Public Speaking and ADHD: 10 Ways to Succeed

Preparing for a big presentation for work or another important speech? Learn how to use ADD/ADHD to your advantage.
ADHD CEO Blog | posted by Michael Laskoff

If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), you’ve likely spent a good deal of time lamenting how hard it can be to handle work, relationships, and life in general. But from time to time, the condition and the techniques that we master to control our symptoms actually give us a real, tangible advantage when it comes to public speaking.

Don’t get me wrong. Having ADD/ADHD is not a guarantee of success. Aspects of the condition -- such as a propensity to get sidetracked -- can hamper an otherwise captivating presenter. But the reality is that many of us have an intensity and passion that can be focused and applied in a way that others envy.

Hopefully, I’m preaching to the choir. But if you’re not harnessing your full potential, I offer my 10 rules for good public speaking. As you’ll see, it’s not magic; it’s common sense.

1. Define success. Before you start preparing, you need to define what a positive outcome would look like. Should your audience be laughing or crying, relaxed or exercised, persuaded or dissuaded? If you don’t establish what you’re trying to achieve, you will have no way of organizing your efforts or approach.

2. Be prepared. Yes, we like to wing it. But when it comes to standing up in front of others, there’s no substitute for preparation. That means not only being in command of the facts but also constructing them in a coherent way that can easily be explained to others. Counterintuitive though it may be, the most casual and engaging speakers spend the most time preparing.

3. Spare the details. People with ADD/ADHD like to show off their command of facts; it’s validating, and it helps us feel smart. It also drives audiences to distraction. Use enough details to make your case, but resist the temptation to share everything that you know.

4. Don’t be boring. It may be obvious, but too many speakers forget to be entertaining. Even dry material can take on color and light if the speaker is engaging. Chances are you’re normally animated. Be sure to bring that forward when you’re speaking in public.

5. Expect the unexpected. There’s a military adage: The best plan is only good until the first shot is fired. Then, it’s time to improvise. The same is true of public speaking: The unanticipated almost always happens. So as long as you’re well prepared and stay calm, this is actually an excellent chance for you to shine. Improvisation, after all, is one of our strengths.

6. Read your audience. The best presentation is useless if the audience isn’t paying attention. It’s your job to keep your listeners engaged. Watch them. If they’re all looking at their iPhones and Blackberries, you’ve got to change your approach to get them back. Pick up your pace, adapt your emphasis, or simply speak directly to those individuals paying the least attention. It’s your audience: Control it.

7. Bring a watch. "Long-winded" is not a compliment. Know how much time you have and measure your progress along the way. Generally, it’s better to skip over some material rather than drag on.

8. Don’t memorize. Poor memory is a hallmark of ADD/ADHD: Don’t rely on it. Yes, you should know the material well, but going for verbatim will be very hard. Don't set yourself up for failure: If you lose your place, you may never get it back. Instead, rehearse an outlined approach and keep a cheat sheet handy. Trust me when I say it’s easier to fill in a missing thought with another talking point than it is to get a derailed canned speech back on track.

9. Let go of perfectionism. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it -- if necessary -- and move on. If you don’t make a big deal of it, no one else will either.

10. Ignore rules one through nine. So long as you get to the right outcome, there’s no right or wrong way to present or speak. Do what works for you.

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