Mastering public speaking

We caught up with our own Pia Stockfleth Sharma to find out about her experience of speaking to large audiences. 

Q. Did you see yourself speaking to large audiences? 

No! I had a bit of a phobia about public speaking. The largest audience I have now delivered to is around 400 people.

Q. What was your fear?

My biggest fear was I would forget what I was going to say. There is a moment when I would be looking out at the audience and then I would go blank. You have so many eyes on you and you just don’t know how you are going to react in that situation!

My fear stems from when I was quite young. Standing in front of groups of people made me feel very uncomfortable when all eyes were on me. It has taken me a very long time to shake. That fear is still there but now I know what I can do and change it in the moment. I can still get nervous, that’s only natural, but I know what to do physically to control my nerves and that’s very valuable.

Q. How did you feel the first time you delivered to a large audience?

I felt the adrenaline just before going up there. There was a lot of pressure. After the first minute I relaxed a bit. I didn’t freeze and I started to enjoy myself a bit on stage. I enjoyed my interaction with the audience and I found I was forgetting that voice of concern in my head, which was great!

Q. What skills have you learnt?

One of the main things I have learnt and worked with is that you don’t shape how you feel. As soon as I step on stage I know exactly how to stand.  I know how to use my gestures to have an impactful opening and have energy.  I know how to use my voice and how to direct my eye contact so that I can immediately engage with the audience and I have a dialogue with them. You have to make it personable. You have to work outside in – it’s not how you feel – and it works! It’s also about ensuring you don’t let that old version of yourself come back in.

Q. What do you find most impactful?

I think it’s the energy – because you work so hard physically and you feel very empowered. You feel a buzz.  Once you have a rapport with the audience is a two-way dialogue and it’s fun. Rapport with the audience is one of the hardest things to learn and I could still do better. When you are speaking to a large audience it’s easy to come across as too powerful because you want to control your own nerves. Then you don’t have a rapport with the audience. So it’s finding a balance in connecting with the audience in a personal human way whilst you still are delivering from a stage. It’s not so easy to apply! It’s about holding eye contact and slowing right down.

Q. How do you know you have built a rapport with the audience?

I recently delivered to a large multinational finance company – I asked the audience questions and I got feedback and responses ( not just ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers) from the back and across the room. That meant that the engagement was there from the beginning.  You then have a dialogue with the audience.

Q. What are your tips for the content of presentations to large audiences?

Find an easy way to demonstrate how things work. It’s about keeping it simple, making sure that you grab people’s attention, describing your main points in an interesting way. Most delivery has too much content and too much detail and people get lost. It has to be simple, have powerful key points and clear takeaways to think about.

Q. What reactions have you had to your presentations?

People have said they can immediately see the practicality of what we do – I’m pleased that I can achieve that in a short space of time. You can see people smiling, laughing and that they are engaged. I get people on their feet. They are not sitting for the whole session and that’s energizing.
People have said they have come out feeling empowered. ‘Energetic, positive and personable’ – I felt very happy about that feedback.

Q. Any further tips?

What I’ve learnt is that you need a process for how you prepare. You need to practice a lot! You then have to be prepared to adapt when you are in the moment. You can only do that when you know exactly what you want to do and say. Public speaking is definitely a skill-based thing!

Q. How you feel about delivering to large audiences now?

It’s an adrenaline boost and afterward, I feel quite tired, but it’s worth it.
I don’t think it will be my most favorite thing in the world, but I know I can do it and I can do it well – that’s a big achievement for me.

Pia Stockfleth Sharma is amongst other things a behavioral change facilitator and public speaker.