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The most important thing I’ve learned about public speaking

The thing people fear more than death. Public speaking.

Think about that for a second, people say they actually fear speaking in front of a group of people more than death.

I think that’s a load of crap. If someone was faced with death or making a speech, they’d hop up on that stage so fast it would make Flash Gordon look slow. But the fact that people feel scared enough to respond in that way means something.

I saw it all through junior high, high school, and college. No matter how many years went by my classmates would stand in the front of the room shaking and stuttering. They would lose sleep over it and try to find a way out of it.

I’ve always been comfortable with public speaking, and I consider myself lucky. I grew up wanting to be a sports broadcaster and comfort with speaking to groups is a prerequisite. In high school I worked on my high school’s radio station broadcasting football and basketball games. In college I gave hour long keynote presentations to fellow students about their personal finances. Then I got into podcasting, where I’ve recorded over 50 episodes between the MoneySmartsU podcast and my personal show, The Plunge podcast.

Through these experiences, and through some of the great public speakers I’ve met, I’ve learned a bit about what makes a good presentation and what skills help make that possible.

When I interned for ExactTarget I was able to have coffee with the new CEO, Scott McCorkle. Among the topics of our conversation was public speaking, and the single most important tip he shared will stick with me for the rest of my career.

“The most important thing you can do to be a better public speaker is to master your content.”

No hedge, no exceptions. You must have a complete grasp of your material to be a great public speaker. Along the same lines, if you are a terrible public speaker mastering your content is a simple way to make strides forward.

What makes a great public speaker? Here’s just a few ideas: Storytelling, pacing of voice, inflection, conviction, reading your audience. 

If you are spending your speech worrying about remembering what to say next you can’t focus on any of the things I mentioned above. Mastering your content is the prerequisite of a decent speech.

Terrified of a speech in school or at work? The very first thing you should focus on is knowing your content front and back. It will take away so much of the stress stemming from the awkward silence when you forget the exact sentence you practiced all night because you typed out your entire speech word for word.

There is a reason great public speakers don’t write out their entire talk and read it. They know their main points, the stories they’ll tell, and the research behind it. How they get there may never be the same, but they know where they are going.

This is where public speakers like my boss become great. When you master your content you can read and react to an audience. You can change your angle or the pacing of the story.

Sports broadcasters put in a full week of work prepping for a 2-hour broadcast when they won’t use 80% of the material. Let me rephrase that, the best sports broadcasters put in a full week of work prepping.

Teachers go through years of schooling to master the subjects they’ll teach before they ever have their own class.

CEOs live and breathe their company before they ever pitch VCs or take the stage at a user conference.

It works.

Rule of thumb: When in doubt, know your stuff!

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