This piece first appeared in Portia, a publication by Victorian Women Lawyers in 2018.
It is my view that no person is born a good public speaker. It is a skill that is learned and developed. It is perfectly natural to be nervous about performing in public. As a barrister, I follow certain steps in the lead up that helps me to both manage my nerves and set myself up for a successful presentation. My focus is on planning, preparation, practice and performance.
Planning involves choosing your topic and distilling a central message or theme of your speech or presentation. It also involves doing some research about your audience. Will your audience require an in-depth analysis of the topic you have chosen? Or will a broad-brush summary be more appropriate? Decide whether the presentation or speech is designed to be informative, humorous, a story, or statistical analysis. Also use your planning time to decide whether you will be using visual or other aids during your presentation.
- Preparation starts with extensive research. The time I allow depends on how tight my deadline and the volume of content that I expect will be required. I access a variety of resources and collate material that covers about 3-4 times the amount of information that I wish for my speech or presentation to cover.
- I then start to write a basic structure, which forms the basis of a “road map” for my presentation. I use my “road map” as an introduction in my presentation as I find it useful both for me and the audience to inform them up front as to what my presentation will contain and what they can expect in the allotted time.
- I then either write my speech as detailed bullet points (if it is an informative presentation) or word for word (for speeches or presentations that involve story telling). I also try to keep my presentation to making 3-4 main points that I always tie into my central message or theme. This way, the information is digestible, relatable and audience is more likely to retain it.
Good preparation is the best way to combat performance nerves. I find that my nerves peak just before I start writing my first draft. Once my first draft is finished, the bulk of the preparation is done, and my nerves calm down dramatically.
Once I have written my first draft, I practice my presentation to time. I usually start this part of the process around two days before I am due to present. For me, practice is very important. It reveals repetition, grammatical errors, and misplaced sentences and paragraphs. Practising also allows me to appreciate how long it will take to make the presentation and whether I will be able to finish within time.
During this process, I cull approximately 40-50% of my content and make countless changes to the order of delivery. It can take numerous rehearsals to reach a final draft. The more times I practice, the better the presentation.
By the time you are ready to perform, all the hard work is done! When I am properly prepared, I feel adrenalised, but I do not feel anxious. Preparation allows me to be confident that my content is accurate and practising means that it is unlikely that there will be any surprises. So, in effect, there is nothing to be anxious about.
Before the performance, deep breaths into the belly are a very effective way to remain calm. I take a moment to clear my mind by practising mindfulness. During the performance, I look up towards the audience regularly and make sure to project my voice. I look at different members of the audience. Eye contact is highly engaging, and it is comforting to find people in the audience who are happy to give eye contact.
Another way to engage the audience is to pose questions to them at various points of the presentation. This is also a very effective way to make the presentation more interactive. Stumbling over the occasional word or going off script are not a cause for concern (so long as you maintain accuracy). Small errors like this are barely noticeable, so when this happens during my presentation, I continue without giving it a second thought.
I am sharing this formula with the readers as it has personally proven to be a great platform from which to improve my public speaking. Public speaking is a very useful skill for lawyers in any practice area. I advise you to take every opportunity to speak in public. The more public speeches and presentations you give, the better you will become.
Once you have done between five and ten presentations, you will find that your nerves will drastically reduce and you will be able to complete the process within shorter timeframes.