How to speak confidently in front of a crowd

May 23, 2013

The prospect of public speaking often hacks away at our confidence. The antidote: Build experience through planning, preparation, and careful attention to details. Keith Yamashita, cofounder of Unstuck, shares 12 of his very thorough tactics for presenting so you, too, can stride confidently onstage.

[See Keith’s presentation prowess in action during his talk at the 99u conference about the habits of great teams.]

1. Write down the logic flow, not the words
I concentrate my preparation time on logic flow (the stories, in what order, the extreme language for each story, the zinger I want to get across and hit hard). Logic flow is far easier to “memorize” than word-for-word speeches. If you have your logic down, you can speak without notes. Without notes, means you can be 100% there for the audience.

2. Belabor the slides: Tighter, tighter, tighter
I try to spend time with my slides — paring them to the tightest form. That doesn’t mean fewer slides, necessarily. Sometimes more slides, each with a phrase or word, does more than having everything packed on one slide. I also make sure that the type is big enough (don’t use serif fonts at small sizes) and I have the right color palette (don’t use yellow, it can’t be seen; don’t use light blue, it fades away). Sweating these details means you never have to say, “I’m sorry that you can’t read this, but…”

3. For every minute on stage, practice ten minutes in the real world
Once your speech is composed and logic defined, it’s time to practice. For every minute you plan on being on stage, practice ten minutes before you dare take that stage. For a 10-minute speech, that’s 100 minutes of preparation time. For a longer speech, you can do the math. Practice is serious business.

4. Practice hitting the “openings” of every section of your speech
The trick to staying on track when you’re in the bright light of the stage is knowing how you want to start. If you hit your openings, almost all the rest of your material will flow effortlessly.

5. Practice by saying it aloud, not just in your head
There really is no substitute for saying it aloud. Practice in front of a mirror. Or in a big room. Or in front of friends. Or get to the venue early, and run through with a microphone.

6. Know everything you can about the arena in which you’ll be speaking
 A/V, seating configuration, who is speaking before, who is speaking after, who will introduce you. Control all these variables before you ever step into the room to speak. I make it a habit to request a lavalier microphone (not a handheld one), write verbatim introductions (even if the introducer blows it, the right words will get conveyed), and bring my own clicker (with a fresh set of batteries). I also have a Dopp kit filled with cables, A/V cords, and a sound cord — so that if the venue doesn’t have them, I’m still ready. I regularly save my presentation in PowerPoint as well as PDF and on CD, just in case I have to present from the venue’s computer and not my own. In a few cases, these things have saved my butt. Big time.

7. Befriend the A/V guy
Do everything required to make the A/V guy love you: coffee, cigarettes, gum, candy, a massage. He is the key to your success. Make sure you meet him, thank him in advance, make sure he has everything he needs. And learn his name. If anything goes wrong, you’ll want to use his name in your presentation — nicely — to get help. “Jim, can we have the sound a bit louder? Thanks.”

8. Embrace the importance of the big opening
It’s one thing to plan for a big opening, and it’s a whole other thing to achieve one. You have to come on stage with confidence, and command attention. It’s counter to how we’re raised as people, so it’s actually important to actively work the audience and the stage. Speak twice as loud as seems appropriate. Gesture twice as big. Walk the stage as if you own it (and by the way, you do). In these first critical moments the audience is deciding whether to entrust the next 20…30…or 40 minutes of their time with you. You have to take that time out of their hands and into yours.

9. It’s your show — and people want to see you succeed
The audience is your friend, and the more you treat them like one, the better they’ll respond. So, in your attitude, don’t back-pedal…don’t undercut what you’ve said…don’t apologize…don’t act small. It chips away at your authority as a friend.

10. Everyone is using your body language as a barometer of how you want them to react to you
You set all the signals and pace. If you’re confident, they’ll be confident with you. If you back off of a joke, they won’t know whether to laugh. How well you do in front of an audience is far more under your control than it may seem. When I was confident — and my body language showed it — the audience easily came along for the ride. This equates to a few simple things: 1) Lots of eye contact, 2) Great posture, 3) Loud, projecting voice, 4) Good (but natural) hand gestures, 5) Confident pauses when you need them, 6) A relaxed flow (not rushing through the material), 7) Staying out of the way of your projector (so people can see your slides), and 8) An ability to be in the moment (see #11).

11. Be ready for anything; startled by none of it
This has happened to me: My mic turned off mid-speech, my notes flew away from the podium (lesson learned: staple the pages together), a fire alarm went off, the A/V team ran someone else’s video during my speech, and once, right before I went on, the host asked me to speak on a totally other topic.

Expecting snags helps you smooth them out in the moment. In the case of the mic blowing out, I got a new one, made a joke about budget cuts, and moved on. During the fire alarm, I directed people to exits — then picked up right where I left off once the scare was over. When the wrong video showed up, I watched about 30 seconds of it — commented in its finer parts, then said, “It’s a superb film. Unfortunately, it’s not the superb film that belongs in my presentation…let’s have another go at it shall we, Jim?” And for the last-minute-topic-change, I chose to ignore the request, and gave the speech I was going to give — topic unaltered. In all cases, the audiences felt I was firmly in control of the content. Presentation is equal parts content and confidence.

12. Be emotive. Be yourself
A passionate speaker who is being himself (or herself) is a pleasure to watch. If you feel sad, show it. If the topic makes you giddy, be giddy. If you have anger about something, show it. Long after people forget what you said, they will still remember how passionate you were about the topic.

About Keith Yamashita
Keith is dedicated to using creativity as a powerful catalyst for change in the world. For the past two decades, he has led SYPartners, a practice that collaborates with CEOs and their leadership teams to build great companies and organizations. He’s worked with leaders at Apple, eBay, IBM, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Nike, and Target Corporation, among others.

SYPartners has been recognized by The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune for its unique, human-centered approach, applied to both business and social challenges.

To scale the transformative effect of the company’s consulting work, Keith and SYPartners CEO Susan Schuman launched a products division that draws on the knowledge developed through work with clients. Its first release is Unstuck—a Webby winner and Appy winner.

Keith is also an author, essayist, and television correspondent on leadership, design, and culture.

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