flub or two makes you sound authentic. You become a real person that people can identify with. When I host my television and radio shows I leave my flubs (yes, I make plenty) in for that reason. If I make a mistake I smile and make fun of myself but then I get right back to business.
Fourth, all of us have seen famous actors interviewed on live television. Some are terrible without a script and the ability to stop and start again. Entertainment and media figures spend their entire lives in front of a teleprompter or cue cards. Many are no better at public presentations than you or I.
Tips for getting it right:
OK. Now that we have an agreement that even the people who do this professionally make mistakes, and now that you know that you are no different than anyone else, some tips to maximize the experience:
1. Practice. Practice more. Practice again. I’ve stood before 500 people and media giving a speech that I memorized (but I still had it before me on the podium) and got nervous but the practice allowed me to look like a pro.
2. Take 10 deep breaths and let them out very slowly several times before the event. I’m so good at this I can to it in front of other people without them knowing it.
3. The trick is to find your natural speaking style. Don’t try to emulate others. Find your comfort zone. One person I know imagined talking to his teenage sons when they needed a reality check. He channeled the same authority and presence for his live television interview. He looked at the interviewer like he was a son who needed a good talking to. He took command of the interview.
4. For some, simply reading a speech “is” their natural speaking style. A former US Attorney General made no attempt to be the grand wizard of presentations; she simply read well-written speeches. It worked. No one expects you to overwhelm the audience.
5. Practice the speech or interview with other people.
6. Practice your speech out loud. Speak with the same volume you will use during the speech.
7. Use hand gestures and move out from behind the podium if possible (emulate your natural speaking style).
8. Understand you may get nervous and anticipate it so if it happens it’s not overwhelming. Go to your speech (written out in big block letters) and start reading. The nervousness often passes in 5-10 seconds and the overwhelming number of people there will have no idea that you struggled internally. To you, it’s monumental. To them, it’s a minor blip “if” they notice at all.
9. Go to the stage before you start talking (or before the event) so the process of seeing everyone or the setting is not overwhelming.
10. Record your speech into a digital recorder and use headphones. For some people, it’s disconcerting for the first time to hear your own voice coming back at you through speakers when you talk into a microphone. Get used to it.
11. It’s fine to acknowledge that you’re a bit nervous. The crowd will respond warmly (because they’ve been there).
12. But my personal favorite tactic is to get angry. I KNOW I can nail this speech or media interview (I say to myself) and as I walk up to the podium I call myself every name in the book for even thinking about the possibility that nervousness could get in my way.
I use my nervousness as strength, not a weakness. I embrace it. I channel it into an energy level that allows a good presentation.
Everyone has to discover the process of public presentations for themselves and find out what makes them comfortable or functional. How we deal with nervousness is an individual response with solutions tailor made for our set of circumstances.
Just know you’re not alone and it’s just like riding a horse. If you fall get back on immediately.
Want to give a great speech? Make a mistake and then correct it seconds later when you regain your composure. People may note the flub but they will really take notice of your ability to come back.
Turn lemons into lemon-aid. Like the quarterback who throws two interceptions and then completes a touchdown pass, people internally applaud come-backs.
Practice like the dickens. It will get better. You will get good.