10 public speaking tips from actor Sharon Duce

How to own the room

When we give a presentation, we turn into animals, according to actor and public speaking coach Sharon Duce. Our bodies break into fight or flight mode, anticipating an attack. Our hearts race, our mouths go dry and our jaws tense up. We scan the room for predators. Will they come from the left or the right, through the door or the window, or burst through the leaf canopy above our heads?

“We can’t help feeling nervous when we’re in front of a crowd,” says Sharon. “As an actor, my advantage is that I know how my body’s going to react, so I can consciously help myself to relax.”

Actor and coach Sharon Duce

Here are some of the physical and psychological tips that Sharon passed on to an audience of writers this weekend at Wordstock, a day of writing inspiration organised by writers’ collective 26.

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Practise what you’re going to say out loud, even if the audience is only the bathroom mirror or kitchen table. The more you practise, the more secure you’ll feel during the presentation.
  2. Stake out your territory. Animals assess the lay of the land and mark their territory. For a speaker, this means checking out the room where you’re going to be talking and ‘occupying’ the space by placing your bag and papers around the area where you’ll be standing.
  3. Trust yourself. If you want an audience to trust what you’re saying, you have to trust yourself first. Boost your confidence by doing those practice sessions in the kitchen, and reminding yourself that this is not a life or death situation, however intense it feels right now.
  4. Breathe. Always recommended, but particularly during a presentation. Take deep breaths from your belly to calm yourself and get some oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.
  5. Slow down. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and breathe if you need to gather your thoughts. You don’t need to speed up to retain people’s attention. The opposite is true.
  6. Use a prop. Psychologically, we feel more secure when we have something to hold onto, which is why you often see speakers staying close to the lectern. Increase your comfort zone by holding a prop related to your talk.
  7. Imagine your head is a ping pong ball on a jet of water. When you tense up, your neck stiffens and adds to the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling. Do the ping pong trick and you’ll relax your muscles and your head will move more freely.
  8. Relax your jaw. A closed mouth and tight jaw are clear signs of tension. Relax your jaw and you’ll instantly feel calmer.
  9. Wear flat shoes. When your feet are flat on the floor, you feel more grounded.
  10. Stand squarely on both feet. Don’t lean on one foot; distribute your weight evenly over both feet. It’s harder to push someone over if they’re standing squarely, so this stance will make you feel more powerful.

Sharon’s feet: firmly grounded, of course

And if you want to tap into some more presentation tricks, read my Guardian article on How to do hypnotic presentations.

Glitter, goals and getting ahead in business

Here’s some advice for entrepreneurs that you probably won’t read in the Harvard Business Review. You have to know when to hit yourself on the head with a rolled-up newspaper.

More of that later. But first, here’s what people said when I asked them for their best business tips.

Have a big hairy goal and beware of glitter

“Futerra, the sustainability communications company, advocate having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal goal’ in their Santa Sustainability Report,” says Jenny Searle of Jenny Searle Associates. “I love this idea, and their Rules of the Game are well worth a read too.”

Jenny also mentions the perils of being distracted by shiny things. “When I was at college Graham Clarke, the etcher and engraver, told me to ‘reject 90% of what comes your way in life’. In today’s multi-information world this sounds a bit unfeasible, but I think he was right. It’s easy to lap up too much and drown with a gurgle as your hand reaches up trying to click on another link….or even back in the 80s to be influenced by too many glittery things at the expense of the one pure goal.”

Know when to go… and stop

“Generally, I’d say ‘You reap what you sow’ and ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’”, says Fred Rutter of Spring Communications. “But on indecisive afternoons, I follow Mark McCormack’s advice – ‘If in doubt, delay!’”

A positive attitude draws in new business

“With 25 years of working for clients in the management education and consultancy sector, I’ve read more business advice than any entrepreneur has the right to receive,” says Victoria Jebens of Jebens Design.

The two best bits of advice she’s received are:

  • Don’t fret about starting a new business in a recession – it’s often a great time to start.
  • Don’t be afraid to expand. For a micro business, taking on those first one or two extra team members seems like a huge step, but you won’t regret it.

And the advice she’d give is:

  • Success breeds success – it’s remarkable how much new business a positive attitude brings in.
  • Always give your clients solutions not problems. Don’t explain to a client why something won’t work – give them something that will.

Be useful and know your value

The first, succinct piece of advice from Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting is: “Be useful.”

His second piece of advice could be summarised as ‘Know the value of your experience’.

Andrew tells the story: “A man retires from a factory where for many  years he has looked after the big machine that runs the production line. After a few months the machine stops working and, having exhausted all other avenues, his old boss rings him to ask if he would care to do some consultancy to fix it. He looks at the machine for 10 minutes, scratches his head, walks around again and then carefully places a cross on the machine with a marker pen. ‘Look there – that’ll be the problem.’ Sure enough, they find the problem in that precise spot and fix it; and the factory returns to making money again. Then his bill arrives and his old boss rings him up in a lather. ‘What’s this bill for £10,000? All you did was walk around and mark a cross on the machine – the least you can do is give us a breakdown of the costs.’ The man obliges with a revised invoice – ‘For marking the machine with a cross: £10. For knowing where to put it: £9,990.’”

Read the ‘E-Myth’ book

For Madelyn Postman of Grain Creative, the best business tip she’s ever received was to read ‘The E-Myth Revisited – Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it’ by Michael E Gerber. “This led to me signing up for a year of coaching from them – a real game-changer,” says Madelyn.

Buy time in presentations

Mark Johnson, the manwith3heads, shares this advice about presentations.“The ideal is to get beyond any sense of acting and performing. Just be yourself.  My aim is to try to talk to people as if it were a relaxed conversation rather than a presentation.”

But what if you get that heart-stopping moment when your mouth dries up and you completely forget the subject or why you’re even there?

“If you’re in doubt – as in, it’s not going well in your head – read the slide out slowly,” says Mark. “Then ask: ‘Has anyone got any questions or comments?’ It will calm you down and buy you some time.”

Don’t wait for opportunity to knock

Helen Fisher of Fisher Consulting advises: “You don’t get new work by staying in the office. Get out and about.”

Slam a newspaper on a table

And finally, the newspaper tactic. This comes from Choiyen Leung, who draws on many years’ experience of working in London design firms. “My tip comes from someone I used to work with – Simon Carter.  Immediately before making a difficult business call, he recommended getting a rolled up newspaper, slamming it on the table three times in quick succession, then doing the same to your head even harder. Then call your client.  I don’t know if it worked, but I liked doing it!”

Watch your eyes

The last word comes from Simon Carter of One Three Four Ltd. “When you’re slapping a newspaper against your head, mind you don’t poke yourself in the eye. It’s hard to concentrate on a client phone call through a veil of tears.”

Fiona Thompson, Wordspring