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Say what?

Say what?

When it comes to public speaking, some of us have the knack for it. Others don’t.

Unfortunately, in the business world, we all get called to task at some point. The good news is that professional speakers insist that all of us — ok, most of us — can get better at it. The bad part is that improvement takes practice.

Public speaking expert Cathy Atkins, owner of Savant Business Development Systems, the Sandler Sales Training franchise in Columbia, has plenty of pointers. Through her work, Atkins travels across the United States presenting sales, management and motivational seminars to audiences, often up to four to five times per week.

With more than 20 years of experience, Atkins has refined her public speaking skills. But she’ll be the first to tell you, it wasn’t always that way. Confidence comes through experience, she says.

Here are Atkins’ 10 tips for offering a poised presentation the next time you step up to a microphone.

Get ready, get set

Atkins says her most important advice is to be prepared. Nearly all podium anxiety comes from lack of preparation. It can really make or break you. “Still to this day, as much as I do it, if I’m not prepared, I will get nervous,” she says. “The first thing I do is write all my thoughts out on paper, not worrying about too much — just getting them out.

“Then I begin to read them over and over, until I don’t have to look at the paper anymore. Once I’m able to talk about the subject without looking at anything, I know I’m off to a good start.”

Begin at the end

Atkins always begins by thinking about the end result. She selects the one subject or idea that she wants her audience to think about differently when they leave, then she builds her presentation backwards from there.

As you build your presentation from end to beginning, keep these questions in mind: How do I get there? What’s important to know? What are the important points?

Look for the bright spots

Atkins says someone a long time ago told her to put notes on half pages. So after she has written out her thoughts, she moves them to half pages. “On several occasions, I’ve seen people staple piles of pages together, and what happens is they get lost in their own mess,” she says.

A short stack of brief, highlighted notes can be a great tool to keep you on course. “For subjects I’m familiar with, I might just make a bulleted point,” Atkins says. “For subjects I’m unfamiliar with, I write a little more. Using a yellow highlighter, I mark the main points so that I don’t lose my place.”

Make it memorable

One rule that Atkins always stands by is to have specific points she’s trying to make; but then she tries to find a story to go with those. People remember stories, so when you can use one that applies, you become 10 times more effective as a speaker. Personal stories are even better because they humanize you in front of the audience. People like that.

Apologies aren’t necessary

Remember, most audiences are very forgiving. They actually want you to do well, Atkins says, and there’s no reason to apologize for losing your place or having an awkward moment. In fact, too much apology is weirder than pausing, finding your thoughts and continuing with the discussion.

Practice makes perfect (or it helps, anyway)

Public speaking is like any other skill. The more you do it, the better you get. “I’ve always loved getting in front of an audience, but I’m definitely better than I used to be,” Atkins says. “Like anything else, we learn from our mistakes and repetition builds confidence.”

Trust thyself

In coming up with these tips, Atkins says she just kept thinking to herself “trust yourself.” Prepping, of course, makes all the difference in giving a successful presentation; but trusting yourself is also huge. Trust what you know. Trust what you’re saying. Trust yourself as a human being.

“People sometimes feel they need to put on a show, but most times that’s not necessary,” Atkins says. “Just be yourself — your audience will appreciate it.”

Find a friend

It’s an old trick, and there’s a reason for that. If anxiety is a problem, find one or two people in the audience and make them your focal point. Many times, people fear groups, but for some reason focusing on one or two people can narrow the crowd and have a calming effect.

“At times when I was especially nervous, I took a friend with me,” Atkins says. “She would sit in the audience and smile and shake her head at the appropriate times as if I had said the most intelligent, meaningful thing she had ever heard — and as a speaker, I was able to feed off of her. To say thank you, I would buy her dinner, so she got free meals out of the deal, and I got a boost in confidence.”

This isn’t stand-up comedy

Even for people who think of themselves as funny, public speaking isn’t always the best platform for attempting humor. And having a joke fail is bad for everybody — the audience included. For those who want to attempt jokes, Atkins advises checking your material with others beforehand and make sure it’s applicable.

Be your own mom

Make sure you’re dressed appropriately. That seems silly, Atkins says, but it can do a lot to improve confidence.

Before taking the podium, it’s best to stay away from cold beverages beforehand. Atkins says she also avoids milk and other dairy products, as they can sometimes leave your mouth gummy or trigger coughing. She also prefers to not to eat one or two hours beforehand. And, of course, make sure you’ve gone to the restroom. Seems obvious, but if you don’t do it, you’ll have a long hour or two ahead.

Atkins writes the Thinking Smart column for the Columbia Business Times. To reach Atkins or to find out more about Sandler Training, call 573-445-7694 or visit

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