Owning The Room

Golden three tiered stage with lights and confetti

If you’d told me as a young woman that one day, I would be able to stand in front of an audience of 14,500 women, deliver a keynote speech and love every single minute of the experience, I’d have laughed in your face.

Public speaking? I’d honestly rather have run a 10k – in the opposite direction (away from that podium), at that point. And anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate running… Like most people, I found the idea of standing in front of any kind of audience heart-stoppingly terrifying. I was that creature with palpitations, clammy hands, a lump in my throat, suffering stage fright at having to stand up in front of any kind of audience beyond my nearest and dearest.

And yet not so long ago, I had progressed to the point where I could speak in front of thousands and ‘own the room’ – to be precise, Liverpool’s Echo Arena. The phrase comes from the title of what I think is the definitive book on public speaking, by stand-up comic and journalist Viv Groskop; to give it its full title, her book is ‘How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking’ (recently published by Bantam Press). What’s more, I came off stage thinking: ‘Now I know why Mick Jagger’s still touring…’ (Or will be, when he’s feeling better again.)

After sharing with my biggest-yet audience the story of Green & Black’s – the chocolate brand I built with my husband alongside co-writing the Beauty Bible series of books and working as a journalist (and yes, it meant lots of 18 hour days)– I experienced a champagne high without the bubbles. Along with the incredibly satisfying feeling of held the attention of the audience for 40 minutes. And I’d have gone right back on for an encore, frankly.

So how did I go from mouse to roaring lioness, public-speaking-wise, with a team of speaking agents booking me to talk to banks, law firms, retailers and yes – the AGM of the Association of Sliding Door Manufacturers? (I am very big in sliding doors now, I can tell you.)

Well, to be honest, moving towards owning the room was a slow progression – but as with so many things in life, it basically boils down to practice, practice, practice. It’s been said that with 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice, you can go from zero to doing something well – and I reckon public speaking definitely fits the profile of skills that can be acquired. Personally, I was pushed into the deep end and expected to ‘public speak’ when I became a magazine editor at the age of 23. I began to host reader events. I gave presentations to high-powered advertising execs, trying to get them to take space in my magazines. Sometimes, I’d be asked to present an Award, at some media ceremony or other.

There are lots of reasons any of us might be asked to stand up in front of an audience. Making a presentation on a work project. Talking about a charity we’ve become involved with, to help raise awareness (and hopefully, supporting funds). A funeral address. But you know what? The secrets are the same, whatever the ‘gig’.

I’m going to start by wholeheartedly recommending that anyone reading this who might ever have to stand in front of any kind of audience buys Viv Groskop’s book. (Never met the woman. Not on any kind of commission here, in case you’re wondering.) But I’m also going to share the secrets I myself have learned, over the years, while entirely unexpectedly building a side-hustle career out of public speaking.

Find out just what’s expected of you. Do you have ten minutes? Three minutes? Thirty minutes? What does the person who’s asked you to speak want you to cover, in particular? I honestly think that one of the reasons I’m good at speaking is that I approach it in the same way as a piece of writing for an editor. What does he/she want me to cover? What’s the angle? What’s the length? Who is the audience? All this knowledge helps you to shape what you’re going to say. And very importantly, for how long. I never used to love homework (indeed, I don’t think I ever knowingly handed in any during my 12 years of school) – but when it comes to speaking to any kind of audience, I’m all about the prep.

Because the better prepared you are, the easier it is. Oh, this is true about just about anything in life – but when you know your material, when you’ve rehearsed what you’re going to say, several times over, and made sure of any facts you’ll be sharing, it’s a lot less scary. What’s absolutely terrifying is ‘winging it’, which I’ve seen people do too often. They lose the plot, wander all over the place – and the sense of rising panic as they realise they’re not holding the audience’s attention.

Consider writing out every single word of what you’re going to say. Better still, type it, in minimum 24-point text. This is a trick I picked up from my husband. As I’m typing, shaping and editing my presentation, I’m actually learning it – so that on the day, I barely look down, pretty much just move the pages from right to left. But the all-important thing is: it’s my security blanket. If I was to freeze, it would be all there in front of me. Not notecards, not Biro on the hand (I’ve seen speakers whose only notes are written on their left wrist) – if worst came to worst, I could read it from my script. I also go through my speech and mark where every slide should appear, using a fluoro marker and making a big star that catches my eye, as I turn the pages, nudging me to use the clicker. I read through the speech at least four times before I’m due to perform. Once on-screen before printing. A second time the day before. Once while at the hairdresser (because trust me, good hair is a major and entirely necessary confidence booster). And once just beforehand. (The other great thing about writing out your speech is that when you read it out loud, you can time it. We’ve all been to presentations where the person on stage doesn’t have a clue how long they’ve been wittering on for, and has run over by 20 minutes, thereby giving the organisers palpitations. Stick to your time slot and they’ll love you for it.)

Forget graphs and charts. Unless you’re giving a very specific budget presentation, perhaps, or talking about a financial forecast. There is a phrase called ‘Death by Powerpoint’ – and you don’t want to be guilty of it. Instead, create some eye-catching slides with evocative visuals and inspirational thoughts – or key quotes from your talk – to have as a background. But my experience is that the minute someone sees a bullet point, they start surreptitiously scrolling through their e-mails.

Prepare for any kind of presentation rather as an athlete might a race. Go to bed early the night before, and use every sleep aid you can muster to get a good night’s sleep. (Note: pre-speech anxiety dreams are still perfectly normal. I still have regular nightmares about being on stage with my skirt tucked into my knickers – although the upside of this is that it does make me check, before I step up to the podium each time, that my skirt is NOT tucked into my knickers.) If you’re speaking at lunchtime, have a good, protein-rich breakfast – but don’t eat just beforehand; it’s awful to be fighting back indigestion while talking to the crowd. If you’ve got to speak after dinner, eat incredibly lightly no matter how delicious the grub, for the same reason. And don’t drink. I know it’s tempting, to knock back some ‘Dutch courage’ and take the edge off the fear – but you want to have every brain cell you can muster. (By all means have a stiff gin & tonic or glass of champagne afterwards. You’ve earned it.)

I use my Calm app on the morning of my speech – and ideally, not long beforehand. I’ve written about this before, but in this case, five or ten minutes of meditation is amazing for focus and for quelling any butterflies.

Look at the audience. OK, this is the REALLY scary bit, for most people. But good speakers sweep the room with their eyes and smile, really making the audience feel a connection. Nobody wants to watch someone mumble into their lectern.

Because to quote Ms. Groskop: ‘Form matters more than content.’ The simple fact is that (alas) almost nobody will remember what you said afterwards, no matter how mind-blowing your stats, or how earth-shattering your revelations. They’ll remember how confident or relaxed you appeared and how you well-dressed you were. (I get more questions about my shoes afterwards than almost anything else.) In her book, Viv quotes a stat that 60-90% of communication is non-verbal. In other words, body language. It’s just as important to focus on that as it is your actual message.

Last but not least, watch TED talks. Watch how it’s done. See how you can learn from the great speech-givers.

And when you do get to see someone deliver a great presentation, applaud like hell. We love it. And if you work at it, one day, you’ll love it too.

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