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UMGC Career Connection
Five ways to improve your presentation skills

Jennifer Tomasovic
By Jennifer Tomasovic

Are you afraid of public speaking? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. A recent study found that more than 26 percent of Americans share that same fear—which adds up to more than 80 million people.

Bianca J. Jackson ’10 has a lot of experience conquering this common fear head-on. As a public speaker, workshop facilitator, trainer and coach with Jax Digital LLC, her career depends upon her ability to engage a room in what she has to say. She believes it’s an important skill for any professional to have, whether they’re presenting to a small group or delivering a message to hundreds of audience members.

“You want people to be able to buy into your ideas,” she explains. Here are five tips to help the speaking-averse do just that.

1.    Speak from your heart

Jackson’s first piece of advice is perhaps the simplest: speak from your heart. When you do this, “The audience will think about your message and not your body language,” she insists. “It helps you connect with people on a human and emotional level, which makes [speaking] easier to do.”

2.    Use an outline—not a script

While some people labor over scripting their every word for a presentation or speech, Jackson cautions against it. The trouble with writing out the entire script, she learned early in her speaking career, is that it can make you sound robotic.

Instead, she prefers to outline the key points she’d like to make, which enables her to connect with attendees with her eyes instead of looking down at a paper. When she began taking this approach at her speaking engagements, she noticed a big difference in how she was reaching her audience.

“That’s when the tide changed for me,” she notes. “People started coming up to me afterwards to tell me ‘You were wonderful—it was like you were speaking to me.’”

3.    Conquer your nerves

Just because you’re nervous doesn’t mean your audience has to know it. Jackson, who still gets stage fright sometimes, has learned a few tricks along the way for keeping her nerves in check.

First, she likes to visit the speaking venue in advance to see if there is space to move around the room among the audience members, something that sets her at ease. You can also find her in front of a mirror with her hands on her hips in the superman pose before a big speaking engagement.

“I look at myself like I am powerful and strong,” she says. That sense of being in control carries through when she gets behind the podium.

4.    Bomb a speech? Learn from it.

Who hasn’t gotten in front of a room only to stutter, forget what they were going to say or not connect with the audience? Jackson remembers one such dud of a speech where her words fell flat on a room full of sleepy meeting attendees.

Instead of feeling defeated, she took the opportunity to fine-tune her approach. First, she decided she would do her best to avoid speaking to a group in the late afternoon—the time when people are feeling tired from the day and thinking about their evenings.

When she has to present later in the day, she has a trick for waking up the audience. “Now I bring candy,” she laughs. “I throw candy out into the crowd to reward participation, it perks up the audience.”

She also makes a lot of noise and creates opportunities for audience members to participate with her and with each other. “It really gets the human connection going,” she says.

5.    Find opportunities to practice

You’ve heard it before: practice makes perfect. “Actively seek opportunities where you can speak so you can hone your skills,” Jackson insists.

The purpose of this exercise—besides getting used to speaking in front of a crowd—is to find your own personal style. When you speak frequently, you learn what level of preparation you need to make, you learn how to control your own nerves and you learn how to organize your messaging. You also discover which approach engages the audience the most, whether it’s using humor, storytelling or some other device that comes naturally to you.

“Practice, practice, practice, but have real sessions so you can put your skills to the test,” she adds.

When many of your colleagues fall into the afraid-of-public-speaking bucket, having this skill will help give you the edge in your professional life.

“It literally helps you stands out,” sums up Jackson. “It’s a great marketing took for you.”