Career Resources

Improve your Public Speaking Skills

Whether you’re selling stuff, services, or yourself, public speaking is a great way to bring on new business. It’s one of the most effective ways that many nutritionists market their services. However, many people experience stage fright verging on the brink of terror at the mere thought of speaking in front of a group of strangers. To lessen the anxiety, it helps to think of public speaking as a chance to tell a story. Storytelling is a natural way to engage your audience and develop the kind of rapport that can lead to ongoing relationships. A good speech is always some kind of story — and, regardless of the topic, it’s a story about you and the topic you know best about.

Storytelling creates a broader context through which you can link your area of expertise to the audience’s interests and concerns. Sharing stories about difficulties and problems arouses an audience’s interest and draws your listeners in — because we all have experience with adversity. It’s what makes us human.

The more you know about your audience, the easier it is to dazzle and impress them. Before accepting a speaking engagement, think about what you have to say that will be of value to them.

Ask your host why the group wants to hear from you and what topics have been hits in the past. No matter what the subject, passion is the rocket fuel of public speaking. You need to feel some fire in your belly about whatever it is you’re addressing. When you’re asked to give a speech, take a half-hour right away to think about ideas. If you draw a blank, you either need to do some research or you should consider passing. If the topic isn’t something you care about, choose another or wait for the next speaking opportunity.

At first, you may find it hard to tell if the stories and ideas that come to mind can be shaped into a speech. Bounce them off friends, family, and coworkers, and pay attention to their feedback. Group brainstorming worked really well for the people who sold vending machines, because it sparked a creative chain reaction in which each person’s story inspired others to remember relevant experiences and anecdotes. Trying out ideas on a supportive group of peers will boost your confidence in the value of the stories you want to tell.

Practice really does make perfect. Your preparation should take three to five times as long as the speech itself. Even for a thirty-minute talk you’ll want to spend at least a few hours rehearsing. If you are using audio or visual materials, you need to coordinate those as well. Be sure to rehearse everything together and practice your speech out loud. Don’t just rehearse in your head — get used to the sound of your voice saying the words. There’s no taboo against using notes — just don’t make the mistake of trying to hide them. In your notes, list the major points you want to cover and sketch out the transitions. Don’t read straight from your notes — otherwise, why show up at all? Allow for spontaneity. With good preparation and a solid outline, you’ll do just fine.

Remember to breathe. Fear constricts the chest, shortens the breath, and reduces the supply of oxygen to the brain. That’s bad. The more conscious you are of breathing in a deep and relaxed pattern, the greater your power to manage your fear and speak well. Focused breathing helps you overcome panic. Of course, your breath is also the source of your voice. By slowing and deepening your breathing, your brain is amply nourished with oxygen, your anxiety becomes manageable, and your voice projects more clearly. I recommend that when you first get up in front of your audience, take at least one full breath — inhale and exhale — before you start to talk. This will help you relax and focus, and it gives the audience a moment to establish a connection with you. Write yourself a reminder at the top of your notes saying, “Breathe!”

Treat your audience as your peers. Don’t talk down to them by over-explaining your points or constantly apologizing for mistakes or stumbles. Audiences like to be invited into the conversation. Ask an occasional question (“How many servings of fruits and vegetables should you aim for everyday?”) or suggest they concentrate on something personally significant (“Think of the reasons you should eat more healthfully.”). These kinds of chatty, rhetorical questions make the setting more intimate, and they are a great way to re-focus audience members’ attention on their favorite subject: themselves.

And remember to keep your talk jargon-free! The last thing you want to do is to make somebody feel befuddled or excluded. Audience members know that thinking on your feet isn’t easy, and if you remain engaged and give an answer that is truthful and humorous, you’ll be warmly received and applauded.

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