Many of us have heard the old joke that people report more fear of public speaking than of dying, which is more joke than fact. But I know that plenty of grassroots leaders get nervous when they stand up in front of an audience.

Preparation will make you a more calm and effective presenter. Here are four tips for how to prepare before you go on a speaking engagement.

1- Pick Your Talking Points and Learn Them Well

Pick one or two points you want to consistently get across, (often called “talking points”) and use those in most of your presentations. Fill in around them based on who you’re talking to right then. To choose talking points, ask yourself: what’s one thing everyone should know about your issue? What’s one story that explains this issue well?

Don’t worry that you said the same thing the last time you spoke somewhere: you are the only person who is at all of your presentations.

(Here’s a quick live demo of “Staying on Message”)

2- Know Who You’re Talking To

Before you agree to any public speaking or media appearance, learn who the audience is and what you have to offer them. Ask yourself:

  1. What questions do they have that I can answer
  2. What stories do I have that they can relate to?  
  3. How long will they expect me to talk before they get to talk?  
  4. How relevant are my talking points for this group of people

Although you will pick your talking points and mostly stick to them, you’ll vary what you do based on the specific listeners and the setting. Never show up at a presentation without knowing who you’re talking to and how they are affected by your issue.

3 – Take Video of Yourself Speaking to a Group and Watch It

Many people resist this idea, but remember: all you’re seeing this one time is what other people are seeing every time you’re in front of a group. Better to experience some brief embarrassment than waste your time on presentations with easily fixed problems such as using “um” too much or not looking at the audience.

If you can’t bear to watch it, have a colleague watch it and point out two things you do really well and two things for you to improve on.

4- You Don’t Have to Say Yes to Every Invitation

Be clear on whether the audience you’re talking to is part of your constituency, or connected to your group’s goal in some other way. Don’t waste your limited time on presentations to folks that are not part of your strategy. Focus on folks who are part of your constituency and haven’t heard what you have to say, or need to hear it again.

Politely turn down requests that don’t fit your goals, so that you have time and energy to prepare for the presentations that do matter.

What Other Folks Say About Preparation

Here’s a three-minute video from Dan Heath on Presentations That Stick 

Here are concrete suggestions for Developing Effective Talking Points 

Public speaking is a great chance to create connections that we can’t make in print or via the web. Good preparation can make public speaking more enjoyable and comfortable for you, enabling folks to listen and leave the room wanting more.

There’s More To Come

In Part Two of the “Confident Public Speaking” series, I’ll cover how to avoid common speaking problems that drag a presentation down. Part Three will cover being a media spokesperson.

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