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A woman speaks at a podium. (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)
A woman speaks at a podium. (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)

Career tips

Own the podium with tips from a public speaking pro Add to ...

Some people are just born for the stage. The rest of us are more comfortable hiding behind the curtain. At some point in our careers, however, we’re likely to be asked to speak in public, and it’s essential to be able to communicate with confidence when we’re thrust into the spotlight.

Anyone can deliver an engaging speech if they have conviction, Cathleen Fillmore, president of Speakers Gold, said in an interview.

“You can’t be inauthentic because people will know,” said Ms. Fillmore, who promotes professional speakers through her Toronto-based agency. “You can’t be overly scripted, and you just really have to have the power of conviction of your message.”

Although she is “super shy” herself, Ms. Fillmore recounted how she first overcame her fear by speaking publicly at her mother’s funeral in 1985. “I forgot my shyness. It was the power of conviction in that message. I needed to tell people what she was really like,” she recalled. “When the message is more important than you are, then you lose your self-consciousness, which is what stage fright is about.”

In the mid-1980s, she began speaking to church groups and, through work she was doing at a Toronto Spanish centre, spoke to immigrant groups at local coffee houses. By doing small, unpaid speaking engagements, she was able to work on her skills and build up her confidence before audiences she felt comfortable with.

For those seeking to improve their public speaking and communication skills, Ms. Fillmore suggests the following strategies:

Be vulnerable.

If you’re perfect on the platform, people won’t like you, Ms. Fillmore said. Being vulnerable, acknowledging your mistakes and flaws, makes you human and someone your audience can relate to. Being able to show your weakness is a great strength and the audience will appreciate it. So don’t act like you are the expert.

Be conversational

Don’t speak in academic terms or use abstract concepts. The audience will be more attentive if you use metaphors to illustrate your points. Write your speech for the spoken word. No one will have the chance to reread an important line, so consider saying the same thing in a couple of different ways.

Dump the formalities

Your opening lines should captivate the audience, so instead of starting off with what an honour it is to be there, go right into your story. Check out some of the best speeches on YouTube and note what it is that holds your attention. Where do they begin to lose you? Use what you learn to craft your speech.

Be vocal

Don’t yell or get screechy or bellow at your audience, but do modulate your voice so it’s strong when appropriate or quiet for balance. Quiet can be captivating, Ms. Fillmore said.

Dress appropriately

You don’t want anything to distract from the power of your message, so don’t wear anything flashy. Look good, not startling.

Keep it simple

Power Point is great for cartoons or to illustrate a point, but the attention should be on the speaker, not the screen. Don’t rely on technology to wow your audience.

Know your audience

Customize your speech. If you’re addressing an association, do your homework and understand what the group’s interests and objectives are.

Practise, practise, practise

The best way to get over stage fright is to get on the stage. Find an audience you feel comfortable with, such as a local school, church or rotary club, and start honing your speaking skills.

Most importantly, be yourself. The worst mistake public speakers make is to be too scripted and choreographed, Ms. Fillmore said. “They think it’s about them, and it’s really about the value they bring.”

Dianne Nice is the online editor for GlobeCareers.com. Send your expert tips to dnice@globeandmail.com.

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Follow on Twitter: @diannenice

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