One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, which meant reluctantly struggling through three-digit subtraction problems. Do you remember the problems where you had to borrow from the column to the left? There are two reasons that this experience is forever etched in my memory: (1) it was during summer break when most kids were free from homework and (2) the authority who assigned that drudgery was my mom, a teacher with the biological right to “lay hands on me” if I stepped out of line. Trust me, there were times when I was tempted to sneak the calculator from the kitchen drawer but that would have been an exercise in futility; my mom insisted that I “show my work” and check my answers using addition. For those of you who are too young to know what that means, showing your work can be translated literally. I had to show each step that I took to solve the problem and I had to check my work by adding the bottom number in the original equation to my answer. If correct, those two numbers should equal the top number in the original equation. (Don’t try to figure it out ― just use a calculator).
Obviously, summer vacation subtraction scarred me for life but the reason I’m sharing this with you is that one of the best and fastest ways to improve your public speaking skills is to check your work. As a speaker, the way you accomplish this is to video record your presentations and strategically evaluate your performance. If you’re anything like most speakers, this is not a suggestion that you accept with open arms. When I first started speaking, I would much rather ask my audience members to tell me how I did than watch a video of myself. There are two problems with that approach: (1) it’s highly unlikely your audience would share much needed critical feedback out of respect for your feelings and (2) they are not qualified to provide the technical tips required to move the needle.
If you’re serious about getting better, your first step toward becoming a more clear and compelling presenter is wrestling down any fears you have of watching yourself present on camera. The second step is knowing what to look for. Here, I’ll share a short list to get you started. We’ll start with your head and work our way down to your feet.
Head – Imagine that you’re balancing a plate on your head. Avoid dropping that plate by tilting it to either side or up or down.
Eyes – Avoid looking at the ceiling or the floor when you’re conjuring thoughts. If you don’t look directly at your audience, they won’t trust you. And, to avoid the awkwardness that can often occur when you look someone directly in the eye, look at the spot on their foreheads between their eyebrows (they won’t know the difference).
Nose – Control your breathing by controlling the pace of your delivery. Pause and take deep breaths to avoid the shallow breathing that often accompanies nervousness.
Mouth – Use your voice like an instrument. Speak with highs and lows as a way of maintaining audience attention. A monotone delivery will cause your audience’s attention to wane. Have water handy to avoid cottonmouth.
Shoulders – Keep them squared in the direction of your audience and relaxed to help alleviate tension.
Arms – Avoid locking your arms around your mid-section; let them fall to your sides when you’re not gesturing. Use big, expansive gestures that cause you to engage your shoulders.
Legs – Move with intention. Stay planted when you’re making critical points. Alleviate pacing by bending your knees slightly or slightly raising up off your heels when you feel nervousness coming on.
Feet – Keep your feet pointed in the direction of your audience. Avoid the fidgety foot work that I call “tap dancing” and “stomping out the cigarette butt.”
As a good friend of mine always says, the biggest room in the world is room for improvement. No matter how good your speech felt, the video of your presentation is the true measure of your effectiveness. This is why the cream of the crop speakers schedule their video review sessions prior to delivering their presentations. Like me at the kitchen table all those years ago, they always check their work to be sure that things are adding up.
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.