Nine myths of public speaking and business presenting debunked

Anthony Garvery, of Toastmasters International, debunks nine myths about public speaking 

I’ve often been given advice about how to be a better public speaker. People love to give advice but, often, they are repeating myths that are less than helpful! Here are nine such myths that need to be debunked – and some ideas on what you can do instead to improve your speaking and presenting. 

Myth One: always open with a joke

Depending on your audience, a little humour in a speech or presentation can work well but, in my experience, starting with a joke is a gamble which seldom pays off; too often, a joke at the start of a speech or presentation falls flat. If you feel humour is appropriate my advice would be to save it for later in the presentation.

Myth Two: the audience will notice I’m nervous

Nervousness often isn’t visible to others because it’s internal and, even if people realise you’re nervous, they’ll sympathise with you. Most audience members want you to do well. Don’t start with the announcement, ‘I’m not very good at public speaking.’ Keep it to yourself! Avoid holding a sheet of paper; if your hand shakes, the audience will see signs of nerves.

Myth Three: wearing a new outfit will give confidence

There is nothing worse than struggling with a new suit or dress that doesn’t quite fit while you are presenting. It is, of course, important to dress appropriately, but it is more important to feel comfortable. If you have to wear a hire suit at a wedding, for example, spend a little extra time making sure you are comfortable in it before you leave the store.

Myth Four: I don’t give speeches or presentations

What happens when your boss asks for an update on the project you are working on at a meeting? What happens when you present ideas in front of other colleagues?

Many business and personal conversations are presentations, and the more care and attention you give to these conversations, the more professional they will be.

Myth Five: the best speeches are committed to memory

Learning a speech word-by-word is dangerous, because if you forget a word or a sentence, it can throw you. It is much better to speak from the heart, rather than deliver an over-rehearsed speech. You still need to practice, but you will be using your time in a much more effective way, refining and improving, rather than memorising.

Myth Six: notes will help you deliver a better presentation

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How often have you seen a speaker spill their cue cards on the floor and then try reordering them? Or read from their notes without looking up? If you use carry notes, write single words to prompt you to speak on a particular topic; once you start speaking on that topic, put the card down and consult it only when necessary. 

Myth Seven: stand in one place

I was once advised, ‘Next time you speak, plant your feet on a sheet of A4 paper and don’t move for the duration of your talk!’ Myth! Unless you are delivering a reading at a religious service, I believe you should move when you talk.

I had a professor at college, who paced up and down during lectures as if he were sponsored by FitBit. Don’t meander all over the stage, like he did, but you shouldn’t have to stand rigidly behind a lectern, like a tortoise inside a shell either. Move, but move with purpose. Watch some of the world’s best speakers, like Les Brown, Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, to see how movement helps them connect.

Myth Eight: Don’t speak with your hands

Speakers as still as statues deliver their presentations with all the poise, charisma and presence of a store mannequin. Dynamic, expressive speakers use their hands, so make good use of yours! Open palms are the key.

Myth Nine: great presenters talk impromptu

The trick is to appear not to have put in any effort, but every presenter worth their salt, practices, practices and practices some more. As Oscar winner, Sir Michael Caine said, “Rehearsal is the work; performance is the relaxation.”  The more you practice, the better you get!

Now some of these myths have been busted, you can, hopefully, feel more confident about public speaking!

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