13.1 Lessons about public speaking from a half marathon

Have you ever considered running a marathon? Serial entrepreneur and founder of Too Fat to Run?, Julie Creffield, asked this question at a conference we were both speaking at in South Africa a couple of years ago. Despite never having been able to run, even when I was at school, I tentatively put my hand up because I’d always thought it would be pretty cool to run a marathon ‘one day’.

Not long after that I realised that I wasn’t getting any younger and that ‘one day’ would never come if I didn’t do something about it so at the beginning of last year I decided to enter the Edinburgh Half Marathon and my inconsistent love/hate relationship with running began. Last weekend I ran the event again, this time to raise money for the charity Classroom of Hope to help build a school in Cambodia (still time to sponsor me if you’d like to support this amazing cause!)

For many people running a marathon, or even a half marathon (I’m not sure when that ‘one day’ will come when I run a full marathon!), is probably up there with public speaking in terms of things they didn’t think they could do or ever dreamed they would do. But as I was pounding the pavement in the rain last weekend, I realised there are many lessons we can learn about public speaking from running a half marathon – 13.1 in fact!

1. Get support

When I first started, I had no idea about running and especially no idea about training for an event. I read some books and blogs and watched some videos, but to prepare for a half marathon, you need more than just books, blogs and videos. So last year I joined the Too Fat to Run? Clubhouse and Julie Creffield's Spring Marathon training group where I got tips and advice and so much encouragement. I also asked a friend who has run many events to do some training runs with me which was the key to increasing my distance and building my stamina.

Lesson - Learn from books and videos but also surround yourself with people who will support you; enlist the help of a coach or get some training to help you prepare your content and provide expert advice as you practice your delivery.

2. Preparation is key

When I decided to run the half marathon early last year I didn't know if I could run to the end of the street! I had to do a lot of preparation to get my body and my mind in the best condition to be able to run. This involved more than just training runs. I had to convince myself I was capable, visualise my success and manage any negative self-talk. I had to ensure I had enough rest, and that I had fuelled my body with the right foods and stayed hydrated before, during and after the event. I had to work out the logistics of where I had to be at what time, what the route was, how I was going to get from the start to the finish, make sure I was properly warmed up beforehand - the list of things to prepare was far longer than I had originally anticipated. 

Lesson – Preparation for giving a presentation doesn’t just involve preparing what you’re going to say. You also need to research your audience and ensure your content is relevant. You need to know details about the event: what the theme is, what room you’ll be presenting in, how it will be set up, what time you’re on, who is on before and after you, how many people in the audience, whether there will be a microphone and if so, what type, and consider where you will attach the mic pack. You also need to prepare your body, voice and mind to ensure you perform at your best. Never underestimate the need to prepare.

3. Don't start too fast

Last year I met someone at the starting line and ran with her for the first 10 minutes which helped make sure I didn’t start too fast in the excitement of the occasion (and my desire to finish it quickly!) This year I didn’t have someone to remind me to slow down and I hadn’t done enough long training runs to know that I needed to take it easy at the beginning, so I started way too fast and then struggled later in the race.

Lesson - When we're feeling nervous our adrenaline starts pumping and causes us to speak (or run) too quickly. Not only does speaking too quickly make us sound nervous, it makes it very difficult for the audience to receive our message. Make a conscious effort to slow down your speech at the beginning of a presentation so that you can start with impact and draw your audience in rather than alienate them.

4. Pace yourself throughout

If you start running too fast you sometimes don’t have the stamina to finish. It’s important to pace yourself for efficient and injury free training and so that you can achieve your goal of a particular time for the event. Mastering pacing while running requires practice. As I hadn’t done enough practice runs this year, I started way too fast and then struggled later in the race.

Lesson - When you’re speaking it is impossible to know how long you’re speaking for unless you are very experienced. Timing is everything in a presentation. Go over time and you’re disrespecting your audience, the organisers and other speakers who may have to cut their presentation short. Finish too early and it can mess up the agenda and leave organisers with a gap to fill. So, practice your presentation with a timer and ensure you have one with you on the day. Keeping a steady pace throughout your talk will also help to ensure your audience can follow you.

5. Know where you're going

When running a race you need a clear route to follow so you can get from the start to the finish line without getting lost. You also need marshals to point you in the right direction or you might end up going off track, getting lost and never making it to the finish line.

Lesson - When you're giving a talk, make sure you have a clear structure and signposts in your talk so that you and your audience know where you’re going, they can easily follow you and you get to the end together without anyone getting lost.

6. Keep the journey interesting

One of the things I enjoy about the Edinburgh Half Marathon is that the scenery is constantly changing from the Old Town to Holyrood Park to the Portobello sea front and beyond which makes it a varied, interesting and enjoyable route.

Lesson - To keep your audience engaged, take them on a journey. Mix up your points with stories, case studies and relevant statistics, use props and other visual aids and ensure there are some emotional highs and lows to keep your presentation interesting and your audience wanting to listen.

7. Stay hydrated

As our bodies are approximately 60% water, we need to be well hydrated to perform at our best. Water regulates your body temperature and lubricates your joints as well as transporting nutrients to give you energy and keep you healthy. Running, especially in warmer weather, can really impact on your level of hydration and being dehydrated may make you feel tired or experience muscle cramps, dizziness, or other serious symptoms.

Lesson - Giving a presentation can take a lot out of you physically, mentally and emotionally. Staying hydrated before and during (as well as after) your presentation is vital to keep your mind sharp, your body energised and your vocal chords in peak condition so that your voice is rich, free and expressive.

8. Keep your head up

Having never had any coaching on running technique, I don’t know if it’s a specific technique but I do know that when I kept my head up I was able to breathe more easily, had more energy and my stride was smoother. When I looked down I definitely wasn’t running at my best and it all felt a lot more difficult.

Lesson - When you’re giving a talk there is no point looking at the floor no matter how nervous you feel. Keep your head up and make eye contact with your audience. You’ll breathe more easily, your voice projection will be improved and your gestures and movements will flow better. Most importantly you’ll feel and look more confident.

9. Acknowledge your audience

What I particularly loved about running the Edinburgh Half Marathon was the support from local people along the route; they displayed signs of support (some very humorous), shouted words of encouragement and provided jelly babies and other sweets for the runners. I really appreciated their efforts and made sure I acknowledged them (even if I was hurting too much to speak I communicated my gratitude with my eye contact!)

Lesson - When you're giving a presentation it is crucial to acknowledge your audience; you wouldn't be presenting if it wasn't for them so make sure you connect with them before, during and after your talk through both your verbal and non-verbal communication.

10. Acknowledge the event staff

Race events would not happen without the event staff and the majority of them are volunteers giving up their time to ensure the event is a great success for everyone involved so a word of thanks is always appreciated.

Lesson - Whether it's at a team meeting or a major conference, always remember to thank the people that have worked to pull it together. If you are speaking at an event with an audio visual crew, make a special effort to connect with them and show them some appreciation before you speak as they are the ones who will ensure you are seen and heard.

11. Try out your outfit beforehand

Prior to running the event, I received some good advice to make sure that I had road tested my running kit to ensure it didn't chafe or cause any pain or irritation. It’s important to feel confident with the knowledge that your outfit is comfortable and fit for purpose. Knowing the weather forecast also helps you to select the most appropriate outfit for the conditions.

Lesson - When you're speaking it’s also crucial to test your outfit before you’re in front of your audience. You don't want to be finding out that your jacket is so tight that you can't gesture freely, or your lovely new shoes squeak every time you take a step, or they hurt your toes, or the heels are too high so you wobble or you feel self-conscious about your trousers clinging, or you have nowhere to put your mic pack or your dress fabric is see through under the lights… I could go on, but I think you get the message!

12. Do the best you can on the day

Last year’s half marathon was the first running event I had ever entered. My plan was to try to run the entire race which I pretty much did, and I was pretty happy with my time; it was the best I could do on the day. This year I had hoped to run a quicker time; however, for various reasons such as less preparation in the lead up, difficult weather conditions on the day (I live in Edinburgh but I had actually never run in the rain until this event!) and doing a facebook live to attract some extra sponsorship I ended up walking some of it. Despite this, I achieved a quicker time, but only just. The whole run seemed much more difficult than last year from beginning to end and I really struggled. But I did the best I could on the day, and I was happy to have completed it.

Lesson - when you’re giving a presentation, just do the best you can on the day which, if you’ve prepared well, will generally always be fine. Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying, “There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” There will almost always being something you would like to have done differently, but trust that what you delivered was enough and the best you could do on the day.

13. You're capable of more than you think you are

Given that up until recent years, I had never run in my life, no one was more surprised than me to find that I could run a half marathon. Whether I was training or during the race, when my legs felt like they couldn’t run any more, I found there was always a few more steps or fraction more speed. I completely surprised myself and it has given me confidence and belief that I can achieve other things I may have previously thought out of reach for me.

Lesson - if you think you’re not good at presenting, or you fear speaking to larger audiences, or you’ve been avoiding public speaking for whatever reason, why not give it a try? Start small, get support, build your confidence and skills, find yourself a place to speak and just go for it. Because we are ALWAYS capable of more than we think we are.

13.1 Smile and enjoy it

If you aim to smile when running, it definitely helps you and everyone around you to enjoy it more!

Lesson - Smile when public speaking; it definitely helps you and everyone around you to enjoy it more!

*** I ran the half marathon this year to raise funds to help build a school in Cambodia to give children an education and a brighter future. If this cause resonates with you, please consider supporting it with a wee donation. Click here to find out more and donate - every little bit helps.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist and the author of 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!’ She combines 25 years’ experience in business with a background as an actor, presenter and singer to help business professionals to communicate with confidence, credibility and charisma.

To find out more go to www.melsherwood.com or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_