Some of the best speakers make presenting appear effortless — but that’s only half the story.
After seeing a few lectures at a professional conference, people often think, “That would be fun,” or “I’d like to be up there.” But perhaps the most deceiving is, “That looks easy.”
Because what you don’t see are the endless hours that speakers put in to become effortless. The background reading, research, rehearsals and countless events honing their craft.
Many of the best speakers aren’t standing before you because it’s easy. They appear compelling because they’ve done the work.
This is similar to when a musician may hear someone saying, “I’d love to be able to play as well as you can,” but they may not acknowledge the 10,000 hours of practice this has taken.
So when people ask me how to start a career in public speaking, I tell them, “The most important place to start is to earn your place on stage.” And that means once you have the room’s attention, you will say something worth keeping it.
Pick your topic carefully and build your own library on it.
Before you do anything else, you have to decide what you’re going to speak about. Consider your background and history. What do you feel qualified to speak passionately about?
Then start reading. Order every single book you can afford on the subject. Devour them, make notes, cross-reference them, dig deeper into the research. Then put it all to one side and answer this — what will you say that is original on this subject? You can build on the knowledge created by others, but then you need to stand on your own and offer your perspective.
For me, in my early days as a professional speaker, body language was the first area that fascinated me. I was obsessed. And at the time, Amazon didn’t exist. So instead I went to every book shop in town. Any time I passed one, I’d go in and buy a book (or ten!).
By the end, I had a couple of hundred books on body language, interpersonal communication, storytelling, handling conflict, voice work, stage presence, and other related areas.
As I read, I took note of what ideas seemed outdated, what topics would need further investigation, and what arguments were valid based on my personal experience.
All of this came together to contribute to my expertise. This meant I didn’t need to fear any questions after a presentation — I had a well-rounded background of knowledge on my topic.
Find your unique voice by tapping into your personal story.
Once you’ve done your homework to understand a topic, you’ll need to find your own unique take on it.
There’s no point in watching other speakers and thinking, “Oh, they’re good. I can just do what they’re doing.” You need to earn your place at a conference. And that means presenting something unique to your life experience — not someone else’s.
Much like choosing your topic, deciding on your niche comes down to self-reflection. You don’t want to stand in front of an audience and say, “Here are my five principles for business” — it’s boring and people have heard it before. What really good speakers do is weave a personal story through their topic.
For example, I presented at a conference early in my career — when I was 23 or 24 — and the average age of attendees was around 55. They were CEOs of international corporations who had been in business for a long time and had heard it all before. In order to captivate them, I had to bring something completely new to the table.
So I asked myself, “What have I done that no one else in that room has?”
I decided to start with a story about my experience of living in a Tibetan monastery for six months, where no one spoke English. It gave me a deep understanding of non-verbal communication. I then explained how I applied these insights into the business when I worked with a Formula One racing team, where I had to communicate highly complex scientific topics to sponsors in the most engaging way.
Instead of saying “body language is important in business” I was able to demonstrate this through personal stories and then teach the key insights that I had applied in order to succeed in real business situations.
And that’s key in creating a unique voice that will help to launch, then maintain, your career as a speaker.
Always aim to improve.
Your work doesn’t stop once you’ve picked a topic and developed your content.
The best in any industry is always finding new ways to learn and improve. In the case of public speaking, that means watching other speakers, taking notes, and seeing what applies to your work.
Whenever I’m at a conference, I try to pick a few speakers I admire and watch them in their element. I note how one person’s style impacts me, or how another’s story structure compels me to listen. I also seek out critical feedback on my talks so that I can adjust my work and make a greater impact the next time I speak.
Finally, remember that above all, there is absolutely no replacement for simply showing up and working on your craft. Take every opportunity to stand up and speak — no matter what it is. Stay focussed on delivering as much value to the audience as you can at every event and getting better every single time.
I encourage you to approach the organizers of networking events, exhibitions and conferences to offer your services. You may need to do this for free when you start out, as you build your reputation and experience.
Then make sure that you connect with the people in your audience online. Stay engaged with them through social media or newsletters, so that they continue to receive value from you after the event. If you give them plenty of value they may one day recommend you.
If you’ve done your homework, and committed to your subject, with enough time and practice you’ll be well on your way to becoming a professional public speaker — hopefully, the kind that inspires someone else to say, “Well, that looks easy.”
If you would like to learn more about improving your communication at work you can listen to my new podcast ‘Born To Speak’ on iTunes.