There’s all sorts of advice in books, online, and being espoused in public speaking courses everywhere about what you absolutely must know to stand up on a stage and own it.
I’ve been speaking publicly since I first sat behind the microphone at 5AD, the radio station that offered me my first journalist and newsreader gig at the ripe old age of 20.
I went on to report and then read the weekend news at Channel 7, as well as being a voice artist for more years than I care to count.
In the first year of my business, I did nearly 50 speaking gigs. It was crazy. And it worked. I gained new clients from 95% of those presentations without any sleazy selling or following a formula to hook people in and make them “buy now” for fear of missing out.
I’ve worked with hundreds of women to help them become more powerful speakers, and presented to thousands more.
I want to share with you what I’ve learned during my 25 years in the game so you can focus on what’s genuinely necessary to become a truly powerful speaker, and ditch everything else.
Keep reading if you have a talk coming up soon, or are someone who knows you need to move past what holds you back from putting up your hand to speak.
1. You won’t please everyone
There’ll be people in the room who don’t like what you have to say. There’ll be people who don’t like how you say it. They might not like your message. They might think they’re smarter than you and should be standing up there in your place.
They might not even like your hair, your suit jacket, or your make up (I can’t even tell you how many times people used to ring Channel 7 and comment on what I was wearing, and how my hair and make up were styled. One person even asked for the name of my hairdresser). Thankfully, mostly only the kind comments made it to my ears).
Speak anyway. Your message is more important than any of that. If you care about inspiring people and making a difference, put on your big girl (or boy) pants and speak. Yes, it takes courage. What you have to say is worth it. Your voice matters. Use it.
2. Stop making it all about you
Truly, your talk isn’t about you and it’s certainly not for you. It’s for your audiences. Make it about them.
Yes, tell your stories which are all about you and will offer the deepest form of connection with people, especially when you share wholeheartedly about the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned, so that people can benefit from your wisdom.
When you’re speaking though, take the focus away from yourself, and what your hands are doing, and what your voice is doing, and whether you look comfortable or not or sound like you know what you’re talking about or not…
Please, get over yourself.
Note too that when you focus on the gifts you’re giving your audiences, it’s easier to take the spotlight off yourself, and will make you feel more comfortable.
3. Stop worrying about what people think
More than 90% of my clients say one of the things that holds them back from speaking powerfully is worrying about what they think other people will think of them.
They’re scared someone else in the room will know more than them and judge them accordingly. They’re afraid they’ll be shown up as frauds.
People will always have an opinion. It’s your choice to make it your own – or not.
I remember, as a young radio journo, making a few on-air stuff ups when I was reading the news that were published the next day in the newspaper. I said “beautification” instead of beatification (sorry Mary McKillop). And something about politicians and a dungeon which I’ve chosen to forget because I was so embarrassed.
When I worked in TV, I was seen on air during a live cross wildly gesturing with my hands to my cameraman and saying “What are you doing?” Oh yeah, that was a rough one to face when I found out later that 200-thousand plus viewers had seen me.
You just have to get back on your horse. And you have to trust that you’re standing up there because there are people who want to hear what you have to say.
If worrying about what other people think is what’s holding you back, you’re choosing to live inside a very small cage with very little breathing space.
You’re bigger than that. Release the lock. Choose not to buy in to what you think other people might think (because you don’t even really know, and it doesn’t matter anyway).
4. Know you’re not dumb if you can’t answer a question
Apart from the moments leading up to getting up to speak, and then the first few moments of speaking, answering questions at the end of your talk can be enough to trip up even the most seasoned performer.
What happens when someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer? Do you wing it? Do you look uncomfortable and give away your power?
I’ve been asked all sorts of strange questions that often have had nothing to do with what I’ve been talking about. You can never predict what people will ask.
At one national conference, one woman asked me such a long question after my talk that it made no sense to me, and I had to ask her to repeat it, then clarify it, and it was so uncomfortable for her, and me, and everyone else in the room. It would have been better if I’d asked her to chat with me after because it was clear we weren’t going to get anywhere there and then.
Know this: you’re not expected to know everything. No-one will think you’re an idiot. It’s okay to say, “I want to double check to ensure I give you the right information. I’ll grab your contact details, check and come back to you.”
Or, you might say, “That’s a great question. No-one has asked me that before. I’d like to take a few moments to consider it. Let’s catch up after for a chat”.
If someone gives you a hard time, you can say, “I haven’t heard that before. I’ll consider it.” And then you move on. Don’t give people the opportunity to come back to you with more.
It’s your stage. Own it.
5. Forget fear and connect with your power
I don’t buy into this whole thing about fear when it comes to public speaking.
I do acknowledge that most people feel sensations of intensity. I also acknowledge that the Buddhists place the fear of speaking in front of a public assembly at number five on their list of human fears.
What if those intense sensations you tell yourself are fear or anxiety are actually your power? What if they’re there to help you? What if they’re 100% on your side?
What if you could welcome them with a, “You’re here! Thank you so much!” instead of trying to run away from them and make them bad and wrong?
I’m here to tell you that when you welcome your power, and ditch the idea of fear, you’ll feel so much more powerful – and comfortable.
This isn’t about pretending you don’t feel intense sensations (which you should, by the way, because they’re a signal that your body is preparing you to be ON and be your best). It’s about a mindset shift that will help you relax more, get all your butterflies to fly in formation, and rock the stage.
It works. Try it. Trust me.
6. Believe that your story is important and matters
Just over three years ago one of my clients came to me and said, “I want a speaking career and I want you to help me make it happen.”
I love a woman who knows what she wants. Before she so boldly made that claim though, she said, “Do you think anyone will be interested in my story?”
To which I said, “Yes. Definitely. Absolutely. Yes.”
So I helped her craft her talk, and I helped her let go of all the ways she was holding herself back (she’s a powerhouse of all the colours of the rainbow but was being a bit too beige that day), and then she went out there and created a few speaking opportunities. Just small, easy gigs to pull off that, three years down the track, have become much, much bigger. I’m talking a global movement, book, international speaking gigs and documentary.
Before you say to me, “Yes, but that’s HER, and I’m JUST…” I’m going to say, “Cut that out right now.”
You don’t have to have climbed Mt Everest or survived a near death experience, or have had some other tragedy happen to you.
You just have to know your message and use it in ways that will benefit your ideal audiences. You have a message and you have ideal audiences.
There’s extraordinary in the ordinary. We can all relate to it.
What you have to say matters. And there’s an ideal audience full of people who can’t wait to hear it.
7. Don’t just talk about the good stuff
This is a trap. Talking about the good news without sharing the bad news, I mean. Why? Because it creates mistrust. You can’t inspire people who don’t trust you.
If things aren’t exactly the way you want or need them to be, talk to us about the possible ways through or out the other side. Include us in the conversation. You’ll make us feel important and special, and as though we can be a helpful part of the solution.
Nothing’s ever perfect. Give us all the news – good and bad.
8. If you’re super attractive you need to be more vulnerable
It feels a bit risky to say this. It pains me a bit to say this. And, I want to be brutally honest with you.
I’ve worked with quite a few clients who are regarded as the “full package”: they’re super smart, super accomplished, super (physically) attractive, and exude a presence that ensures people listen when they speak.
When you seemingly have everything going for you and well-handled, thanks very much, there’s a risk of alienating your audience. It’s your job to connect with your audience. So, you’re going to need to try a bit harder to connect. That means making sure you show your vulnerability as well as your strengths, and perhaps even a little more than your strengths.
You can’t be a powerful speaker without being strong and vulnerable, anyway.
Vulnerability simply means being real. Because none of us has it all together. Ever. And each of us has had to make mistakes and learn some tough lessons to get where we are. Start there.
9. How much you know is expected, but it’s not what connects
You’re standing on that stage because there’s at least one person who believes in you and what you know. You wouldn’t be on that stage if you had no idea what you’re talking about. We expect you to know stuff. That’s why you’re there.
And, knowing your topic isn’t enough. It’s like when you throw a bunch of data and information at your audience. It’s not enough to make a difference, despite how interesting it might be to you.
Here’s what connects: stories. Tell your story. Tell a story about some data you’ve collected that illustrates it. Tell a story about a client. Tell a story about someone else’s experience that’s relevant to what you know.
Stories connect powerfully. Use them. Please, don’t ever not use them.
10. Standing up to speak is a privilege
When you have something to talk about that matters to you and someone else wants to hear it and you get the opportunity to share it with an audience, well… that’s a very special thing.
When I stand on a stage I always marvel at what an incredible privilege I’ve been given. I never take it for granted. Nor should you.
Honour the person who asked you to speak. That person believes in you and what you have to offer, and trusts that the audience will benefit for your words of wisdom and presence.
Be grateful. Do your best. Always remember this.
11. Give, give, give
Public speaking is an opportunity to shower people with your gifts.
Public speaking is your chance to inspire others and make a difference with your words.
Your audiences will thank you for it.
12. Focus on what touches you and fires you up
Passion is underestimated and it’s a powerful tool.
Know what excites you. Discover the message that’s deeply meaningful for you.
Deliver your talk with meaning, heart and passion. You’ll stand out and be memorable – for all the right reasons.
Passion sells you and what you stand for. It’s so much easier to be a powerful speaker when you focus on what matters to you, and fires you up. It’ll inspire others too.
You have to care about what you’re saying. You know that.
Because if it’s coming across like you’re talking about how boring it is to take out the bins each night, you’re not going to make anyone else in your audience care. And then you have a problem. And so do they.
Please only talk about what matters to you, so can embody it when you speak.
Speakers who are big on polish and small on sincere care don’t rock the stage. They just take up space and air time and leave us all gagging.
You’re better than that.
14. Prepare. Then surrender
Do your homework. Do your preparation. Read your talk out loud. Record it and listen back to it to find out what doesn’t quite sound right and needs to be changed.
However, please don’t try to memorise your talk. And don’t read it word for word like a speech. Please don’t.
The most powerful speakers use a formula that’s highly structured so they can guide their audiences and keep them on track. It also allows for plenty of spontaneity. That’s important for you to be your most authentic – and to give your best in the moment. Because, no matter how much preparation you do, you can never know what will show up for you on the day, or how.
Prepare as best you can. Then step on to the stage in the spirit of surrender, offering everything you can from the bottom of your heart. Be willing to own the stage – and go with the flow.
15. You’re far more powerful than you realise
All those stories you tell yourself about who you are are wrong. Even the good ones aren’t quite right.
Your power is unlimited. Go for it. Give it all you’ve got.
You’re amazing. This I know to be true. You can move mountains and make magic when you trust how powerful you really are.
16. The more you hold yourself back, the more powerful you are
I’ve seen this too many times to ignore. The women who hold themselves back the most are sitting on goldmines of power begging to be blown wide open. And when they unleash their power? They’re way more powerful than most.
They’ve bought into stories that it’s better to stay quiet or invisible, usually to keep everyone else comfortable. They speak softly, and do their best not to rock the boat. They often get so nervous about speaking that they tell themselves it’s easier to just not do it.
When they do find the courage and right guidance to step up and speak, and learn how to own the room (which is more about letting go of what’s in the way than having to do anything new or different), their impact is unbelievable. They have such a powerful presence.
If you’re someone who’s held yourself back more than most, I have no doubt you’re more powerful than most. You have something to say. Please, do what it takes to let out your magic and show us all.
17. Your message matters
Firstly, your message needs to matter to you. Otherwise it won’t mean anything to anyone else.
It matters because it’s impossible to touch and embrace your power when you speak about something that’s not meaningful to you.
Your deep sense of purpose and meaning inform not just how you use your voice, but also your body language, and presence.
When it does matter to you, and you share it from the bottom of your heart, you will connect with your audiences and make a difference with your words.
Your message is one of the gateways to your power as a speaker, especially for accessing genuine confidence.
It’s not acceptable to compare your message with other people’s messages. It’s not okay to tell yourself that your message isn’t important. There are no rights or wrongs. Your message is yours – uniquely yours. No-one can take it away from you. Don’t judge it. Own it.
And, do the digging required to discover your message. It’s a big process. And it’s essential
18. Your message can change the course of your life
Your message is born of your purpose and experiences in your life – and no less.
Your message drives you and what you do, and how you make your particular brand of difference in the world.
It’s very personal and profound.
Knowing your message isn’t just about having a hook upon which to build a talk to deliver. It means:
- Dread about speaking starts to fade
- Excitement emerges
- You own what you have to say in ways you never have before
- You discover genuine confidence
- You start to own the stage
- You begin to enjoy public speaking
- The way you speak if much, much more powerful
19. You’ll never be ready. Do it anyway
If you’re expecting to one day be able to take to the stage and feel so ready, and so comfortable that you might as well be wearing your slippers and dressing gown, think again. It’s not going to happen.
Some of my best presentations have been when I wasn’t feeling what I’d hoped/expected to feel at all. I’d done my preparation, but felt far from ready.
You have something to say to people who will benefit from your expertise, wisdom and intelligence.
Just do it.
20. People are interested in your story
No matter how boring you think you are, or your life has been, people want to hear your stories.
We’re fascinated by other people, what they’ve done and do, and how they’ve traversed life’s challenges and learned from them. We learn when other people openly share their experiences. It helps us make sense of our own lives. It helps us create meaning for ourselves.
You’re a hero. There are times in your life you’ve had to be. Tell us what happened, and how you navigated it, and the treasures you brought back from your journey.
Sharing your stories is a beautiful gift. Never underestimate the power of who you are and what you have to offer.
21. Ruffling feathers is a good thing
Being a powerful speaker means being bold, taking a stance, and making a stand for what matters to you.
A powerful speaker doesn’t stand on a stage and try to please her audience. She simply says what she’s there to say.
Powerful speakers are memorable. Their audiences leave the room with at least something to think about, and hopefully with a firm desire to do something different in their lives as a result of what you’ve said.
Nothing changes, ever, without a few feathers being ruffled along the way.
If you’re ruffling feathers, take it as a sign that you’re on to something. Stay focused. Keep going. Don’t lose heart.
And if you do? Seek support from someone who can help you stay the track. It’s too tough trying to be a trailblazer on your own.
22. Ditch being too nice
Remember, not everyone will like you (see 1).
Being a pleaser isn’t the domain of a powerful speaker (see 21).
So yeah, don’t do that.
23. Humour is one of your greatest ways of connecting
Jokes can be your dramatic downfall in an instant. Don’t ever open your talk with a joke, by the way. If you do, you step into the trap of losing your audience long before you get to the point of what you want to say. Your credibility goes down the drain too.
Humour, on the other hand, is a very good thing. It lowers defences and makes your audience more receptive to your message. It makes you seem more likeable. People want to listen to, and do business with, someone they like.
Be yourself. If people tell you you’re funny, then you are. Show us. Don’t put it on, just use humour the way you normally would in conversations.
I’ve been known to make a few faces that usually get a giggle. I’m not trying to make that happen, it’s just that I have a very expressive face and I’m being myself.
24. Own your expertise, wisdom and intelligence
You have so much you can share. So stop telling yourself you’re not old enough, experienced enough, smart enough, wise enough, accomplished enough, with not enough degrees or diplomas or other letters after your name.
It’s all bullshit.
You’re enough. Right now. Right where you are. Truly.
Oh, and if you can’t own it, listen and take notice of the people who ask you to stand up and speak. They reckon you’re more than all right.
25. Tears are okay
So there’s this story that you should never cry while giving a talk. Because it’ll dampen your credibility. And make people uncomfortable. And show that you’re not ready to talk about whatever it is you’ve chosen to talk about.
I agree there is a fine line. And, I want to say too that you need to be touched by what you’re talking about because it matters so deeply to you.
Choking up is okay. A tear is okay. A pause to take a deep breath is more than okay. Uncontrollable sobbing isn’t.
This is one of my favourite TED talks during which there are tears and I feel they’re absolutely appropriate. They don’t make me feel uncomfortable.
Have a look here:
26. Your waving hands aren’t a problem
So many people ask me this: Is it okay to use my hands? Do I look like a crazy person?
I’m a hand talker. Big time. My hands fly all over the place. I’m good with it. Here’s why: It’s natural. And no-one else notices when it’s natural.
Putting your hands in your pocket makes you look uncomfortable. So does fiddling with your pen. And when you put your hands behind your back? It’s telling us you feel like hiding.
There’s a stance that’s great, as a starting point, and it’s when you bend your arms at the elbow, at a 90 degree angle. It feels strange at first, but you’ll get used it.
Back to waving hands. If you’re naturally a hand talker, then keep being one and forget about all this.
27. Feeling comfortable is overrated and unrealistic
I get the sensations of intensity in my body to varying degrees although not necessarily depending on the presentation or audience. It’s unpredictable.
Sometimes I’ll be more nervous speaking to 10 people than 500.
Sometimes there’ll be just one person in the room whose presence throws me.
Either way, my heart beats faster. I do a few extra wees before a talk. I feel the rush in my body.
I’m never entirely relaxed and comfortable. And nor should I be. I’d be concerned if I was. Because I wouldn’t be ready to give my best.
I’ve been speaking professionally, in front of live audiences in the same room, and in front of TV cameras and behind radio microphones, for 25 years. I’ve done it lots and lots and lots. Yes, I’m pretty comfortable most of the time, but what’s most important is that I’m pretty comfortable with the sensations I feel that never go away.
Drop the notion that there’s a nirvana of comfort you’ll reach that makes you feel the same as you would eating popcorn on the couch and watching TV.
You won’t. Ever.
28. Changing voices dramatically increases your power
I bet when you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re talking about someone else you try to take on their voice to illustrate the way they said what they said.
For example, when I share something my daughter said, I try to take on her voice (so I sound like a nine year-old).
This is an incredibly powerful thing to do when you deliver a talk. It brings your talk alive, and makes you so much more dynamic and memorable.
Think about the characters in your stories. Take on their voices. Watch your impact grow.
29. Quiet talkers can still be powerful
If you speak quietly, and can’t imagine what it takes to reach a room full of people, listen up!
All you have to do not just to be heard, but to come across more powerfully, is to lift your volume.
You might need to lift it more than feels natural at the beginning. Allow yourself to be guided on this by someone who knows what they’re doing (ie me!).
You’ll be amazed by how much more powerful you sound simply by speaking louder.
30. Vulnerability hangovers happen
When you first start sharing your stories, you might feel a vulnerability hangover afterwards.
You might wonder if you said too much, or made other people feel uncomfortable. You might feel uncomfortable.
I’ve found that the sweet spot, for me, is feeling slightly uncomfortable with what I’m going to share. Because I know that vulnerability connects, and without it, I deplete my power. Strength and vulnerability need to work together. This is the same for my writing as it is for my talks.
It can take a bit of practice to find your own sweet spot. If you feel a vulnerability hangover, please don’t give yourself a hard time.
It’s better to err on the side of that than being too polished or seemingly perfect. No-one trust perfect.
So there you go: 30 things nobody tells you about powerful speaker.
Here’s what most important to know:
None of the above matters much, or is necessary to know, if you can’t own your magnificence first.
Start there. Always.