Have you ever listened to a speaker who:
- Was so focused on her notes that she rarely looked up at the audience? or
- Was so “high energy” that he seemed to be putting on a show for himself?
These are both examples of putting your focus in the wrong place — and, if you’ve sat through them, I’m guessing that they left you cold.
When a speaker isn’t connected to their content, their audience, and themselves to the right degrees or at the right times, it can be painful for everyone involved.
Fortunately, this is an easy mistake to avoid, once you understand what’s involved.
There Are Three “Elements” to Focus On as a Public Speaker
IMHO (in my humble opinion), public speaking — which I define as any speaking where you want something in particular to happen — involves three elements:
- your audience… and
- your subject matter (let’s call that your “content”).
For your public speaking to be its best, you’ll need to focus on each of these elements — but the trick is that you don’t focus on them equally at all times.
At each stage of the public speaking process, a different element should be front and center.
And what are those stages? I’m so glad you asked!
There Are Three “Stages” of Public Speaking, Each With a Different Focus
Public speaking success — whether you’re speaking on stage, at a pitch, in a meeting, or when introducing yourself to new contacts — is created in three stages:
- First, you prepare your content. This is where you decide on a key message, pick your supporting points, topics, stories, etc., and pull it all into a flow that is easy to follow.
- Then, you practice. Yes, you’re practicing the content you want to deliver, but more importantly, you’re practicing how you want to feel when you deliver it — in other words, relaxed, confident, authentic, authoritative, or whatever you want to feel.
- Finally, when you present your ideas to an audience, you want to be as much in the moment as possible — not in the preparation stage, where you’re editing and critiquing your content, and not in the practicing stage, where you’re working on your attitude and delivery, but right in this moment, happily sharing the thoughts you’ve put together for this audience.
At each of these stages in the public speaking process, your focus should be in a different public speaking element.
PREPARE — Focus on Your Content
You can’t focus exclusively on your content during this stage. You have to think about your audience (“What do they need to learn?”) and yourself (“What am I excited about sharing?”). But most of your attention should be on your content.
Now is the time to ask yourself questions like:
- Is what I’m planning to say clear?
- Am I speaking at the right level for this audience? (Don’t give the same presentation to a group of lay people that you would to an expert audience.)
- Am I explaining things in the best order? (For instance, if I mention Lavelliers in my second point, did I mention first that Lavs are a kind of microphone?)
- Am I telling my audience why this information is important to them?
PRACTICE — Focus on Yourself
Once your content is in good shape, it’s time to focus on how you feel when you’re delivering it, in other words, on yourself.
Of course, you’ll also have to think about what you’re saying; and you should think about the people you’re talking to, and how much they’re going to enjoy, respect, or benefit from your ideas. But keep most of your focus on yourself.
To do this:
- Practice out loud, while you’re feeling the way you want to feel when you deliver this content. (And if you can’t feel the way you want to feel practice faking it!)
- Don’t make any changes unless they are based on how what you’re practicing sounds. Continual editing is not practicing — it’s a way to avoid practicing.
- Jump around in your presentation, practice sections out of order, play with saying things in different ways, even practice while you’re walking around your home or down the street. The point here is to keep things loose, fluid, and flexible rather than training yourself to only do it one way. And as you do all this, notice how you feel and stay focused on feeling the way you want to (powerful, happy, successful, authentic, enthusiastic, expert, whatever)
PRESENT — Focus on Your Audience
When you get in front of an audience, the times for preparing and practicing are OVER. Now your focus should be on the people you’re talking to, a/k/a your audience.
Of course, you’ll need to be monitoring your content (what you’re saying) with part of your mind; and you should also keep a little attention on how you’re feeling so that you can make adjustments if needed.
But most of your focus should be on your audience. To make this happen:
- Make eye contact with a series of people in your audience who are having a positive reaction to your speech. Every minute or so, look at a different person. But always be looking at someone; this will keep you out of your own head.
- Maintain a positive stance. Even if your content is difficult or controversial, let your audience know that you are glad to be addressing them. Even if your content is hyper-serious, find a place to smile just a little. Let your audience know that you’re in this together.
- Leave lots of pauses in your delivery, and use them to observe your audience’s reactions. Many speakers avoid looking at the audience because they’re afraid of what they’re going to see, but in the process, they cheat themselves out of the positive feedback they’ve earned. Noting that many, most, or all of the people in your audience appreciate your efforts is a great way for you to relax, feel more connected to them, and set up the positive feedback loop (Public Speaking Relationship) described earlier.