by Jeff Haden
You’ve been asked to speak at an important event. It’s a great opportunity and you should be thrilled—but since you rarely speak, especially in a formal setting, all you can think about is bombing.
Unfortunately, captivating an audience is definitely a skill that takes years to develop and hone. Since you don’t have that kind of time, here are five unconventional ways to become a better speaker almost overnight:
1. Share an emotional story. Many speakers tell self-deprecating stories but few can resist including the Tom Cruise “talk to me Goose” moment (4:20, NSFW) when all your mistakes and poor decisions and ill-fated tower flybys over an Admiral’s daughter finally came to a head and transformed you into the wonderful person you are today.
Admitting a mistake is great but not when used simply to show how far you’ve come. Instead just tell a story that relates to your topic and let your emotions show. If you were sad, say so. If you cried, say so. If you felt remorse, let it show. When you share real feelings you create an immediate and lasting connection with the audience. Emotion trumps speaking skills every time.
2. Pause for 8 to 10 seconds. There’s a weird phenomena that occurs when you stop talking. Pause for two or three seconds, the audience assume you lost your place. Pause for five seconds and the audience begins to think the pause is intentional... and starts wondering why. Pause for ten seconds and even the people who were immersed in Angry Birds can’t resist looking up.
Then when you start speaking again, the audience naturally 1) assumes the pause was intentional and 2) decides you’re actually a confident and accomplished speaker. Like nature a poor speaker abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it, and only confident speakers—like you—feel secure in silence. While it won’t be easy, take one long pause to gather your thoughts and the audience will automatically give you speaker bonus points.
3. Ask a question the audience—and you—can’t answer. Speakers ask questions to engage the audience but that technique is often forced and tends to work about as well as this. Instead ask a question you know the audience can’t answer and then say,” That’s okay. I can’t either.” Explain why you can’t and then talk about what you do know. Most speakers have all the answers; the fact you don’t—and are willing to admit it—not only humanizes you but makes the audience pay greater attention to what you do know.
4. Find one thing no one knows. I’ve never heard someone say, “I was at this presentation the other day and the guy’s Gantt chart was amazing...” I have heard someone say, “Did you know when you blush the lining of your stomach also turns red?” Find a surprising fact or an unusual analogy that relates to your topic. Audiences love to cock their heads and think, “Hmmm...”
5. Never think “sales.” Most businesspeople assume they should capitalize on a speaking engagement to try to promote a product or service, win new clients, and build a wider network. Don’t. Thinking in terms of sales only adds additional pressure to what is already a stressful situation. Put all your focus on ensuring the audience will benefit from what you say; never try to accomplish more than one thing.
And don’t worry that you’ll be missing out on an opportunity: When you help people make their professional or personal lives better, you’ve done all the selling you’ll need to do.