In the original Star Wars film, the evil Grand Moff Tarkin stands on the deck of his terrifying Death Star and declares that “fear will keep the local systems in line.” Princess Leia, fighting on the side of good, disagrees. “The more you tighten your grip,” she tells him, “the more systems will slip through your fingers.”
It may surprise you to hear that Tarkin and Leia could have been talking about public speaking.
Let me explain. First and foremost, speaking in public is about keeping the attention of an audience. This isn’t always hard, but it can be tricky: audiences have heard a lot of speakers in their time, and, although they usually wish you the best, tend not to be terribly forgiving of speakers who don’t exhibit confidence.
The problem with this is that it often leads speakers to over-compensate. Some will SHOUT to demonstrate confidence, or DICTATE where they should be seeking to persuade. Nothing is worse than a bossy speaker when it comes to keeping an audience’s attention. The people listening to your speech expect to be convinced, not coerced.
The other direction speakers often choose in order to prove to audiences their confidence is strictness with themselves. Rather than boss the audience about, they turn inwards, writing sacred scripts from which they will not diverge, or pre-planning gestures or facial expressions in an attempt to appear decisive.
The problem with all of that is that audiences respond to calm speakers. A relaxed presenter will appear sometimes to be improvising – they will seem laidback and in control. Coming across as natural is one of the most confident things a speaker can do. Barack Obama is a great example of an excellent speaker who somehow seems always to be both in control and super-cool. It’s why people listen to him.
In other words, the more you tighten the grip, the more audience members will slip through your fingers. Don’t be dictatorial in style – tell your audience a story and bring them with you. Don’t prowl the stage choppily – stroll around it with confidence. Be relaxed. If you appear too rehearsed or too stern your audience will simply be afraid you’re about to make a mistake – because they will rightly perceive this as a sign of nerves.
After all, throw your mind back to that original Star Wars film. Do you recall what happened to the evil Grand Moff Tarkin, so confident of his ability to intimidate the Galaxy into submission? He stood on the deck of his terrifying Death Star … as Prince Leia’s rebellion blew it up.