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Founder & Principal of SmartMouth Communications, a consulting, coaching and training firm that creates better messages and messengers.
Force majeure — well, that’s an understatement. There is a greater force out there — and yes, due to unforeseen circumstances — that is actually opening doors for people to become better public speakers.
Sounds kind of counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Conferences and conference attendance aren’t what they used to be. There are no microphones, podiums or crowded audiences for speakers. There’s no buzz in the hallways and no immediate feedback. But then again, there’s also no tripping hazard on the way to the stage.
The pandemic has prevented us from gathering in public spaces and forced us into our homes and home offices. While you may be growing weary of discussions, and wary of advice, about how to handle virtual meetings, presentations and communications in general (from yours truly, included), there are some silver linings when it comes to your public speaking skills.
Here are four silver linings to presenting virtually that just might make you a better public speaker in the long run:
Virtual presentations are raising the bar for speakers.
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Because of factors like screen fatigue, the ability of audiences to mute their very presence, and even their ability to “leave the room” without being noticed, the bar has been raised for grabbing and holding an audience’s attention in the digital space. Speakers are being pressed to adapt — adhering to new rules of brevity and finding new, creative ways to interact with audiences. Brevity, in particular, is long overdue (hard to believe we needed a pandemic to get conference organizers and speakers to tighten up on time), but it’s particularly appreciated in digital land. All we need now is to keep the bar high once we’re able to return to hotel ballrooms.
Nervousness is less of an issue, allowing you to focus on more productive aspects of your presentation skills.
If you deal with nerves, you may be in luck. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about the audience noticing your knees knocking. Presenting virtually means you’re typically in a familiar setting, you’re more than likely alone or with very few people, and chances are you’re sitting rather than standing (although I hope you’re sitting up straight and forward in your chair). These three factors alone should mitigate a lot of the nervousness that comes with in-person speaking. Even if you’re presenting on camera standing on a set or stage, you’ll still be less nervous than you would be if the room were filled with people you assume to be judging you. Ultimately, less focus on your nerves frees up time and energy so you can build other public speaking muscles, such as making your content stronger, using storytelling or mastering your delivery.
Speakers who love ‘working a live audience’ have new skill-building opportunities as well.
If you are someone who feeds off the energy of a live audience and you don’t like it that you can’t hear voices and see faces when presenting virtually, you may be feeling challenged. How do you keep your momentum going and connect with the audience if you can’t see them or move around the room? You’ll have to find other sources of energy for your delivery. Your voice, for instance — your cadence, volume, pace — is a tool you might want to sharpen. You might also want to build in some virtual call-and-response techniques so that you know your audience is with you. Maybe, depending on audience size, you want to break the rules and unmute your audience to allow for give and take. For you, the more natural performer, this may be a situation of “when one door closes, another one opens.” The three-dimensional door of seeing, hearing and being close to your audience is closed for the time being. Find a new door that works for you.
Zoom provides a far more effective practice ground than the mirror.
Interestingly, if you Google “practice speaking in front of a mirror,” you should prepare yourself for a deluge of articles, blog posts, quotes, etc. that encourage and discourage this age-old recommendation. I’ve never been a big fan of the mirror, but I am a huge fan of recording myself on Zoom, watching it and making corrections from there.
Here’s how to do this: First, if you know you will be presenting, get yourself a basic Zoom account if you don’t already have one. Second, go to Zoom and click on host a meeting with the camera on (no need to invite anyone). Third, prepare to rehearse your speech by setting yourself up well (including looking at the camera, not at yourself) and then hitting the record button in the toolbar. Finally, save the file to your computer and review it. Repeat as necessary.
It all comes down to making lemonade out of lemons. Some people are enjoying all aspects of working remotely and don’t miss speaking in large conference rooms, travel, commutes or office buildings. Others miss the stimulation of being around people and even getting up in front of strangers. Regardless of which category you fall into, the reality is what it is. We’re meeting and presenting on screens. We might as well use this time, for however long it lasts, to become better public speakers. Force majeure indeed: The pandemic’s silver lining is that it is forcing us to find new ways and learn new skills to be more effective speakers and presenters.
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