My friends and colleagues wouldn’t be surprised to know that I was on the school debating team. I did this for all six years of high school, and then was a judge for the same school competitions when I went to university. At the time I really enjoyed the art of a well articulated argument and the intellectual adrenalin of a win. In hindsight, I value the experience even more because I can see how debating all those years gave me a fundamental core foundation for not only public speaking but general effective communication that can be applied to many scenarios.

With that in mind, for those of you who hate public speaking whether it be in a room of five or a crowd of hundreds, the following hacks from my debating days will help ensure you are effective in delivering your points.

Manner, Matter, Method

These were the three criteria that individual debaters were scored on with the collective scores of the team determining a win (or loss). They are also the three key criteria I find I still revert to today when preparing to present at a conference or to some extent when running a meeting at work. Here are the three factors loosely defined:

Manner = how you convey your matter, your communication style, language and the words you use, your tone of voice, speed of speech, body language

Matter = the substance and content of what you’re communicating, points you’re conveying, What is the material you’re trying to share?

Method = the structure of how you articulate your matter, the order of thoughts and ideas

Turn your mind to each of these when preparing your speech or presentation to ensure you are focussed in your content, clear in your thoughts and structured in your delivery. One additional tip on manner is to ensure you remove all distractions particularly if you happen to be standing to present – eg. I always wear flat shoes when doing a standing presentation because I don’t ever want to risk tripping, a ’la Jennifer Lawrence style. No chance I will manage to be as endearing as she. The following guidance provides a bit more meat to how you can address each of the three Ms above.  

Know your material

No, I don’t mean memorise a speech. I mean, really know and understand the subject you’re speaking about. Know it like the back of your hand. Think of the last time you were so adamant about something that no matter what differing view someone proferred, you could immediately return serve with a rebuttal. That is how familiar you should aim to be with content you need to deliver – again, whether it be on stage presenting at a conference, at work with a team of colleagues or perhaps to directors at a board meeting.

Practice, practice, practice

Sure we all know to practice, but often we don’t think about exactly what it is that practice helps us with, other than building familiarity with your content and erroneously attempting to memorise your words. When it comes to public speaking, practice is what will help refine your manner and method. The first few times you practice saying something, you’ll keep thinking of a better way to say it for example by changing the words you use or moving around the order of things you say. Each practice round gets better and helps you become more familiar yes, but importantly more focussed and structured in your presentation and content.

Don’t use notes, back yourself

It’s terrifying to do, but if you know exactly what you want to convey, then you should trust that you can say it without notes. The most boring un-engaging presentations are always the ones where the speaker needs to read from a powerpoint pack or sheet of paper. Corollary to that, memorable and effective speakers are ones that do the opposite. They speak to a room as though they are speaking to a colleague or friend.

Pretend you’re having a conversation and explaining something you know well to someone – you wouldn’t need notes then, so why would you need notes if you’re just substituting the “someone” with a larger audience? The answer, put simply, is fear. Fear of forgetting what to say or losing your place. Fear of your mind going blank. But it’s circular – there is nothing to fear if, as I say, you know your material indisputably well. So back yourself and trust that you’ve got this. If you’re not quite ready to shred all notes, then take baby steps and instead use cue cards and write down ONLY the key points you intend to make. This will prompt the ideas that you want to cover and mitigate your fears, but still allow you speak freely and in an engaging manner.  

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