Whether you want to be more persuasive in meetings or establish yourself a recognized expert in your field— confident and effective public speaking is a skill many of us wish we were better at (or, if we’re honest, less scared of!).
I was the kind of kid who wanted to disappear (or feigned a hiccough attack) every time my name was called to read out loud in English class. Even in my 20s at the finance firm where I started my career, I nearly fainted from nerves during a particularly technical (and if I’m honest, dull) presentation I was persuaded to do for my team.
I’m not a natural public speaker but, after working on it, people now often assume that I am. In 2019 I began speaking at conferences about personal development, and recently I’ve found myself feeling strangely at home on stage — whether that’s a physical one or at online events.
Being previously terrified to talk in front of people, I’ve discovered firsthand that confident, effective public speaking can be a learned skill.
Six repeatable practices helped me to overcome my innate glossophobia:
If you were going to perform with a musical instrument or dance on stage, you would most likely train for it. Not only for the specific performance but to generally improve that skill. Most of us are not natural, confident public speakers. After all, putting yourself out there can bring up feelings of deep-rooted social anxiety — around messing up, not coming across well, and social rejection, judgment, or disapproval from our audience.
However, many people manage to overcome this fear with practice — as you present more, you will likely get more comfortable doing it. Take the opportunity when you can to give your opinion in group settings, to take on a leadership role in meetings, give talks to smaller audiences — or maybe even starting to leave voice notes instead of messaging friends (I found this oddly helpful for more speaking confidence).
You could check out Toastmasters International — a non-profit offering small, local and supportive group meetings (online or in-person) to improve your public speaking and leadership skills. You can try different groups for free as a guest until you find one you want to join as a member based on location, timing, and fit. You can also start off as an observer, or give your own off-the-cuff 90-second presentation amongst the regulars from the get-go. Members can choose to take on a different role at each meeting (such as timekeeper, evaluator, or meeting leader) and give longer, 6–7 minute prepared speeches when they feel ready to. All speeches are timed and given constructive feedback afterward. My local London group is made up of all ages and backgrounds, with an endearing common thread of a willingness to self-improve and non-judgmentally support each other’s progress.
You could also find a specialist public speaking coach near you if you want personalized coaching sessions. I personally found that reading Carmine Gallo’s book “Talk Like Ted” gave me the tips I needed to help me feel more confident, in a more cost-effective way. You might also want to seek the support of a suitable therapist, doctor or counsellor, if you are experiencing broader or persistent anxiety that is negatively impacting you daily life.
It may sound obvious, but bear with me — practice and preparation just make a ginormous difference to your confidence on the day. For any kind of presentation — say it out loud to yourself, in the mirror, or in front of a friend or housemates. You can even record yourself speaking and play it back as yourself while do your chores or go for a walk (if you don’t mind listening to your own voice!).
Researching your subject beforehand will help you make an intelligent point about everything you plan to mention, particularly if there are going to be questions afterwards. If you are going to share acronyms or specialist terms, make sure you can briefly define them and prepare for the level of knowledge of the audience you are speaking to. During one Q&A, someone asked me to summarize a book I had fleetingly mentioned 10 minutes earlier — luckily I had precautionarily reread a summary of it before the talk. Try to foresee audience questions and be able to define or talk in more depth (at least a sentence or two) about the points you mention. This should help with nerves. about being asked something you don’t know.
For in-real-life public speaking, prepare by getting to the venue early or scoping it out before your talk if possible, so that you’re not rushing and can mentally prepare. If your talk is online, do a practice run with the same technology you’ll use for the real thing. Inquire into whether you require(or want) slides, a whiteboard or other props that might help make your presentation more engaging.
Also think about what you’re going to wear — my aforementioned work fainting incident was partly due to clothes that were a bit too tight! From head to toe, plan an outfit and grooming that is:
In the hope of preparing rather than freaking you out — you don’t want to realize after the event, for example, that: your shirt goes see-through under stage lights; your new mascara smudged; or that the soles of your shoes have visible stickers/lots of dirt— when you look in the mirror or at photos afterwards. No-one wants to constantly (and distractingly) be tugging their skirt hem down whilst trying to do a presentation; and a restrictive outfit can interfere with your breath and contribute to you feeling less relaxed. You’ll most likely want a look that’s pleasing to the eye and true to you, but doesn’t take away or distract from your message. A brand new outfit might not be a good idea.
If you can, get someone you trust — and/or do a 360-degree mirror scan yourself — to look at your planned outfit from all of angles the audience will see and in the postures you will be presenting from (for example, sitting on a high stool or standing up). Once you’ve decided and are comfortable with how you’ll look, you and your audience can forget about it, and focus more on what matters — your message.
Not always easy to do, but (unless you’re a great actress/actor) you’ll notice that the more fascinated you are by a subject, the more engaging your audience finds your talk.
Feelings are contagious — sometimes even the most traditionally boring of subjects can be made fascinating by the wide-eyed wonder of the person sharing it. If you’re asked to talk about something that’s really not your thing, try to look for an interesting angle on or way to present it that you enjoy. The best performers are often those who make their audience temporarily forget the minutiae of their own lives, instead finding themselves lost in the world of the person they’re watching.
If you find your presentation topic fascinating, you are also likely to have more background knowledge and interesting takes on it. A genuine interest in your subject, plus your preparative research, will help you share an opinion or relevant tidbit if you are asked to elaborate on a point. If you don’t know the answer to an audience question, that’s fine too — you can ask for more context, give a concise version of what you think and also find step-by-step guidance on how to answer audience questions here.
Overall, I notice a huge difference between my old presentations as an accountant vs. the last few years as a personal development coach. I light up now, and my opinions sound more thought through because they are — it’s just a topic I naturally spend more time researching and thinking about. In general, if you care more, your audience likely will too. Bringing your passion and personality to your speech will make things more compelling for you and your audience. When you get into this groove, you may even (surprisingly) start enjoying yourself, and find that your presentation time flies by.
Practicing mindfulness — or staying non-judgmentally present with and aware of the ‘here and now’ (rather than mind-wandering into worries or thoughts about the past or future) — has had a significant impact on my public speaking skills.
When we feel anxious, faint or lost for words on stage, it’s often because we’re wrapped up in stressful, self-judgmental thoughts in our heads. We might think “Oh gosh, the person over there looks bored, therefore I must sound stupid….” or “Wow, I’m speaking way too fast / I skipped a part / why did I have a bad hair day today!” — and subsequently send ourselves into a panicked head-spin about how badly we’re doing. If you had an audience member shouting throughout how terrible your talk was going, you’d likely feel pretty distracted! When we allow ourselves to get taken over by self-judgmental thoughts whilst public speaking, this is pretty much what’s going on in our minds— and we’re usually far harsher on ourselves than we would be to anyone else.
My favorite way to prevent myself from getting lost in self-judgmental thoughts when I’m public speaking, is to keep bringing my awareness back to my breath, body and the room I’m in.
When you notice you are being distracted by difficult thoughts during (or just before) your talk, you can try:
I’m also a fan of movements and sounds that feel good before performing a talk. This can be a science-backed ‘power pose’ (standing with hands on hips, feet apart and chin slightly uplifted); dancing or shaking my arms; or warming up my voice by humming or singing scales. This movement helps get me into my body and out of my anxious thoughts, and shifts any pre-presentation nerves into a more positive and manageable excitement.
Once you realize you can better manage your response to public speaking (practice helps) with breathing, non-judgmental awareness of physical sensations or your environment, you will feel more in control (and therefore, less scared) of your reaction to public speaking. Again, you may even enjoy it once you learn to be in flow with what you’re doing instead of being randomly distracted by your judgmental thoughts.
As I mentioned, it’s almost always our negative self-talk that makes public speaking scary, rather than the actual presentation situation itself. After all, you’re usually just standing there, speaking to other people — thankfully not in an actual life-or-death scenario!
You can notice what’s going on objectively with your breath, physical sensations and environment — but what about getting better at noticing your thoughts and when you’re getting lost in them, or managing to calm your mind down to be less judgmental in the first place? In my experience, these are some of the most transferable, and seemingly magical, benefits of having a regular meditation practice.
Since starting to meditate five years ago, I’ve noticed a gradual (and unexpected) improvement in my response to previously stressful situations like public speaking. My general mind ‘chatter’ has also become significantly quieter and less judgmental, as I now notice thoughts as they happen rather than getting caught up in them.
Meditation can help us practice observing our thoughts and to respond in a more calm and balanced way — even gradually changing our brain’s neural pathways —rather reacting in a less self-aware, automatic or panicky manner to stressors. Studies also suggest that meditation can play a significant role in reducing our body’s stress, or ‘fight-or-flight’, response.
Training our focus during meditation (by repeatedly noticing and then bringing our attention back to our meditation when we get distracted by thoughts) can help us to practice being in the present moment of our presentation, rather than distracted by thoughts. It might be time to try an app like Insight Timer to find a type you enjoy and can add to your self-care routine.
Remember — we are all human. An old public speaking adage suggests imagining everyone in your audience naked, presumably to help you see them as fellow vulnerable and fallible humans. You might be more comforted however, to know that up to 3/4 of people experience some level of anxiety about public speaking — so you’re not alone up there. Many of the people listening to you will also find presenting nerve-wracking, or have close loved ones who do.
Your audience will most likely overwhelmingly want you to succeed in giving a powerful, interesting talk — both from an empathetic and self-interest point of view. Before your talk, imagine the audience rooting for you. Try to picture them as supporters, and think about how your speech will inform, inspire or entertain them.
Try motivating yourself by doing your public speaking for your audience and and considering what you, the room, or the world might miss out on if you do not share your views. If you list the benefits of your talks for all parties, it might give you the purpose you need to see a public speaking opportunity as a blessing (and at the least, a growth opportunity for you) rather than something to be frightened of.
Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or questions please comment below, or contact me here.