Speak Like a Pro: Practical Tips to Propel Your Confidence & Delivery

Even with the contemplation that has characterized much of this year (thank you so much for the touching comments on The Long Pause) there's one aspect of my business growing rapidly that I could not be more thrilled about: public speaking.

Which might seem funny given that for many people the thought mostly just induces hives (myself included — more on that below).

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of keynoting at a summit in Google Ireland and at the University of Calgary; in October I spoke at Yale (where the picture on the right was taken) and UCLA, and this week I have the honor of speaking at Parsons in NYC and at Google SF.

Although I used to break out in a rash before a big presentation, I now love everything about public speaking: brainstorming with the organizers, writing the speech, practicing it while walking through the streets of New York (usually on my way to yoga class), traveling to a cool location, getting to work with an entire audience at once and impact them in some way, and even staying in the hotel afterward.

This week's speeches at Parsons and Google have a fun topic (albeit a bit meta!): How to Speak Like a Pro — Practical Tips to Propel Your Confidence and Delivery. You can view the full slide deck here, but I also wanted to share a few tips for you here on the blog.

Before We Jump in: A Bit More Background

Jenny Blake Speaking at WDS

(Me speaking in front of 1,000 people at WDS — what you can't see is my heart pounding itself out of my chest)

Have you have ever felt nervous before a speech, class presentation or client meeting?

You probably felt it was a personal shortcoming or flaw – that you could have done better if only you were born with the elusive “public speaking” gene.

I get it.

When I was a freshly-minted manager at 24-years-old, I delivered an important presentation to a room full of senior level managers and directors at Google, where I worked at the time. I thought the meeting went well since I delivered my content clearly, but afterward my manager gave me some feedback: my message was solid, but my whole chest had turned red during my presentation which made me appear nervous. And the worst part? The feedback had been passed down to him from one of the directors in the room!

At first I was fumingly angry . . . how dare they?!? Talk about a rash on my chest, something I have no control over, as a professional area of development? What were they doing looking there anyway?!

Then I got deeply embarrassed—I couldn't deny it was true. I felt betrayed by my own body. How on earth could I fix this fatal flaw?

For my next half-dozen important speaking opportunities, I started wearing turtlenecks on days I had important meetings and trainings. And this was in a job where I worked in Training and Development full time . . . its not like I was a total novice either!

Ultimately, the feedback (and ensuing embarrassment) motivated me to find a better way. I knew that turtlenecks would not be my solution for life, particularly since I had my heart set on a career in this someday.

So I picked up a book called Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun and started laughing with relief and agreement when I read the first chapter:

Our brains, for all their wonders, identify the following four things as being very bad for our survival:

  • Standing alone
  • in open territory with nowhere to hide
  • without a weapon
  • in front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you

In the long history of all living things, any situation where all of the above were true would be very bad for you. It meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive. Our ancestors, the ones that survived, developed a fear response to these situations.”

—Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker

Ah ha!!No wonder I felt so nervous!! It was simply my body doing its job — engaging my flight or flight response as a survival instinct during what it perceives as a very dangerous situation.

The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way.

I believe that 90% of confidence from public speaking comes from the groundwork that happens long before the day of. As with most things, you can set yourself up for success with (the right kind of) planning and practice beforehand.

The Five Key Areas of a Successful Speech

There are five key steps that I talk about in my presentation:

  1. Define Outcomes — Know where you want to take the audience. As Steven Covey says in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind." How do you want to impact the audience, and what would you like them to DO as a result of your speech?
  2. Structure — How to how to structure your speech to get to your desired outcomes, which is usually a behavior change that will improve their life in some way. As Seth Godin says, "Every presentation worth doing has just one purpose: to make change happen. No change, no point." Nancy Duarte's Sparkline is the format I most commonly follow.
  3. Preparation — Practice your speech effectively and commit it to memory so that you move out of your pre-frontal cortex on the day of (how to do this is the focus of today's post). This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually the people who practice the most who are able to come across as causal and relaxed on the day of the event.
  4. Physiology — What to do with the inevitable nerves that show up (there are a few key physical exercises that can help you channel the extra adrenaline, including deep yoga breaths and clenching and unclenching your fists).
  5. Delivery - how to have fun and nail it on the day of!

I won't attempt to cover every nuanced point in detail for today's post, but I will focus on the key activities that help build my own confidence during a big week of speaking engagements (like this one).

8 Steps for Nailing a Keynote Speech

  1. Interview the hosts: understand what their desired outcomes are. Why are they hiring you, specifically? What do they want the audience to walk away with? Specifically, what do they want them to DO differently as a result of attending? How do they want the audience to FEEL?
  2. Write the speech: My first step is to type the entire speech out (word for word) in a Google Docs (so that I can access it from all of my devices on-the-go). Optional: share with the hosts if you want to open it up to feedback. This feels risky because they may not like it, but that’s exactly why this step matters. Especially if they are paying you big bucks, its better to find out early if you’ve hit upon what they are looking for! The hosts can also share nuances about their audience and correct certain phrasing you use that won't resonate.
  3. Print the speech (or send it to your mobile device). Read it out loud at all open moments of the day. I usually practice mine out loud while walking somewhere, even though I may look like a crazy person. Practice it once in the morning after you wake up, and once before bed. Do this for at least a week prior to the event, particularly if it's a new topic.
  4. Practice “sticky” sections in isolation, particularly the intro and conclusions. At least ten times each (minimum) until you have them down. You want to NAIL the first and last five minutes, as those will be the most memorable. Highlight any lines that you are having trouble remembering. Hone in on those next. Repeat them until you get them down.
  5. Optional:get feedback from others in a dry run. Or record yourself using your phone and replay listening for pace, tone and clarity. Also optional: make notecards. Writing down your outline and key points will help lock the speech in even further, then help you rehearse in the days leading up to the event.
  6. When all else fails, add a slide. This is a last resort. But if there’s really something you can’t remember, figure out a fun way to jog your memory with a slide (maximum one sentence of text on there — it’s a jog, not a script!)
  7. GET SLEEP! When I’m sleep deprived, I trip over my words. I can’t remember what I want to say even in casual conversations with friends. This cannot be emphasized enough. I usually ask for three nights in the hotel wherever I am speaking: two to acclimate, one to stay the night of the event so I’m not panicked once it ends about getting to the airport. If you can, get to the venue early to familiarize yourself and meet with the organizers.
  8. TRUST, SMILE and BE YOURSELF. Have fun with it! If you've taken all the steps above, you're in great shape. When the big day arrives, let go of all the efforting and just be yourself. Trust that you will remember the main talking points even if they don't come out perfectly. The audience wants you to succeed and they want you to be human, not a speech robot! Even athletes get nervous before The Big Game — remember that adrenaline harnessed properly is your "special sauce" extra fuel to really knock it out of the park.

While it's true that preparing for a big speech takes a lot of time, effort and focus (just like anything worth doing) — it is something that can be conquered!

And it's worth it — having the opportunity to inspire a room full of people and give them the tools to take action is one of the best feelings in the world.

The three books I recommend for any aspiring speaker are:

  • Confessions of a Public Speaker(by Scott Berkun) — Behind-the-scenes of the speaking business and what it takes to build a profitable career.
  • Resonate(by Nancy Duarte) — How to structure your speech for maximum impact, with great resources on her website too.
  • Transformational Speaking(by Gail Larsen) — The power of storytelling and how to craft your message in a way that is authentic and meaningful to your audience.

Update: Watch the Speak Like a Pro Webinar (35 min)

Here's a recent webinar version of this article and workshop — enjoy!

I’d love to hear from you in the comments:

How do you prepare for a big speech or event? What do you do on the day of to combat your nerves?