Public speaking is something that terrifies many people, and is one of the most common fears people have. The combination of nervousness, wondering if people will understand you and finally just having everyone focused on you is not a relaxing experience.
As adults who have passed their early twenties, there are two places you’ll be invited to speak: At a wedding, or at conferences. Both are high stress situations. In both cases, you’ve been selected to talk to a group of people you’re unfamiliar with. But, despite their superficial differences, they have a lot in common. To aid you with your next wedding toast/academic presentation, I’ve come up with the following five tips.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #1: Be brief
How much time do you have? 10 minutes? Cut off two minutes. Always aim to be shorter rather than longer. Three key reasons why: 1) This gives you a few minutes as a cushion in case you lose your train of thought/start crying, 2 ) if the moderator holds up signs when you have 2 minutes to go, you know that you’ll be done before then (wedding analogue: when the MC starts edging towards you slowly) and 3) you’re less likely to lose people’s attention if you’re short. Keep things short, keep things precise. Get up, make your point, sit down.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #2: Be prepared
I once heard that the best public speakers aren’t naturally gifted; they’re the best prepared. Run through your talk multiple times before to ensure that you have your timing down. Be comfortable with your talk. Present to your friends and get them to critique you – does your talk make sense? Is the pacing okay? Read it out loud to yourself to see how it flows. These are all structural problems that can be fixed before your talk and will help you wow your audience.
Now, there are exceptions to this. Bill Clinton adlibbed a large chunk of his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and it was well recieved. However, not only is he a talented speaker, he has also spent years perfecting this skill. Your best friend’s wedding is not the place to practice. Practice takes time and effort. You may have to start working on your presentation further in advance to ensure you have it done and have enough time to rehearse. No more last minute presentations. But that’s the difference between the presenter who gets up there and looks professional, in control, and organized and the presenter who gets up there and says “Oh. I didn’t know this slide was coming up next.”
Wedding/Presentation Tip #3: Know your audience
If your talking at a wedding and you know the in-laws are very conservative/religious, you have to tone down your jokes to be appropriate. Similarly, if you’re giving a talk to a room full of students, or researchers in your field, or the general public, you have to change your talk accordingly. Know your audience and what their background is when preparing your talk. For weddings this means introduce yourself and your relationship with the couple as not everyone knows you and ensuring you add enough backstory to your speech so that you don’t lose your audience. For academic presentations, take a step back and start by explaining your research in broad terms, rather than jumping directly into the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #4: Inside jokes/Jargon
One of the worst things to hear at a wedding is 10 minutes of insides jokes that no one else in understands. No one wants to hear you drone on about that one time you guys had a burrito at 3am. Analogously, no one wants to hear a sentence full of acronyms at a presentation. However, this does play into point #3 – if the audience is one that knows the jargon in your field (at which it’s no longer jargon), then you’re fine. But if the audience is not, then avoid any unnecessary technical language, or if you do use it, make sure you define it clearly up front. KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.
Wedding/Presentation Tip #5: Enjoy yourself
Have fun with it! If you know what you’re going to say, and if you have practiced that will go a long way to alleviating any stress you might be feeling leading up to the big day. Being prepared will allow you to have a presentation that feels comfortable and one that is true to you, and that confidence will come through in your demeanor, approach and body language. This isn’t something that will improve overnight, but with every talk you give, you’ll get better.
Good luck to you, and here’s hoping the lucky couple/your supervisors love your talk!