Thoughts on Public Speaking

They say that the two most common fears are death and public speaking…

This week I presented at two year-end school assemblies, speaking first to a group of 400 students, and then to another group of 300, which for a shy person is not the most natural environment. While practice definitely makes perfect (or at least less terrified), here are a few things I’ve learned about not being a knee-shaking public speaking mess and embracing your inner motivational speaker.

1. Don’t overthink things

I used to memorize my speeches so that I could recite them word-for-word. I thought that having a memorized speech would make me more confident in front of a crowd, as it meant I didn’t have to think of anything clever to say on the spot. While this strategy might work for some people, I’ve realized that I actually work best when I give myself a framework.

When I used to try and recite a specific speech in front of an audience, I would get so wrapped up in trying to remember the right words that my delivery would become forced and robotic – I couldn’t focus on anything other than the speech! Tying yourself too closely to a specific speech also means you can’t easily adapt things if your situation changes. At a recent assembly I was asked to cut my presentation from 5 minutes to just 2 – if had been relying delivering something exactly from memory, I would’ve struggled to quickly adjust it to meet my new parameters.

My strategy now is to outline the major points I want to cover in my speech, note any specific examples or facts I want to include, and give myself the freedom to adapt my speech when necessary. This means I still have some framework to hold on to as a support, but I can also focus on my audience and make sure I’m connecting with them.

2. Focus on the kids

School presentations can sometimes mean making a bit of a fool of yourself (in the best possible way, of course). You wear silly hats, make funny voices, dance about and sing ridiculous songs, all in the name of literacy. Putting on a silly show in front of 400+ people, including teachers, educators, administrators, and caregivers, can leave you feeling a bit self conscious! I know that my active, high energy, silly style of librarianship isn’t for everyone, and some traditionalists might turn up their noses when I step on the stage.

Is this hat too silly? I say neigh.

Is this hat too silly? I say neigh.

What helps me freely tap into my inner Charlotte Diamond in front of a big audience is to focus not on those grown ups, but on the kids in front of me. Grown ups might judge, disapprove, arch their eyebrows or smile condescendingly. Grown ups might make you feel silly for talking to a stuffed monkey at 31 years old. Kids, on the other hand, tend to think you’re awesome. Sure, they might think you’re making a fool of yourself, but you’re making an awesome fool of yourself. The kids are the ones that you’re there to serve, they’re the ones that matter. If your sparkly clothes or wild hair or crazy clothes help kids feel welcomed or included or excited about the library, than who cares what some stuffy old grown up thinks?

3. Wear the right clothes

The last thing you want to be worrying about when you’re up in front of 400 people is whether you wore the right clothes. For me, clothes need to be comfortable, moveable and reliable. I need clothes I know I can easily move in, without worrying about revealing more than I expected. My programs are all about movement, so this is particularly important for me!

Covered, comfortable, and ready to get silly.

Covered, comfortable, and ready to get silly.

Also…I’m not one of those ladylike women who “glow”. I sweat. Especially when I’m zoom, zoom, zooming all morning long. I need my clothes to be breathable, and to not show off sweat stains too badly, so I can wave my arms around with confidence.

4. Get to the point already!

Common sense here – kids aren’t designed to sit still for long periods of time. Get your point across quickly and simply. Have fun, of course, but don’t expect your kids to sit through your magnum opus. Admit it – you hate boring meetings as an adult, so don’t inflict them on the kids.

When in doubt, let a puppet do the talking.

When in doubt, let a puppet do the talking.

I’m definitely not a public speaking expert, and different people have different styles, but these are a few techniques that have helped me level up as a presenter!