I'm going to talk about how to speak to an audience despite the fact that I'm not naturally great with speaking in public. My mouth goes dry, my knees tremble. I am a creature of working alone at home, of silence and introversion. When in a group I speak the least, and in parties I retire early. I hate crowds and don't like being the center of attention.
When I finished high school I was the one who had to hold a mini-speech of thanks to all the professors who taught us.
As an undergraduate I took classes in education studies and eventually had to teach others.
As a student I had to go through oral exams and had to hold presentations.
This autumn I will hold a conference in front of a number of people who have been doing what they've been doing much longer than I've been doing it.
None of this was a joy. I hated every exam and every presentation and I trembled for hours before and after teaching. But I did it. And not only did I do it, sometimes I aced it. It's because of this that I'm writing now.
Point 0: Know your subject.
This one sounds kind of obvious, no? Incidentally, it's also the one that's the most easy to screw up. Trust me, I've been there. I've had to talk about some articles I'd read during classes I didn't care much about, I've had to talk about topics I didn't want to talk about. And I didn't know my subject, so I messed up. It's so much easier to forget things in the spur of the moment when you don't really, really know them.
Well, there's nothing wrong with screwing up a presentation for a class. You get a bad mark and you move on. Or you manage to apply the points I'll explain later and get a somewhat higher grade that you'll know you don't really deserve, and then you move on.
But if you need to be successful and it's not just a random-class-you-don't-care-about situation, you need more.
Know your subject - not just what you're going to say, but also a lot of the things you're not going to say. Know details. Try to fit everything in a bigger picture in your mind. Let's say you have to talk about the Wife of Bath's Tale from Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales". You read it, you know it's about this knight who rapes a girl and is sentenced to find out what women really want and travels far and wide to discover the answer. Good. Now go google and see if you really got the point of the story - that women most want sovereignty over their husbands. And that the knight has the chance to apply that knowledge.
But it's better to know a bit more about Chaucer to be able to comment. He lived in the 14th century and wrote in Middle English. The characters in the Canterbury Tales all have their own way of speaking and seeing life. He mostly took the stories from other places, which was a common practice at the time. He was a diplomat and got to travel a lot. About the story, Wiki can tell you a few things. Check out Sparknotes. The more you know, the more you can connect things and the more choices you have of taking an alternate route in your speech if you happen to forget a point. Also, if questions arise, you'll have something to draw upon.
Point 1: Think of the time.
Now, this is a problem for most of the people I have heard hold presentations/speeches/whatever. They're told they have x minutes and they just don't hold to that, usually needing more. In fact, many of my classes in high school were messed up because teachers simply couldn't get to the end of the lesson before the end of the class.
The way to arrange this is the following:
a. Ask how much time you have.
b. Do not assume you will be granted more time if you need it.
c. Organize what you want to say by points. Have Absolute Importance points, Important points, Relevant points and Minor points. Also have a Nondescript Point of Wasting Time.
d. During speaking it's good if you can keep an eye on the clock to verify how fast/slow you're going and include/exclude points depending on importance.
e. Do not have a single narrative in your head that must go from beginning to end unless you have to recite a poem.
Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. It will save you each and every time.
When I had to teach for the first time I had 12th graders under my command. English as a second language. I had been told that exercises tend to last longer than expected, so I planned to give them homework if we couldn't do all. But what if, instead of exercises lasting too long, I'd end up having to fill extra minutes at the end of a class?...
Teachers will generally tell you that This Does Not Happen. Well, in my case it did. I have no idea how come the class got so interested, but they rushed through multiple-choice and fill-in-the-gaps faster than a bunch of ravenous piranha through a bleeding goat. Luckily, paranoia serves. The lesson was about phrasal verbs and I told them that since we had an extra few minutes, why not waste time with this cool thing I've just thought about - composing a story in which every sentence had a phrasal verb. Who can think up of one is next. I started with something along the lines of 'Susan woke up at 7 AM.' And then the class got excited and ate the minutes until the break with putting Susan through various tortures.
I claimed in front of them that I'd just thought up the game. I'd actually made it up the previous day. Lesson learned: always have something prepared. If your audience is made of pupils, throw them a game where they're allowed relative freedom. If they're scholars, pick a detail and digress. If they're teachers and you're trying to prove you're an awesome student, drop in some cool things about yourself or some random obscure knowledge thing you accidentally ran into.
But most people will go on for too long, not for too little. So make a list of Absolutely Necessary Points and be ready to revert to that if you notice time slipping through your fingers. Is that joke you had prepared really important? If not, drop it. If you don't have a lot of time, don't invite the audience to a discussion, that eats minutes like nothing else. Have a light structure and be ready to add/remove from it as necessary.
Point 2: Rehearse.
You're probably imagining that here I'll try to tell you to stand in front of a mirror and go through the whole thing once. No. That's boring and depressing because you'll always notice yourself doing something wrong. Instead, while doing the dishes or vacuuming or playing solitaire or some other non-challenging activity, just go ahead and picture yourself talking about the subject. And observe yourself while you're doing that. If something looks wrong, find a way around it. If you suddenly can't remember a detail, go and find it.
You don't even need to go through the entire speech. Simply pick up a part and go with it. My MA dissertation is going to be on fanfiction. My inner speeches are much, much longer than I'll be allowed to talk, but they go something like this:
"There is a general bias against fanfiction - I have heard it referred to as theft, as 'rape' of the original story, as unoriginal pseudo-literature that simply draws on other things and is valueless from the point of view of quality, but one should remember that Shakespeare and Chaucer, for example, also took their stories from other sources and wrote about characters not of their own creation. The anxiety about originality comes, as we know, from Romanticism. Also, when discussing its quality, one only has to look around to realize that literature, by and large, is not by definition of high quality - a limited number of works are quality and this happens to be the case for fanfiction as well..."
Now, I could easily think 'mention biases against fanfics, then bring up oldies but goodies. Mention Romanticism and then compare fanfics with published stuff'.
But that would be a bad idea. Why?... Because when I'll actually talk about fanfics I won't be able to summarize things nicely for my audience. I'll have to actually speak it. If I hold the speech inside my head I'll need to get used to saying things the long way. I'll stutter at first and get frustrated by how bad it sounds and how I can't put this or that nicely, but just by thinking about it and coming up with a solution I'll improve my performance when I actually have to speak.
The best part, however, is that it offers you something to draw upon when you suddenly lose yourself. The more you practice a thing, the more likely you are to be able to do it during a crisis. You will remember all the rehearsal you did and draw on that by sheer reflex.
Also, rehearsal gives you an idea about how much it takes to say certain things.
Point 3: Radiate confidence.
Yeah, I'm not very confident either. Usually I just want to crawl under a rock. But this is not about being confident, but radiating confidence. Which is easier to do once you know a few tricks.
Keep your back straight, chest pushed forward, shoulders drawn back. This will make you raise your chin and will make your voice stronger. It will give you an appearance of strength, whereas a curved back and looking down will make you look smaller, subdued and uncertain.
Here, you can check it out:
-stay in your usual position and say 'however, I think the author is wrong to say this'. (nicely-sounding phrase).
-back straight, chest forward, shoulders back, let the chin go up and say 'however, I think the author is wrong to say this'.
Is there a difference?... For me there is. You can also try leaning a bit forward if you feel as if you had a carrot stuck up where the sun don't shine, which is what I feel like sometimes. It makes me feel a bit more dynamic, maybe it'll do the same for you.
Next thing to do is to speak a bit more loudly than you usually would - don't strain, just say things as if you were on a stage and were Making a Stand. Does that make sense?... If not, picture yourself as a noble lady/gentleman of high breeding faced with a bunch of guards telling you that you need to give up your castle because the cleaning lady said so and they think that she has a point, but then they could easily be persuaded otherwise once you tell them that that's not how the world works. Tell them, "I don't think so." Do you feel the certainty? The naturalness of the response? The way you'd impose yourself?... Hold on to that.
Then, look your audience in the eye. You don't actually have to see their eye, but you have to look in that general direction. I have no idea how my exam committee when I presented my BA dissertation looked like, I was too busy Not Screwing Up. But I looked each and every one of them in the eye, I made sure of that. Why is this necessary? Because it makes you look certain of yourself, honest, in control and gets across the fact that you are an equal in some way, shape or form. And guess what, one of my professors said afterwards that I was great. Switch from person to person, hold their eye a bit, nod, smile.
Which brings me to the final point: if possible, smile. Smiles are a general way of saying 'I am comfy and relaxed and know what I'm doing'. Smiles can also make you feel better about yourself. Alternately, however, if you don't feel like smiling or the subject isn't good for smiling (like, say, you have to do a class presentation on post traumatic stress disorder), don't.
Point 4: What not to do.
1. Mumble. Dooooooon't mumble. There's nothing that says 'I'm a student who doesn't really know this stuff and just want out' like mumbling.
2. Shuffle your feet, plead the audience to let you get away with it or do other 'me-pupil, you-authority' things. Unless you're in school and have professors who don't value independence and self-respect in students, this will generally put you in an unflattering light. Do not show them that they're in charge of you! Do not roll back and show your belly to explain that they're in charge of you! You are in charge of the situation. You may not know much, but you definitely know what you're talking about here!
2. Go over the allotted time limit. In 10% of the cases people will want you to go on because what you say is interesting. In the rest of 90% of the cases people will want to shoot you because you're imposing on their time. Most of those involved in the 90% of the cases believe that they're in 10% of the cases. So don't assume you're in one of those 10% of cases because chances are, you're wrong.
3. Offer too many ancedotes/jokes. Yes, they can really spice up a story. Have too many, however, and you get lost between them and never make your point. When you say something, make sure it's directly connected to the main point you're trying to make, or that it forwards the ideas somehow.
4. Start a debate unless you're ready for it. Debates can fail spectacularly in two ways: nobody wants to talk; or everybody wants to talk. If nobody wants to talk, you have to be ready to say something so inflammatory, so unacceptable that somebody will have to answer (yes, I'm saying trolling the beginning of a debate is fine). If everybody wants to talk, you'll have to control the situation. I've seen professors break down because their class went wild. I've also been involved in a case, recently, when one student accidentally-on-purpose started a debate that went up in flames and the professor in charge of the class wouldn't delegate the authority necessary to lead the debate in the right direction. It was bad. So if you aren't sure if you can control the audience, don't get it on fire.
5. Treat the audience like specialists. Unless, well, they are. If you can choose between a fancy term and a common word, choose the common word. If you have a detail that people may or may not be aware of, explain it. Make it accessible. Think about what your audience needs, information-wise, and give it to them.
6. Conversely, treat the audience like idiots. Again, classroom example: one of my teachers went around asking for our names and commenting on how pretty they were - during an undergraduate class in education studies when we were well on our way to becoming professors ourselves. Another classroom example: having the internet explained to us just a few weeks ago. As before, think about your audience. Who are they? What are they likely to know/not know? What sort of people may they be? If you were them, what would strike you as complicated/patronizing?
Know your stuff. Think it through. Plan ahead, come up with a flexible structure. Practice actually saying things to yourself. Think of your audience and what they're likely to know/not know/be like. Think of them as equal to you (as human beings, not as knowledge on subjects). Sit straight, talk clearly and loudly and look your audience in the eye.
If you know what you're saying and you've rehearsed it a little and pay some attention to your posture things are bound to go quite well.
Cheers and good luck!