12 unspoken rules of successful public speaking

We hear time and again: Don’t read your slides verbatim, make eye contact, and so on. Here are a dozen important presentation guidelines that tend to fly under the radar.

People like me give out a lot of advice about public speaking—how to create great speeches, how to deliver them and how to build a professional speaking career.

All that is important, but there fundamental speaking lessons that tend not to be shared. In my effort to kick off 2016 powerfully for speakers everywhere, here are the unwritten public speaking rules you need for long-term happiness and success.

1. Always tell the truth. You’re not going to know everything, so don’t be afraid to embrace your limitations. If you don’t know, own up to it, and don’t worry.

2. Crush your topic. You’re not going to know everything, but it’s your job to know as much as you can. If you’re a speaker on carved gold rabbits, then you need to know as much as humanly possible about those rabbits. Read up.

3. By the end of the hour, you should be talking love. You get attention by identifying a problem and playing it up. Look at the current American presidential candidates; you’d be pardoned for thinking that Armageddon was around the corner if you took them seriously. By the end of the talk, you should be covering what it is that you love and what’s working in your world. Long-term careers are based on positive trajectories, not negative ones. RELATED: Join speechwriters for three U.S. presidents in our executive comms and speechwriters conference in Washington, D.C.

4. You put your ideas out there; you can’t control what the audience does with them. It’s your job to present your case with passion. The audience has its own issues, and you have no control over the extent to which they take up your ideas or not. Success is making your case, not in getting the most votes—or even a standing ovation.

5. Keep it fresh. I once worked with a speaker who had been giving the same speech for 16 years—even making the same jokes. That’s not public speaking, that’s purgatory. It’s your job to keep renewing your talk with the latest developments in your field and with new approaches.

6. Keep practicing. Public speaking is not perfection; it’s connection. That means you must keep working on your game in order to make the connection stronger, always. Always be rehearsing.

7. It won’t go the way you expect. Military people say a strategy never survives the first shot. In the same way, a speech is always a contingency effort. Things will go wrong, or at least differently. You have to be prepared to change on the fly. Every time.

8. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Try to spend as little time as possible after your presentation wishing that you had said or done something differently. Of course you should study and learn from your mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up. That won’t do anything for you except give you scar tissue.

9. Focus on the parts you love. Don’t do something—especially for the long term—because someone else tells you it’s the right thing to do. Do it because it matters to you.

10. You don’t always have to have a brilliant plan. It will look to you at times as though everyone else is doing better, making smarter decisions, getting paid more or getting better speaking venues. Don’t fall victim to Facebook Envy. Just keep tending your own garden. That’s your job.

11. Success is where you find it. If you let other people define your success, you’re always going to be chasing something you can’t catch. Your fans will be out there—if you’re working hard and presenting with passion. So open yourself up to the good things that are happening, not what you think is necessary for your success before you’ve begun the game.

12. Most successful people are successful because they work harder and stay longer than the others. Over and over again, I’ve seen professional speaking success go to the people that outwork everyone else. It’s not a game for the hobbyist. It’s why speakers actually earn those apparently outrageous hourly speaking fees—it’s not just an hour. There are many, many hours involved in getting to that podium.

Here’s wishing you all the success you deserve in 2016.

A version of this post first appeared on PublicWords.

(Image  by Håkan Dahlström, via)


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