I just came off a very interesting twitter chat of public speaking and women for an initiative called No More Manels that attempts to get more women up there, speaking, at events, panels, conferences.
It is strange, that someone like me could be asked for my tips on public speaking, given my natural inclination is to shut myself in a box and never emerge into civilisation if I had the choice. But I do get out there, up there, and do my fair share of speaking, so here it is, what I would like to share with every woman looking to go up on stage and speak:
It isn’t easy for me to get up there on panels, at speaker podiums, at lit fests and book launches and speak to an audience. I am a pretty confident person but public speaking always fazes me. This is probably because intrinsically I am basically terribly introverted. I owe my getting out of my comfort zone and accepting invitations to speak to the very wonderful Tisca Chopra who once sternly told me in a pep talk that I so needed that I must stop being a shrinking violet, and stop turning down opportunities to speak in public. So now I do. No matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. There is the clammy sweaty palms, the twisted intestines, physical nausea at times, trembling limbs at others, but I push myself to go up there and say my bit.
I deal with it by telling myself I have to get up there and speak and I have absolutely no option and that I can go hide behind a pillar once I’m done. If it is a book launch, I try to get there ahead of time and go shake hands and introduce myself to every single person attending. That way, I feel I know them when I’m up front talking to them, and it feels friendlier. Sometimes when it is a huge audience, or when I cannot mingle with the audience before hand, I try to find one or two faces in the audience who seem kindly and the least likely to throw tomatoes at me, and focus my talk at them. Or I spend a few seconds looking at each member of the audience in the eye as I speak and try to forge a connect with them, however momentary.
I also have a little routine that I do, I either read something funny, or I chant or meditate for a bit. Or if I have enough time before leaving for an event, I go for a short walk. I find physical movement dissipates the excess nervous energy and helps me feel calmer. Just before going on, I say something positive to myself, perhaps, “Go rock it now,” and plaster a huge smile on my face.
I never ever allow myself to show if I am tired, sleepy, unwell or sad if I am on stage or panel. That’s not what the audience came for. When I’m on, I’m all on. I will get up there and smile, and be all flash and dazzle. I will collapse once I’m out of the venue and in the car back home.
I find it helps to begin with a space of gratitude for the kind people who have invited one, for those who have taken time out to listen to what one has to say.
Dressing up is always respectful to my audience and I try to not be too shoddily turned out. I find high heels help me feel more confident (perhaps because I’m pretty conscious of being short) and find dressing up also therapeutic in a way, because I when I know I am presentable, I can focus on the talk without being worried that I’m looking like a disaster to the audience. Also, knowing that one is presentable and looking fairly decent is a confidence bolster until the nerves finally settle.
Then there are the other non negotiables.
I ONLY accept invites to speak on topics I am informed about and bring something to the table about. I will not go and speak on something I have little or no knowledge about. My other non negotiable is to know what I am speaking about, to read up as much as I can before the event. (Of course, if I do get a question I know nothing about, I am always honest enough to say that I do not know enough to answer that, and hope the person who asks it appreciates my reply).
Then there is research on the topic, and writing out what one wants to say, and rehearsing it. Over and over again, so that the words flow naturally from me, so even if a malfunctioning projector or some wires misbehaving makes the carefully prepared presentation redundant, I should be able to go through the main points from the points in my head.
I also find it helps to research the audience. Find a common ground and pitch it from there. Begin a conversation with the audience, they are not adversaries, they are there to listen to one, to get informed, to get a takeaway that would make them feel that this was worth it. I try to get people to respond, throw in questions or take questions from the audience, even if they come within the presentation or the talk, no matter that it breaks the flow. I believe that one needs to respect the audience. They have taken time out from their lives to come to listen to one. One owes them preparedness on the subject matter and a talk that adds value to their lives whether professional or personal.
If I have an opinion on a topic, it will be an informed one so I can defend it if needed. I must come from a space of informed opinion. I can’t and don’t even try to be an expert on everything.
Another rule by me, is to not be rude, no matter how provoked, to not cut in into someone else speaking no matter how much I want to contradict what they’re saying, and don’t ever cut someone else down in public. Do that and you’ve made an enemy for life, and the audience sees through these attention grabbing stunts.
I try to stay calm and centred, and speak slowly when I’m gathering my thoughts, if I blank out, I smile broadly and talk about some anecdote I can rustle off the top of my head, until my thread of thought comes back.
Sometimes there aren’t any questions after a talk but I’ve swamped off stage by folks who want to ask the questions one on one, so I keep it easy. I say if there are any questions now I’d be delighted to take them or I’m right here for a while if you want to speak with me later. Think about it, how many of us actually put our hand up after a talk to ask questions.
And yes, always the thank yous. To the organisers, the moderators, the co-panelists and the audience.