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Speaking of Art: How to Wow an Audience

Growing up, I absolutely hated public speaking. I dreaded the thought of standing up in front of a crowd, no matter how small. Years later, though, when I was the editor of several different art magazines, it wasn’t unusual for me to be asked to speak to audiences in the hundreds. And I loved it. Actually, I learned to love it so much that I continue to seek out opportunities to speak to groups even now. What caused the turnaround? I had the good fortune to attend a Dale Carnegie course, where I discovered some incredibly useful advice that completely shifted my perspective.

From time to time, you may be invited to give a speech or presentation about yourself and your artwork, and I’d like to see you have the same great experience I now have whenever I get to speak. I want you to feel confident and actually enjoy it! The more fun you have with your speeches, the more your listeners will pay attention and remember you. So, that’s why I’m sharing my best tips on public speaking this week.

The Prep

  • Don’t ever try to wing it. Failing to prepare well in advance is a recipe for disaster, so write and practice your presentation—with your visual aids—many times.
  • Memorize the gist of your speech, not the speech itself. We’ve all witnessed presentations where the speaker read from his note cards or delivered a canned speech. Borrrrring! But if you practice enough, you’ll get to the point where you’ll be able to look at the audience, speak confidently, and only need to reference your outline occasionally. Much better!
  • Get feedback in advance. Enlist your friends and family to listen to your presentation and offer constructive criticism. If you’re not comfortable with that, you could always videotape yourself and do your own critique.
  • Check your time. During several practice runs where you’re actually speaking out loud with your visual aids, time yourself to make sure your speech is just a little shorter than the time allotted since you’ll probably field a few questions during or after your presentation. This will help you avoid running long, which always gets awkward for everyone.
  • Create a back-up plan. Now is actually the time to ask yourself the all-important “what if” question: What if my visuals (Powerpoint slides or whatever) don’t work? Make sure your presentation about your art still works in the unlikely, but possible, event of equipment failure.

The Content

  • Start off with a bang. In my experience, there’s nothing better than opening with an engaging story, and the thing that makes stories engaging is emotion. Your art-related tale can be happy, scary, heartfelt, or sad, just so long as it’s real. Alternatively, kick off your speech by asking a few audience participation questions.
  • Provide a service, not a sales pitch. Whoever invited you to speak or agreed to let you give a presentation did so because he or she thinks you have something of interest to say to the group. So, figure out the audience’s interests and tailor your presentation to their needs. Teach them something, inform them, and give them a “takeaway” with some part of your speech’s content. That’s what they’ll remember you for and that’s what will pique their curiosity in your work. You don’t have to and shouldn’t engage in slick salesmanship.
  • Let your personality and passion show. I really do understand how challenging it can be to talk about your work, so consider focusing less on yourself and more on your inspirations, processes, techniques, materials, and/or ideas. Show your audience what excites you, and they’ll be mesmerized by your infectious enthusiasm.

The Delivery

  • Calm your mind and body. Eat a light, protein-rich snack and get a little exercise a couple of hours before your presentation. This will help you think clearly and burn off excess energy if you’re getting a bit nervous. Save the big meal for after the speech.
  • Do an AV check in advance. If possible, check on the sound and projection equipment about an hour ahead of the presentation. While you’re making sure everything is working, you can also learn how to use the mic and any other tools. It also gives you enough time to work out any kinks so you’re not scrambling in front of the group when you’re supposed to be speaking.
  • Talk slowly and take your time. Making a conscious effort to relax, breathe, and stand up straight are all excellent ways to clear your mind and calm your nerves. Added bonus: relaxation will help you avoid saying “um” and feeling like you have to fill those dead spaces while you collect your thoughts.
  • Be prepared to take questions. Don’t let the idea of having to answer questions spontaneously throw you. I promise that 97.6% of them will be easy questions that you can readily answer, and it’s perfectly okay to smile and say “I don’t know” to the rest.
  • Expect the unexpected. The craziest things have happened during my speeches! Power outages, off-the-wall questions, and yes, me flubbing my lines and losing focus. (Many times, yet I've lived to fight another day!) The best solution, I’ve found, is to laugh it off. If you’re relaxed and go with the flow, your audience will come along with you.
  • Most of all, remember that the people in the audience want to hear what you have to say. They are not your enemy. Quite the contrary! They’re all rooting for you and want to see you succeed. So, if you’re excited about your presentation—and you should be since you’re talking about your own art—they will be, too!

I feel confident that when you employ these tips, you'll really start to enjoy public speaking. You may even drum up the courage to seek out more opportunities to talk about your art. What an awesome way to market yourself!

Got any other great tips for public speaking? Let’s connect!

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