Ways Your Body and Mind Can Elevate Your Speaking Performance

In our public speaking workshops, I will often tell participants that I don’t want them to be fake or act like the presenter they wish they were. Audiences want authenticity. They want the real you. But they also want to feel your impact. They want all of you. That requires breaking free of your comfort zone.

So I encourage speakers to turn it up, both literally and figuratively. I want an amplified version of you. I want you to be yourself, but I want you louder and bigger and friendlier and more in touch with your emotions than you probably are in your everyday interactions.

To borrow a phrase from Nigel of Spinal Tap, I encourage my spokespersons to turn it up to 11.

Here are four common public speaking mistakes and how to fix them:

Poor Conditioning

Public speaking is a physical undertaking. If you are speaking for five or 10 minutes, let alone 20 or 30 minutes, it can be exhausting if you aren’t used to it. So just like athletes condition themselves – you need to get in shape. A week before your presentation, begin deep breathing exercises. Take as much air in as you can and then hum as you release air for as long as you can before you take another breath. You can make this into a game by timing how long you can hum between breaths. If you have trouble getting to 25 seconds of humming for each breath, you should consider that your goal and then expand from there. Harvard Business Review has a great piece by Allison Shapira, Breathing Is the Key to Persuasive Public Speaking, with additional tips:

Put one hand on your belly button and one hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply, noticing which hand moves. I see a lot of people breathe while heaving their chest up and down, but I want you to keep your chest steady and think about breathing into your stomach as you take in breath. Then exhale slowly, like letting air out of a balloon.

Speaking Too Quietly

Just like an actor wants to ensure that the person in the seat furthest away from the stage has a comparable experience to the person in the first row, you want everyone in your audience to hear and understand you. Unlike that actor, you are probably dealing with far more distractions – smartphones, urgent work issues, poor acoustics – so you have to be louder. You need to audibly reach out and shake your audience and say, "I deserve your attention! Put away your phone because what I am telling you is important!" Of course, you can't really say that so you have to do it by projecting your voice so that the walls rattle. The breathing exercises promote control that will be important in helping you project your voice more powerfully. In a recent training session, I sensed that one participant would benefit from turning up his volume. In his head, he felt he was yelling, but everyone in the room told him that he just sounded confident and in control. If you want people to pay attention, turn up the volume.

Speaking Too Quickly

I can’t remember the last time I told someone they speak too slowly. I frequently tell people they speak too fast. The rat-a-tat-tat of information sweeps by the audience – you can almost see their hair blowing back. Slow down! All the great speakers allow each word and phrase to get their moment in the sun. For instance read the following out loud: They will describe something – two three four – and then they will move onto the next thought – two three four – and this type of pacing is far easier for the audience to consume and remember – two three four – and that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

Forgetting to Smile

A smile projects far more than mere happiness. It projects confidence, enthusiasm, energy and levity. Of course, for those who aren’t particularly looking forward to the burden of public speaking, a smile is a disconnect with their true feelings. If that’s the case and you lack confidence and are dreading going out there, I want you to put your true feelings aside. Those voices in your head are going to destroy your chances of success. Here’s what you do – and it is backed by research as described in, The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation: shortly before your presentation, step aside and give your body at least two minutes to convince your brain that you are a winner. Harvard Researcher Amy Cuddy calls this “power posing.” Put your hands in the air and smile as big as you ever have. Stretch your arms out and spread your feet and make yourself as big as you can – smiling like you just won the lottery. These are universal attributes of power and positivity, and researchers have found that just a couple minutes of doing this causes a chemical reaction in your body that can improve your performance.


Breathing Is the Key to Persuasive Public Speaking, Allison Shapira

The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Caroline A. Wilmuth, Dana R. Carney