How to Start Speaking (for an Audience)

A friend and I spent the last two hours here at my high-top table (feels like Starbucks in my apartment, praise Jesus!), sipping tea and coffee and munching on gluten-free pina colada cookies. (Yes, they have rum and coconut in them. Delish!) For years now, God has been putting on my friend’s heart a desire to speak about suicide and the healing process when a loved one commits suicide. But she hasn’t known where to start. So she asked:

How did you start speaking?

I’ve had several other people also ask me that question, and I always feel a little strange answering, because I don’t have a “normal” answer. My journey has been so unique. I love that, because God has an individual journey in store for each of us, which helps us rely on Him more fully along the way.

But if something that’s worked for me can work for someone else, then I want to share it. So if you would like to start speaking publicly, here are some things I’d recommend from my own experience. And I hope they can help you as well. 🙂

1. Spend quality time developing your content.

Don’t rush past this part. A lot of times we feel hurried to get the message together and get it out there, but take your time here. Embrace the process. Your message is the most important part.

The first time I shared my story was unexpected. I was at a home for girls rescued from sex trafficking, and was asked to share my testimony. That was the first time I shared my battle with an eating disorder and low self-esteem. I didn’t know if the girls would relate; I’d always felt isolated in my struggle. But the girls leaned forward on their chairs, tears in their eyes, and many pulled me aside afterward to share their own struggle.

I spoke at a few more small groups when I came home from that trip, all the while working on my first book (“The Insatiable Quest for Beauty”), which was helping me develop my ideas and message on the topic.

Each time I was asked to speak, I spent lots of time preparing, but when I had the opportunity to speak at a large, local youth conference, my practice time dwarfed anything else. I spent approximately 100 hours preparing. I practiced in front of the mirror, revised and re-revised, edited and re-edited slides (back in the day when PowerPoint was king).

I wanted to know what I was saying, and say it with clarity. It’s easy to throw words together. But I think it’s better to be funny, to tell a story, to be clear, and to be concise.

Here are a couple tips I’ve found along the way:

  • I find that people really relate with stories, whether your own or someone else’s. Even Jesus spoke in parables — stories — to help people understand God’s heart.
  • I also find that an appropriate dusting of humor (in the right places) can help relieve tension if it’s a difficult subject, and can increase audience engagement.

2. Get feedback from people you trust.

Over the years, I’ve practiced for mentors, focus groups, and pastors. I’ve video taped myself and critiqued my performance — always wanting to get better and refine the message.

Before ever presenting a message, I think it’s a great idea to practice it for multiple people you trust and ask for their honest feedback. Then you can find out if one section is confusing, or could be taken in the wrong way, and you can work that out before standing in front of an audience.

3. Practice in low-risk environments.

Now take the message to small groups. This allows you to see how people respond to the message. Where do they get bored? Where do they really engage? Are they confused? What new things can you try to help the message hit home?

I particularly loved groups where I could hand out feedback forms afterwards for suggestions and comments. Those were a great learning tool for me.

4. Know your material like the back of your hand.

When I started speaking, I found it was easy to go blank in front of a large crowd, or if people didn’t respond the way I expected they would. So I tried to fully memorize my material. I wouldn’t necessarily say it the way I memorized it, but then I had something to fall back on if I did go blank for a moment.

Now it’s uncommon for me to go blank, but I still like to know my material through-and-though before speaking. I feel like I speak better that way, for three reasons:

  • First, if I’m looking down at my notes, I feel like I’m losing eye contact and connection with my audience. I’d rather keep that engagement the whole time.
  • Second, I’d rather be paying attention to the audience than to what I’m going to say next. Knowing my material frees me up to pay attention to how the audience is responding, and tailor my material in response to their energy.
  • Third, knowing my material also frees me up to be praying, “Lord, is there anywhere you want me to go with this that I didn’t plan on going?” I want to be sensitive to His leading.

My husband really likes the energy of impromptu speaking, without much practice. However, we’ve both found that speaking like that for an audience just isn’t as good as speaking with a lot of practice. It can feel exciting, but it often doesn’t make as much sense, and it’s not as powerful, as when you actually know the material.

Just as a musician can play with greater emotion and energy when s/he has the piece memorized, I think a speaker can also speak with greater passion and influence when s/he knows the material. Practice isn’t meant to detract from passion in-the-moment, but rather to enhance it.

5. Gather materials for your website.

I started gathering the following and putting them on my website:

  • Video recordings of my seminars: To be honest, a huge portion of my bookings have come because people were able to watch a video of me speaking, and then wanted to have me come in and speak live for their community.
  • Recommendations from people who had heard me speak: If you’re just starting, see if you can practice your message on a pastor or counselor or social worker you know, and then have them write a recommendation based on their impressions. Now I try to send out a short survey each time I speak, with a space for the person to leave a recommendation that I could put on my website and promo materials, which helps my list of recommendations keep growing — but in a no pressure way.
  • A regularly-updated list of places where I’d spoken.

6. Ask local places if they’d like you to speak.

Once you have your materials on your website, reach out to people you know who have connections at local communities that might like to have you speak. Or give a blind email or cold call to local communities, sharing what you do, and the link to your website.

At first I didn’t charge anything. Then I slowly started charging an extremely, almost laughably, low honorarium, so that people wouldn’t be afraid to take a risk on me, but I also seemed more professional since I had an honorarium.

Over time, I brought my honorarium to what it is now — still low and totally affordable, but something that I could make a living on.

7. Grow.

If someone loved your message, ask if they know anyone else who would like you to speak.

After a few years passed, my dad suggested I travel around the country on a homemade tour. I stayed with family and friends in 12 different metropolitan areas across the country, and canvassed each area — meeting with pastors and youth pastors, and speaking at schools, colleges, treatment centers, and churches — anywhere that would have me. Turns out it was financially viable (especially without the cost of lodging), so I upped my honorarium a bit and did it again, this time with some hotels in the mix. I ended up doing those homemade tours about 4-7 months a year from Fall 2012 – Spring 2016.

8. Hold it loosely.

The biggest thing I learned along this journey is that God is interested in my heart — all of my heart. One time I wondered, “Why didn’t that event go well? What happened?” And I felt like God was showing me something like this: “I want your heart, and I will do anything to keep your heart, even if that means taking away your platform.” (Read more about that lesson here.)

Over and over I was reminded of Luke 10, when Jesus sent out the disciples two by two. They came back aglow with excitement that they cast out demons and healed the sick. Jesus essentially said, “Yeah, that’s great. But don’t forget the real miracle: Your names are written in my Book of Life.” In other words, the real miracle is that we are His.

I just think He gets so excited about what He’s doing inside us through this process. So embrace the process, and be willing to give up whatever platform you have whenever He asks. Because what’s most important is that we are His, and that He is the One we worship — not a stage or a microphone.

This year brought a lot of change — which is good. I felt in my heart that I was ready to stop touring for awhile, and make a home, and start a new business model and a YouTube channel. I didn’t know how to do it…but God did. And this year He’s once again blown me away with His guidance one step at a time. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge planner and very practical about the decisions I make. But when I don’t know the next step, don’t have a formula, it keeps me dependent on Him in a deeper way.

And that’s the beautiful thing. He’ll guide us each step of the way if we’ll let Him. He puts other people in our path to speak wisdom and encouragement to us, but ultimately, He opens and closes doors.

So, if you’re looking to start speaking, I hope this can give you some practical steps. But I also hope it can encourage you to embrace the process, because God is doing something in your heart too along the way.

Love, Tiffany

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