The Art of Brilliant Speaking: What Does It Mean to Own the Room?
It is human to find public speaking difficult: the struggle is not personal to you.
There are some elemental physical rules to adhere to. They are the absolute basics to remember before any speaking moment when you’re standing up and talking to others, whether it’s to one person or to two thousand. They are also a great reminder of how to relax if you have a sudden attack of nerves.
—Shoulders back. Chest forward. Plant your feet hip-width apart and rest the weight of your body evenly across the soles of your feet. Not only does this look relaxed and neutral but the effort involved in doing it also makes you forget about your speech and distracts you for a moment.
—Monitor your breathing. A lot of people’s anxiety around speaking can be fixed just by getting them to remember to breathe, smile and pause. There will always be adrenalin around when you’re in front of a group of people, but exposing yourself to it more often and learning to breathe through it allows you to stay relaxed and focused.
—Let your brain drop into your stomach. (I know that sounds odd. Just close your eyes and imagine it. It’s a way of centring yourself and switching off from all the thoughts in your head.) You can do this just before you go on stage or start a speech. Or you can remember it while you’re speaking. Really try to feel it happening. I find it useful because it gets me out of the anxiety in my head and reminds me to just be. All you’re doing when you’re speaking is being a human saying words in front of other humans. Why is that such a big deal? Put your brain in your stomach and say the words.
—Breathe through the soles of your feet. This is a great way to get focused on your breathing and be connected to your entire body. Imagine you have nostrils in the soles of your feet. You breathe through them instead of breathing through your nose. (Yes, I know, this is mad, too. Just go with it.) Imagine drawing the breath up through your entire body and breathing it back out through your feet. This also works really well for insomnia, by the way.
Be More Michelle: Inside the World of Happy High Status
—Happy high status is a state of mind as well as ease in your body. A lot of the time when people present, saying, ‘I’m afraid of public speaking,’ what they really mean is ‘I’m afraid to take status.’
—Michelle Obama’s upper arms are no coincidence. Lots of voice coaches will say that good speaking starts with looking after your body. Having a strong core, healthy lungs and good posture will support your voice – and also make the audience more at ease with you.
—In every situation you’re in, think: What would someone who is happy high status be doing now? Happy high status people are in control but generous and easy-going. They are not rude or short-tempered.
—There are no hard and fast rules to this, and status is often very individual. It can be very powerful to be the first person in the room to speak, then say nothing afterwards, making sure you’re sitting upright with your core engaged while looking relaxed and ready for everything. That is usually the most happy high status posture in a meeting.
—Before a speech, think about the happy high status way to approach what you’re going to say. This is a fine balance. You need to avoid being self-deprecating (this is to deny your status) while finding ways to engage the audience, whether that’s with stories or anecdotes or by varying the tone of your voice.
Be More Amy: Power Poses, Internal Strength
—If you want to project presence, you need to focus on how you feel internally. Meditation apps are good for this.
They take you out of all your whirling thoughts and reconnect you to the present moment.
—Voicing your thoughts in a speech can be a bold and empowering move but it takes guts. The more you do it, the more present you will seem. But there is nothing wrong with a speaker who steps out of what they prepared for a second and says calmly, ‘I just want to take a moment to say how much it means to me to have your attention.’ Or: ‘I just want to say how glad I am to be here.’ Or even, simply: ‘Thanks so much for coming today.’ (You have to mean it.) Really say these things: don’t mumble them and throw them away. If you feel bold enough, connect with someone in the audience when you say it.
Be More Virginia: a Pace of One’s Own
—Your speed is highly determined by your breath. You ignore your breath at your peril! It’s a great tool to use to keep yourself relaxed and to find natural pauses in your speech. Just a few moments spent thinking about your breathing before or at the beginning of a speech will relax you. Notice how you punctuate what you’re saying using your breath. Other people need time to absorb thoughts and register what you’ve just said. When you take a breath, it gives them time to do that.
—Pace is often dictated by nerves, and nerves can also be controlled by the breath. If you’re gabbling, register that and take a moment. Feel the soles of your feet on the floor; let your brain drop into your stomach; breathe through your feet. Relax. Pick up your thought and start again.
—If you have spoken for a while and suddenly realize it was too fast, have the guts to admit it and stop. Say, ‘Let me give you a moment to take all that in.’ Then take a couple of deep breaths and continue at a more easily understandable pace.
—Your pace is a big part of how you engage an audience. It’s as much about how fast or slow you choose to go as it is about how much you are listening to them, watching them and registering if they are following you. As Virginia Woolf might have realized when she gave her lectures, at literary festivals there is often a direct correlation between how engaging a speaker is and how well their book sells afterwards. I’m not saying that the slower an author speaks, the more copies they’ll sell, but I do advocate a close watch on audience engagement.
Be More Joan: The Value of Authenticity
—Be honest with yourself about what sort of person you are.
Do you think Joan Rivers would have been good at delivering a PowerPoint presentation on next year’s marketing targets? Of course not. (Although I would have liked to see this.) If you realize this is happening to you, it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong job and need to give everything up to become a stand-up comedian or a cruise-ship singer. It just means you need to acknowledge that, right now, you’re discharging speaking opportunities that are not 100 per cent in alignment with who you are as a person.
—We need people who are not ideally suited to certain work environments to shake things up. If it feels fake to you to put on certain presentations in which people always fall asleep or meetings where no one pays attention (I hear about this all the time), can you talk to someone about it? What can you do to make these interactions more meaningful? This is where your authenticity comes in.
—Don’t beat yourself up if sometimes you have to toe a line for a contribution to be appropriate. Work set-ups are not designed for life-changing song-and-dance numbers so set your expectations accordingly.
Be More Chimamanda: Bring a Written Speech to Life
—Be honest with yourself about whether you are the sort of person who feels more confident if you are meticulously rehearsed or whether you work better when you can improvise and come up with things at the last minute. Sometimes it’s good to put ourselves in situations where we can experiment with both disciplines. Obviously this isn’t easy to do in a work context if you feel you could be sacked for being under-prepared for a presentation. But try to seek out situations in which it’s safe to find ease through improvisation, even being slightly under-prepared and ready for anything. Pinpoint other situations that may benefit from a carefully rehearsed, pre-written speech, which you learn to deliver in an off-the-cuff way. There’s a lot of joy and freedom to be found in moving between the two styles, as you can see when you look at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s different speeches.
—Remind yourself that one of the main reasons to take on speaking challenges is to increase your experience of leadership (if this is what matters to you). Leaders are not in control of everything. Sometimes they don’t know if they’re going to have to give a speech. They may be called upon to do so when they’re not in control of all the facts. They may have to step in for someone else who has dropped out and improvise the entire thing without anyone in the audience ever guessing. This is real leadership.
Putting yourself in low-pressure situations where you can rehearse improvisation and making-it-up-as-you-go-along is the only thing that will prepare you for real leadership. Don’t wait until you’re ready. Do it when you’re not ready.
Be More You: The Trouble with Nerves
Every piece of research shows that as a species we’re more liable to award status to men than to women. This happens on and off the page. If you show a group of people CVs with women’s names versus CVs with men’s, people will usually choose the men over the women as leaders. In a group where no one has spoken, most people will choose a man as the natural leader. These biases are real because of years of social and cultural conditioning. They will take time to change. Similarly, women do not have as much opportunity to practise high status compared to men: they are not naturally accorded high status in as many social interactions.
Again, just as you can start looking out for moments in your life when you are being happy high status, you can watch out for and notice it in any group. Who is taking status? Who looks most like a leader? Who looks happy high status? Who inspires you with confidence? How could you present yourself to come across more like them? The more women who can be conscious of this, lift themselves up accordingly, and improve their own performance, the more this bias will turn around. Similarly, the more we can ‘give’ status to other women when it’s appropriate – by observing and praising them, or perhaps by creating a speaking opportunity for them – the better. Can you sit in a meeting and encourage another woman to take the lead?
Also: let go of the ‘woman’ thing from time to time and just be you. It can be exhausting to think of yourself the whole time ‘as a woman’ and to be aware of all the things that women have been up against for a long time. When you speak up and speak out, you are taking on some of those things. But also you need to learn how to let them go and set them aside. You cannot be carrying the entirety of womankind and ‘representing’ the whole time.