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) when my name was called to read out loud in class. Even at the finance firm where I started my career, I nearly fainted during my technical (and dull) team presentation.
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. Recently, I’ve found myself feeling strangely at home on stage.
Being previously terrified to talk in front of people; I’ve discovered that confident, effective public speaking can be a learned skill.
Six repeatable practices helped me to overcome my own glossophobia:
If you were going to perform a musical instrument or dance, 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. We fear 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. Take on a leadership role in meetings, give talks to smaller audiences. Maybe even starting to leave voice notes instead of messaging friends (I found this oddly helpful for speaking confidence).
Check out Toastmasters International — a non-profit offering local, supportive group meetings to improve public speaking and leadership skills. 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 start off as an observer, or give your own off-the-cuff 90-second presentation amongst the regulars from the get-go. Members can take on a different role at each meeting (such as timekeeper or leader) and give 6–7 minute prepared speeches when they feel ready. Your speech will be timed and given constructive feedback. My local London group is made up of all ages and backgrounds; with a common thread of a willingness to improve and non-judgmentally support each other.
You could also find a specialist public speaking coach near you if you want personalized coaching sessions. Reading Carmine Gallo’s book “Talk Like Ted” gave me the tips to feel more confident, in a 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 practice and preparation just make a ginormous difference to your confidence on the day. For any kind of presentation — speak out loud to yourself, in the mirror, to friends 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’re sharing acronyms or specialist terms, make sure you can briefly define them. Prep for the level of knowledge of the audience you are speaking to. During one Q&A, I was asked 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 (1-2 sentences) about your points. This helps with nerves around unexpected topics.
For in-real-life public speaking, prepare by getting to the venue early. Scope it out before your talk if possible, so 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.
My aforementioned work fainting incident was partly due to clothes that were too tight! From head to toe, plan an outfit and grooming that is:
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 the soles of your shoes have visible stickers/dirt. No-one wants to constantly (and distractingly) be tugging their skirt hem down whilst trying to do a presentation. A restrictive outfit can interfere with your breath and contribute to you feeling less relaxed. A brand new outfit might not be a good idea, or one that is detracts attention from your talk.
Do a 360-degree mirror scan yourself and ask someone you trust . See your planned outfit particularly in the postures you;ll be presenting from (e.g. sitting on a high stool or standing up). Once you’re decided and comfortable with how you look, you and your audience can forget about it, and focus on what matters — your message.
Not always easy, but (unless you’re a great actress/actor) the more fascinated you are by a subject, the more engaging your talk is.
Feelings are contagious. Even the most traditionally boring of subjects sound fascinating from the wide-eyed wonder of the person sharing it. If you’re asked to talk about something that’s really not your thing; look for an interesting angle 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. Finding themselves lost in the world of the person they’re watching.
If you find your presentation topic fascinating, you’re likely to have more knowledge and interesting takes on it. A genuine interest in your subject, plus your research, helps you share an opinion or relevant point when asked to elaborate. If you don’t know the answer to an audience question, that’s fine too . Ask for more context, give a concise version of what you think; and also find more info 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, finding your presentation flies by.
Practicing mindfulness means 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). It can surprisingly have a significant impact on 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. We might think “Oh gosh, the person over there looks bored, therefore I must sound stupid….” or “Wow, I’m speaking way too fast / 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 get taken over by self-judgmental thoughts whilst public speaking, this is what’s going on in our minds. We’re usually far harsher on ourselves than we would be to anyone else.
My favorite way to stop 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.
I’m also a fan of movements and sounds that feel good before 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 into your body and out of anxious thoughts; shifting pre-presentation nerves into a more positive 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 being in flow with what you’re doing, instead of randomly distracted by judgmental thoughts.
It’s almost always 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. 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. General mind ‘chatter’ becomes significantly quieter and less judgmental, as you 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 want you to succeed in giving a powerful, interesting talk; both from an empathetic and self-interested point of view. Before your talk, imagine the audience rooting for you. Picture them as supporters, and think about how your speech informs, inspires or entertains them.
Motivate yourself by doing your public speaking for your audience. Consider what you, the room, or the world might miss out on if you do not share your views. Listing the benefits of your talks for all parties gives you the purpose you need to see a public speaking opportunity as a blessing (and 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.