How is Public Speaking like Learning How to Water Ski?

As an introvert, getting up on the stage is hard. Not just hard, it’s HARD.  It goes against every single cell in me that screams, don’t do it! Go hide behind your desk for another 2 decades.  This is crazy.  Don’t do it.

But every single time, I remember when I was a little girl, learning how to water ski.  My brother Sebastian learned on his 2nd try, and was thereafter a proficient skier.  I went up an feel the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and 100th time.  It took me 2 hours to learn how to get out of the water, and another hour to sTAY on those skies.  But I wouldn’t quit.  I refused to get out of the water until I had learned.  And every time I step up on the stage, I strap on those water skies and I try again, knowing there’s a chance I’ll just eat it and fall flat on my face.  But if I keep trying, and eventually become a strong presenter and communicator…well, wow.  How incredible would that be, truly??!!

Today, the SEMrush speakers team had the opportunity to work with Simon Bucknall, a speaking coach and motivational leader.  It was one of the most inspiring, motivational, and positive experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Simon helped me see that by speaking, I’m not just telling people how to do SEO.  As a speaker, I have the possibility of truly changing people’s lives.  I can reach a lot of people at once, and change some pain point or challenge they have into a potential solution.  This isn’t just about public speaking.  It’s about being better communicator, it’s about sharing our knowledge and passion with others, it’s about improving a tiny aspect of someone’s lives.

So here’s what I learned from the amazing Simon Bucknall:

You-Centered Presentations

Simon encouraged us to change the emphasis on the presentations from the “I” to the “You”.  In a single speech, he said the word “you” about 8 times in the first 5 min’s, and his mentor told him this was not enough.  He encouraged us not just to say the word, “You” but to really bring the audience and the audience’s needs into the presentation.

Use the Space

Each area of the stage represents a position: power, weakness, connection, disconnection.  Being aware of our place on the stage, and moving through it, will help us to work with the audience, to build rapport as we move towards the front, to give them space as we move back.  Purposeful movement – not fidgeting or swaying – is a powerful way to maintain the audience’s attention and to keep our story moving forward.


For every point we want to make, we need to say the point or idea, explain the point and tell a story or examples, then come back around to reinforce that point.  Every single point should contain PEP; don’t just drop ideas and leave them without further explanation. There’s definitely repetition, but the idea is to improve the clarity of the message being delivered.  Audiences won’t complain about repetition.

Use Silence

Don’t be afraid to pause.  Don’t be afraid to give the audience time to think.  As speakers, we want to “Fill the space”.  However, short silences can help emphasize a point, give listeners time to think, and give the speaker time to transition to another point. In the same way increasing your voice will engage the audience, so will using pauses and shortening your sentences.  Give them less information to have to process and understand, but drive those points home.

Change to Re-Engage

Listening is HARD WORK.  When we’re giving a speech, we are competing with so many distractions that the audience faces : their email, texts, twitter, and the difficulty of engaging and listening with your content.  To keep attention, use various techniques to continuously change which helps you re-engage the audience’s attention.  Focus on contrast.  Take your strength, then do the opposite.  Here are some ways to create contrast:

  1. Move
  2. Retreat
  3. Voice
    1. Cadence
    2. Pitch
    3. Speed
    4. Pauses
    5. Volume
  4. Visuals
  5. Interaction


Speak louder, and then louder still.  Of course you don’t want to be screaming, but your voice carries energy, and the louder you speak, the more energy your voice will have.  For this, you need to work on your breath.  Use diaphragm breathing to help amplify your voice.  Your voice is a muscle, a tool that can be improved, honed, perfected.

Match the Audiences Mood

It’s important to meet the audience where they’re at.  If they are high energy, go there with them.  If they are tired and it’s the end of the day, meet them where they are when you begin the presentation, and then slowly work your way to higher energy.  It’s risky to explode with a burst of energy when the audience’s energy is low, or vice versa.  You need to connect with that audience, and to do so, you need to meet them where they’re at.

Be Passionate

An audience can feel your passion and your love for the topic you’re sharing.  It is this passion that has the greatest potential for engaging them.  If you’re not passionate, why should they listen to you?  Passion will also help to modulate your voice. The best way to leverage your voice is to be passionate about what you’re sharing.  Your voice will change if there’s emotion behind it, and will naturally increase/decrease in tone and volume. Your voice, gestures, and presence will happen based on the passion you’re feeling.


Make sure your weight is balanced, your feet aren’t crossed and are pointing slightly out, and your hands are above your waist.  When you’re walking on stage, look in the direction you’re walking in.  Keep your back straight and your body always open.

Do Not Edit Yourself

When you’re speaking, go all in.  Commit to what you’re saying, and don’t hesitate.  Whatever you say is RIGHT.  Don’t worry about whether you said it right, whether it was what you practiced, etc.  Imagine you’re writing a book with the screen turned backwards.  You can’t even see what you’re typing, right? Try speaking with your screen backwards, leaving your inner editor or critic aside.

Less is More

Since we are expected to teach and give people actionable insights they can take away, I find myself trying to cram as much knowledge as possible into every presentation.  Simon highly recommended that Less is More.  People won’t remember most of what we say.  What we truly want to do is give them ONE or TWO actionable takeaways that they can hold on to and immediately apply to their lives.  If we give them too much, they remember nothing.  If we give them 2-3 things with sufficient depth, they’re more likely to remember.  The presentation should focus on 2-3 KEY points, and the rest of the time we are telling stories to drive those points home.

How do I want to Change the way my Audience Feels, Thinks, or Acts?

Of everything that Simon shared, this seemed to be one of the most important points, one that he repeated to us many times.  Forget about what YOU want to teach the audience and instead, focus on what you want THEM to think, feel or act.  This completely changes how you approach the content you share.  Your answer to this question may have multiple points, and these should shape your presentation.  Focus on making a BIG impact on 1 or 2 key points, and teaching them WELL so you can drive the change you want to see.

How do you Stand Out?

Challenge your audience’s mindset, and change how you package your content.  You can deliver the same concept/principles that others are sharing, but you can change the packaging but using fresh, timely examples or looking at the same information from a different angle.  Once you know what points you want to make, then use stories to drive them home.


We all know we need to tell stories, but how do you tell stories when you’re sharing tactical advice and teaching people “how to”?  And therein lies the true potential.  If we can find stories that bring in the human elements of the tactics we are trying to teach, and give the audience both a break and an opportunity to engage, our presentations will be that much more valuable.  When you’re telling a story, DETAILS matter.  Anchor the story with visuals, paint a picture in the audience’s mind.

Use Time Phrases

Orient your listeners in time and space by telling them when.  Last week, 200 years ago, growing up as a kid…These phrases will help the audience get a sense for context.

How to Prepare Presentations:

  1. HDYWTCTWTTFA: How do you want to change the way they think, feel, act?  Start by asking yourself this question, and gaining clarity over this objective.
  2. What are the 1,2,3 KEY POINTS to achiever that objective? Make sure you pick the most important points to achieve this objective.
  3. What’s the most compelling evidence you can show? This is where you use PEP to gain more depth.  Point, explanation, point, then you move on to the next point.

Handling Q&A’s

Remeber your ABC’s when answering questions.  Acknowledge the question.  Bridge.  Communicate.  The quality of the acknowledgement is important so the person feels validated.  When questions are charged or difficult, look for ways to inject humor.


You only have a few moments for the audience to design if they want to pay attention or not.  Your first two objectives are to build rapport and to establish relevance.  This should be done in a powerful, compelling way during your opening.  Don’t give them too much information right away, instead, give them just enough to get them to decide to tune in.


This should be the overarching structure of your presentation:

  1. Build Rapport
  2. Establish Relevance
  3. Roadmap/Agenda
  4. Point 1: PEP
  5. Point 2: PEP
  6. Point 3: PEP
  7. Q&A
  8. Conclusion

If you want more information, reach out to Simon.  He’s truly an amazing human being.




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