It’s no fun to give a talk with rusty public speaking skills—and fortunately, you don’t have to.
Even if it’s been weeks (or months!) since you last spoke in public, you can scrape off the rust by polishing these three high-level skills:
1. Start with Your Rusty Physical Skills
Public speaking starts with a physical activity; namely, pushing words out of your mouth.
Of course, we do that all the time. But if you haven’t used your body to make “public speaking sounds” in a while, it’s time to tune up that physical process.
By speaking out loud to a pretend audience:
1. Choose something to say to them; for example,
Thank you all for coming out today! (pause) I’m excited to tell you about…
2. Say this out loud in a clear, firm, confident, and friendly way, while you imagine you’re talking to actual people.
3. Repeat the phrase out loud at odd times during the day, going for a sense of comfort and ease.
4. Pick something else to say, and repeat the process.
Don’t make a big deal out of this (that’s a good way to stiffen up, and you’re trying to lose the rust, not get more of it). Just take a moment here and there to speak to your imaginary audience.
This will remind your body how to produce firm, clear sounds that people can focus on.
2. Next, Scrape the Rust Off Your Mind
I’m not a fan of memorizing, but one thing it’s very helpful to know “by heart” is the roadmap for how your speech is going to unfold.
So when I’m polishing rusty public speaking skills, I talk myself through a “play-by-play” of my next speech. It sounds something like this:
First, I’m going to tell people that I really appreciate them showing up on such a cold, rainy night, and that I hope to make it worth their time. Then I’m going to tell a quick story about Jeanette losing her umbrella. Then I’m going to state my Key Message, which is that there’s no such thing as perfect preparation but we still have to try our best. Then I’m into the first section, about how do you prepare for a speech? Early in that discussion, I’ll tell the story about rewriting my Phoenix keynote overnight, giving the pros and cons. Then…
Of course, I do this out loud, so that I’m actually telling myself a story about how the speech is going to go.
And just to make sure I don’t get overly stiff or serious while doing it, I like to do something else at the same time—chop vegetables, fold clothes, or just walk around my apartment pretending I’m on stage.
Which brings us to…
3. Is Your Attitude A Rusty Public Speaking Skill?
There are millions of ways that our attitudes can get rusty. We might have slipped into:
- Self-criticism, or
- Comparing ourselves to others, or
- “Catastrophizing” about all the things that could go wrong, to name just a few
When you’re doing lots of public speaking, your ability to avoid those traps is well-tuned (because it has to be).
But if you haven’t spoken in public for a while, your attitude may have gotten rusty.
How can you change that?
1. Don’t believe the hype. If your thoughts or feelings are negative, they are wrong!
2. Change anxiety to anticipation. They’re almost the same sensation, so it’s not hard to think of what you’re experiencing as positive (eagerness) instead of negative (freaking out).
3. Calm yourself down by any means necessary. You know what works for you (and no, I’m not recommending an ice cream binge, even though that’s often my go-to :-)), so use whatever techniques help you to calm and re-center yourself around this simple fact: You’re just going to be talking to people!
You’ve done that since you were a child, right? And remember, when you scrape away all the rust, you’re left with a timeless truth:
If you’re talking, and they’re listening, you must be doing it right. 🙂
And, when you’ve polished up your rusty public speaking skills, you will be!