For most people, public speaking is, frankly, a terrifying ordeal. Most folk, it has been said, would rather be the guy in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy. It’s not surprising. In 2014, there can be little to compare with melting down during a talk on stage. In this age of global virtual immediacy, your moment of terror is likely to go viral within minutes. And it’s there forever.
That’s what happened on Monday to film director, Michael Bay, as he started to deliver what should have been a straightforward talk at the #CES2014 show in Las Vegas. Instead, as his teleprompter script went AWOL, the unfortunate Mr Bay, froze. As he attempted to recover (“I’ll just wing this…”) he succumbed to a panic attack and walked off stage, unable, it seems, to face down the Tiger. You have to feel for him. Most people who speak in public have been there at some point.
The Tiger is the snarling, somewhat disdainful, voice that screams in your ear: “You’re hopeless. You knew you were going to screw it up; that’s why you asked for a teleprompter. And now you’ve screwed it up anyway, just like you knew you would. You’re crashing in front of 500 people, on film and a sponsor who has paid you good money to endorse their new, world-first, product. You really need to get off stage NOW! Loser.” The Tiger is ruthless.
It’s worth watching – not in order to revel in Mr Bay’s misfortune, but because there are a ton of lessons to be taken away from this 120 seconds clip of public speaking misery:
Here are twelve principles (learnt through bitter experience) that will help avoid a Michael Bay scenario:
It’s an art!
There is an art to giving a confident talk in public, and anyone can learn how to do it. Many people will say “Not me – I could never stand up in public and give a speech; it’s just not my thing.” Well, the truth is, nobody is born a natural public speaker. Even President Obama had to learn to give great speeches. And, like any great skill, it takes plenty of time and lots of practice to get it right. You know it when you see it; whenever you watch someone give a fantastic speech without notes and seemingly effortlessly, it is 100% certain that they have put a huge amount of effort into looking that good. Any time I have felt the hot breath of the Tiger on my neck, it is almost always because I just haven’t done enough prep. The Number One lesson? You need to know your lines or you will crash and burn. A teleprompter is not a substitute for learning your stuff.
Perfection is not required
Do not worry about making your talk word-perfect. The audience has no idea what you actually planned to say. Get your point across; that will work nicely. Did you notice that for most of the time, Michael Bay looked perfectly calm even though he was in a polar vortex? He could have recovered the situation and no-one would have known what just happened in his head. Only he heard the Tiger.
Learn the Headings
Make sure you have the four or five broad headings of your talk super-clear and locked away in your mind. That way, if the plane starts to dive, you won’t go completely blank: “Great to be here” / “I work as a film director” / “I only use awesome products” / “This bendable Samsung TV is an awesome product” / “Thank you for listening, Adios.” The bread crumb headings can save your life. It helps to have links between the crumbs: “Great to be here” / “I work as a film director” / “I only use awesome AV kit” / “This bendable Samsung TV is an awesome product” / “Thank you for listening, Adios.” All you have to do is remember the line: “Great Film, Awesome AV, this Samsung, Thank you!” Each word triggers the heading you need. That’s what Mr Bay didn’t have; that’s why he went blank. Without the crumbs and the preparation, so would most people.
Think long and hard about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. This involves playing the entire talk over in your mind several times a day during the week leading up to the big day. Like an actor learning his lines, you have to go over them and over them until, for the most part, you pretty much have them down pat. But it’s not enough just to know your lines. You also have to think about your delivery. You are, after all, an actor on a stage, with expressions and emotions to convey to your audience. So, where will you stand? What will you do with your hands? What innate behavioural and verbal tics do you need to eliminate? Don’t say “Er…” between sentences. Be passionate as you speak. If you’re not enthused, the audience won’t be.Believe me, if you don’t think about this stuff in advance, there’s little chance of doing it right on the day.
You have to rehearse and rehearse. Then rehearse some more. The bigger the gig, the more you need to practice it. If you’re going to be standing on a stage in front of 500 people in Las Vegas with cameras front and centre and iPhones in every hand, you’re going to need at least four hours of hard-core practice. That means walking around your living room or kitchen delivering the speech to an imaginary vast audience. If you can persuade a friend to stand in front of you and listen, so much the better. If you can’t find a friend, address the dog. No dog? Talk to the chair. You need to rehearse in front of an audience – alive or not, doesn’t matter.
There is absolutely no doubt that the more frequently you stand up and speak in public, the easier it gets. And vice versa. That’s why you have to grab every opportunity to get up in front of people and just speak. It is one of the most difficult things to do, but there isn’t another way. Start with a small group of five or six friends, serve up some beers and coffee, and give a two minute, prepared talk on why you love tennis (or whatever you are passionate about). Then find a larger group of 12 friendly folk and do it again. When you have done it 10 times in three months, you will be astonished at how much easier the whole process has become. In fact, you’ll probably be enjoying yourself. Ask for feedback from your audience; it’s the food of champions.
The Tiger isn’t real
It is normal to hear the Tiger screaming. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked out on stage with the Tiger yelling, snarling and being generally insulting. It happened recently when I stood up to address a group of investment bankers in a hot, airless room on the 31stfloor. Following a very appreciative introduction by my host (which just made things worse) I got ready to speak. At that very moment the Tiger convinced me that I had prepared the wrong speech; that no one on the 31st floor of this grand building would be the slightest bit interested in what I had to say, and that this was going to be a very public humiliation. “You just need to apologise and walk out now!” said the nasty Tiger. Fortunately, just in time, I remembered the next point (“It’s just a TV!”).
It’s just a TV!
When you speak, the audience isn’t expecting Obama. King, or Lincoln. Don’t confuse walking on stage to endorse a television, with a speech accepting the 44th presidency of the United States; the fact is, your speech doesn’t have to go down as the greatest oratory masterpiece in history. Once you recognise this, and IF you really do know your material (no exceptions), the blood will cool and reason will resume its seat (to quote an English judge from the 19th century). Most of the fear is in the anticipation. It’s almost never as bad as you imagined it would be. Obviously, there are exceptions.
You must totally own the audience. Mr Bay allowed the audience to own him. In order to own the audience, they must believe that you are in full and total control of the room. Here are three ways in which you can own your audience; first, walk casually and deliberately around the stage as you speak. This demonstrates that you are cool, calm and collected and that youwill decide where you will position yourself. Stand still when you have a big point to make. Second, every few minutes, whilst you are speaking, maintain directeye contact with at least two or three specific people in the audience for at least four or five seconds each. This conveys a sense of utter control. Third, you should pause regularly during your presentation. As in: “There is one simple reason [1, 2, 3, 4, 5 seconds], and I shall tell you what it is.” If you look straight at someone in the audience whilst you pause, so much the better. Double coolness. Note: If you stare too long, you may come across as deeply weird – it’s a balance.
If, despite, learning your lines, thinking hard about it all in advance, rehearsing in front of the dog, walking around, pausing frequently and maintaining serious amounts of direct eye-contact, you nonetheless succumb to the Tiger’s onslaught, you should always leave yourself an escape route. Reach casually into your jacket pocket for your type-written notes and allow them to jog your memory. There is nothing wrong with pausing to glance down at a piece of paper – even during a live interview. It will almost certainly buy you the time to control the flat spin and land the plane. Do not under any circumstances, walk off the stage. It is never, ever, bad enough to warrant that. Unless the audience is throwing stuff.It’s just a panic attack
Recognize a panic attack for what it is. It’s your system going into free fall under the false belief that all is lost and a crash is imminent. This happens to everyone at some point in their speaking career. All is not lost and a crash is not imminent; you have just hit some turbulence and you will regain your poise.
Get back on the horse
If you do walk off the stage, it is imperative that you get back in the saddle as soon as possible. Do not say, as Mr Bay did in his blog the next day: “I guess live shows aren’t my thing.” Just get up there and do it again. They’ll love you for it.