Finding Your Stage Presence

13 Dec 2022

By Kimberly Lumpkins, MD, MBA

I have a confession:  I love public speaking.  Standing on stage and feeling the audience connect with you is a magical experience.  People often tell me that they couldn’t possibly be as comfortable on stage as I appear to be–that it must be some sort of innate and alien talent, but nothing could be further from reality.  I began as a laughably awful public speaker, who was terrified of the stage.  Back in high school, I joined the public speaking team where I was notable only for my abject incompetence.  Memorized monotonous reading, check.  A blizzard of “um” and “uh” peppered throughout every sentence, check. Gut churning nausea before every speech, check. I mutually parted ways with the team at the end of the year, in search of some other less miserable activity.  So how did I progress from public speaking ignominy to finding genuine joy on stage?  I’d like to share a few tips to help you find your speaking mojo.

Memorized Monotony

Many inexperienced speakers write out every single word of their presentation to create a detailed script.  Like an actor, they memorize their lines perfectly.  Unfortunately, we’re not actors and this doesn’t tend to work very well for us.  Even when recited from memory rather than read aloud from notes, scripted speeches tend to sound stiff.  At the last conference you attended, I’m sure you could instinctively tell when presenters were reading their script.  Another critical weakness of fully scripted talks is that it is very easy to freeze when you make a mistake.  You miss a line in your script and then can’t remember what line comes next, and now you’re panicking and your confidence is shaken.

Instead, think about each slide as a cue for a conversation.  What are you trying to say with this slide?  Why is it important? How would you defend this slide if someone told you to cut it out of your presentation?  The answers to those questions highlight what you need to convey on stage.  The exact words you use aren’t important, as long as your message is clear!  Write down the themes of the slide as cues for yourself, then work out the critical transitions between sections of your talk.

Developing confidence in cued speaking takes practice.  Lots of practice.  This is where the residents reading this blog have a huge advantage—M&M conference.   Residents tend to think of M&M as a tedious chore, but in reality, it’s a natural public speaking laboratory.  Every time you present, you get the opportunity to practice.  As a bonus, the time it takes you to prepare slides will decrease dramatically.  I would credit the greatest improvement in my speaking skills to being absolutely fed up with making powerpoint slides week after week as a chief resident.  I knew what needed to be said for each patient, so instead of making detailed slides covering each bullet point I just…presented the critical information! 

The Dreaded Um

Filler words are the bane of public speaking–the “um” and “uh” that punctuate so many sentences on stage.  Few of us use these words in natural speech, but set us behind the podium and they start to roll.  It is so instinctual that you may not even be aware of how many you use. Nothing kills the flow of a talk quite like a torrent of filler words.  As the speaker, a few seconds of silence while you search for the next idea feels like an absolute eternity to you—but to your audience, it is hardly noticeable.  Embrace silence instead of filler words.

How can you convince your brain that it’s okay to stay quiet while you’re gathering your thoughts?  Try a core exercise from my misbegotten year on the high school speaking team.  Enlist a colleague, friend, or your child (who will probably enjoy this tremendously) and equip them with the nastiest buzzer you can find.  Think “mistake in the board game Operation” level nasty.  Stand up and start rehearsing your talk, mimicking a performance environment as best as possible.  Your partner in crime hits the buzzer every single time you utter a filler word.  You may be shocked by how often the buzzer goes off.  Now, as you can probably imagine, your anxiety about speaking will most definitely NOT decrease with this exercise initially—quite the opposite.  But stick with it.  Keep rehearsing over days and weeks with the buzzer.  Following true operant conditioning, your brain will learn to avoid the buzzer by eliminating filler words.  With practice, this really works.  I’m living proof—I’ve hardly used filler words since I nearly wore out the team buzzer when I was 14.

My Nerves are Shot

Nerves are normal!  I’m not going to pretend that there’s some magical nirvana ahead where you never get nervous before a talk.  The key is to learn to manage your anxiety so it doesn’t derail you.

1)       Develop a pre-speaking ritual to focus your energy, and do it every time.  Many people swear by meditation or guided imagery.  For me, meditation isn’t my wheelhouse and it tends to make me more agitated.  My pretalk ritual is a lot simpler: I put in an earpiece and play Sia’s Unstoppable on quiet repeat about 10 minutes before the talk.  By the end, I know I’m unstoppable and I’m ready to go.

2)      Rehearse the first few slides obsessively. Nerves can derail you right at the beginning and throw you off for the rest of your presentation.  When rehearsal time is limited, it’s a mistake to keep practicing the talk in its entirety.  Instead, spend more time working on the opening until you can do it effortlessly.  If you nail your opening, you’ll relax for the rest of the talk—even if it goes a little off the rails.

I hope these suggestions will help you discover your inner stage presence!

Kimberly Lumpkins MD MBA is Surgeon in Chief of the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital.  She completed her pediatric surgical training at the Johns Hopkins/University of Maryland combined fellowship, and subsequently trained in pediatric urology at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Trust in the United Kingdom.  She is a graduate of the executive MBA program at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and now serves as a faculty affiliate of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at Smith. She is an Association of Women Surgeons Signature Speaker for 2022.

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