You’re asked to speak at an important event. It’s an incredible opportunity. You should be thrilled, but because you rarely speak in a formal setting, all you can think about is bombing.
The ability to captivate an audience is a skill that takes years to develop. If you don’t have that kind of time, here are five unconventional ways to become a better speaker almost overnight:
1. Find one thing no one knows.
I have never heard someone say: “I was at this presentation the other day. The speaker’s Gantt chart was amazing.”
I have heard someone say: “I was at this presentation the other day. Did you know when you blush the lining of your stomach also turns red?”
Find a surprising fact or an unusual analogy that relates to your topic. Audiences love to cock their heads and think, “Really? I had no idea…”
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2. Share a genuinely emotional story.
Many speakers tell self-deprecating stories. Many go further, detailing their personal Tom Cruise “talk to me Goose” moment (1:45, NSFW) when all their bad decisions missteps and poorly timed flybys over an Admiral’s daughter finally came to a head… and they turned a corner and became the amazing person they are today.
Admitting a mistake is great, but not when used just to highlight how great you are now.
Instead tell a story (directly related to your topic), and let your emotions show. If you were sad, show it. If you cried, say so. If you felt remorse, show remorse.
When you share real feelings — which even the most inexperienced speaker can do — you create an immediate and lasting connection with your audience.
Genuine emotion trumps polish every time.
3. Pause for eight to 10 seconds.
There’s a weird phenomenon that occurs when you stop talking. Pause for two or three seconds, and the audience will assume you lost your place. Pause for five seconds, and the audience begins to think the pause is intentional — and starts wondering why.
Pause for 10 seconds and even the people who were busy tweeting can’t resist glancing up.
When you resume speaking the audience naturally (1) assumes the pause was intentional and (2) decides you are in fact a confident and accomplished speaker. Like nature, a poor speaker abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it, and only confident speakers — like you — feel secure in silence.
It will feel awkward the first time, but take one long pause, and the audience will instinctively award you bonus points.
4. Admit you don’t know everything.
Speakers ask questions to engage the audience, but that technique is often forced and tends to work about as well as this.
Instead ask a question you know the audience can’t answer and then say,” That’s OK. I can’t either.” Explain why you can’t — and then talk about what you do know.
Most speakers have all the answers; the fact that you don’t-and are willing to admit you don’t-not only humanizes you, it also makes the audience pay greater attention to what you do know.
5. Ditch the sales pitch.
Most businesspeople assume they should capitalize on a speaking engagement to try to promote a product or service, win new clients, and build a wider network.
Don’t do it. Thinking in terms of sales positioning only adds pressure to an already stressful situation.
Weed out the subtle and not-so-subtle sales stuff, and focus instead on ensuring that the audience benefits from what you say.
Don’t worry that you’ll miss an opportunity. When you help people make their professional or personal lives better, you’ve done all the selling you ever have to do.
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.