I'm often asked to give keynote speeches to various groups because I have a gift for bullshit and I can use silly finger puppets and a bag of cheap props to make even the crabbiest audience laugh for a few minutes. Every public speaker has inevitable worries: Will they laugh at my jokes? Do they understand three-syllable words? Am I going to have explosive diarrhea?
Counting the live and televised audience, more than 10,000 people heard my commencement address at the University of Idaho. I'd like to think that I encouraged and motivated them to use their talents to achieve greatness, take risks, and live with an attitude of gratitude. In reality, the graduates were taking notes about how to hook up after the ceremonies, and the parents were planning where to get the best gin and tonics.
My most difficult speech occurred several years ago with a group of serious engineers at the corporate headquarters of Tectronix in Portland, Oregon. I could tell by their body language that they resented attending the workshop organized by the director of human resources. So I distributed finger puppets and within 20 minutes they were laughing and singing rounds with their puppets. For a brief moment in time, I helped them lighten up, reduce stress, and transfer their anxieties. I suspect many of them haven't laughed out loud since then, but for all of us the momentary reward was worth the risk.
The podium can be seductive. Here are some tips for speaking in public without puking:
1. Have a mighty message. Your audience is giving up 30 minutes of their lives to hear you speak, so don't waste their time. Know your message and believe it will make a powerful impact on them. If you don't like or endorse your talk, why should they?
2. Speak with authority. Repeat your speech out loud in front of a mirror until you're sick of it. Then revise the bullet points as you're driving to the event. Then make note of the audience and adapt as necessary. Extemporaneous comments create memorable moments that can either destroy your credibility or propel you to greatness. What could go wrong?
3. Arrive early and stay sober. Try the podium and microphone, double-check any equipment you will be using, casually meet other attendees, and find some characters and stories you can use or exploit in your speech.
4. Go to the bathroom. Trust me.
5. Anticipate problems. Electric power could go out, the Master of Ceremonies may not have your biography, some obnoxious drunks could heckle you, there's always a jerk who doesn't turn off a cellphone, babies will cry, a waiter will drop a tray of dessert, your brain could freeze, and a chubby salesman from Toledo will be winking at you from the front row. Ignore all of these distractions and continue with your excellent speech so that you triumph over the tragic turmoil.
6. Connect with your audience. The old method was to scan the room, corner to corner, during a presentation. It's more effective to make eye contact with and address separate individuals throughout the group and speak directly to them. This creates an intimate bond with the entire audience.
7. Open and close like a preacher at a tent revival meeting. Hook the audience with humorous anecdotes at the start of your talk and then close with bigger, better, and funnier stories at the end. Make them want to jump up and yell "Hallelujah! You changed my life!" That may be a stretch, but it's a good goal to visualize.
8. Volunteer to give speeches. Civic organizations and clubs need guest speakers. They may not pay anything, but you'll gain experience and name recognition. Each completed presentation boosts your self-confidence and leads to additional opportunities. The local garden club is non-threatening, unless you insult their salad. Don't do that.
Over the decades, I've given hundreds of speeches. Some were brilliant, some sucked. But never has anyone thrown rotten vegetables at me, or walked out, or hissed that my words were straight from the devil. My intent is to deliver words that enlighten, humor, and inform. I'm just a woman with a microphone and they're regular people who had to pay for a babysitter or take time off work so I better add some value for their efforts. If I do it right, the added value will be mine, also.
If you're really serious about public speaking as a career, there are online resources to study, national associations to join, and local groups such as Toastmasters. If you're comfortable with occasional appearances, have a couple of reliable talks you can give and enjoy the ride. Finally, if you're giving a speech and feel like everything is going wrong and you might vomit, pull out a bag of finger puppets. Find them in bulk quantities at any party store. This easy gimmick can engage your audience and save your reputation. Then use the leftovers for Halloween treats.