Your name is called. You walk up to the stage, grab that microphone, and look out into the sea of faces. They are unreadable, implacable, stern, and unforgiving. They’re judging you, oh God, those people are judging you. You start to sweat. You nearly drop the mic. And you’ve forgotten what to say . . .
Ah, public speaking. Doesn’t this sound like a nightmare? For most of us, it’s a nightmare that has become reality at some point or another. Not my extreme example of fear and anxiety, but the need to speak in front of a large group of people.
There are some skills that everybody should know, or at least have a basic familiarity with. Some are social, some are practical, but all are important. Ed Latimore goes over the importance of social skills here, but public speaking is one that I’d like to give in-depth attention to.
A 2014 poll found that a quarter of American adults surveyed feared public speaking over things like heights, snakes, and clowns. Clowns, people. And beyond the numbers, public speaking is generally a thing most people prefer never to do in their lives. Just ask those you know and I guarantee more than 25% will tell you they’d rather spend time with a clown than speak before a crowd.
But public speaking is an important skill! Especially for those of us in the office-world, the higher you move up your career ladder, the more likely it is you’ll need to address large groups of people, often with some sort of visual aid like a chart or a PowerPoint presentation.
And beyond that, if you’re in business for yourself, you’ll have to pitch your ideas before potential investors and customers.
Everybody should be comfortable speaking in public.
What if I were to tell you that not only are most of your fears unfounded, not only that most of what is giving you anxiety is within your control, but that the ways to control this fear and anxiety are really simple?
You don’t need to be an expert, but you should be able to accomplish the most common goal of giving a speech or a presentation: Persuasion.
Like it or not, a lot of life is convincing people to do what you want them to. Not in a sneaky, underhanded way, but by presenting facts in a clear and memorable manner.
I don’t need to get into the psychology behind it, but as someone that does not fear public speaking, and in fact rather enjoys it, I can give a few pointers.
First off, what are my qualifications? Why should you listen to me anyway?
This is an important question, and one I’m glad you asked. Here are the biggest sources of my experience:
- I am an attorney by training and profession, with six years of litigation experience. That means that nearly every day for six years, I was in a courtroom in front of a judge or magistrate, making my case, often in front of a packed courtroom. My entire job is trying to convince people to do what I want them to do. You learn how to speak in public or you crash and burn (see: Nine Lessons from the Law You Can Apply to Your Life).
- I am a musician by training with 20 years of experience. This means that since I was 10-years-old and first joined my school band, I’ve been performing on stages in front of people in one form or another. Again, you either learn to overcome stage-fright or you crash and burn (see: Nine Lessons from Music You Can Apply to Your Life).
So again, don’t take my advice as gospel, but at least be aware that I’m not pulling stuff out of a rather unsavory orifice. I’m sharing what works for me. And I’m sharing it for free. If you only find one thing useful, then I’ve done my job.
Some of these pointers are mental, and others are physical, and both have effects on the other. A lot of times our minds affects what our bodies do, and our bodies affect what our minds do. Everything is connected, which is important to keep in mind.
And I’m not going to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how to put together your presentation, since that could be another post. Instead, these tips are to help you overcome anxiety, since most public-speaking anxiety is caused by fear of the unknown and insufficient preparation.
And here’s the best part: Public speaking is actually far easier than you think.
Nine Ways to Help Reduce Public Speaking Anxiety:
This sounds stupid, but it works. In his book Gorilla Mindset, author Mike Cernovich calls this “abundance posture,” but whatever name you use, standing in this way is scientifically proven to raise testosterone and lower cortisol. In other words, the hormone that makes you more dominant and confident goes up, and the hormone that stresses you out goes down.
What this means is that you can use your body to psych out your mind. If you have the time, this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy is worth watching, as she gets deeper into the power of body language.
And beyond the effects posture has on your mind, it has an affect on your audiences’. People are much more apt to take a speaker seriously if they project an air of confidence. This means straight back, shoulders relaxed but not slumped, and a pleasant facial expression. Again, it sounds dumb, but these things matter. You don’t want your message to get obscured by your medium–you want your medium to amplify your message.
2. Everybody Wants to See You and Nobody Will Remember Your Mistakes: Most of your nervousness is the result of anxiety: “What if I screw up?” “What if nobody likes my speech?” and so on. But the biggest source of angst is, “Will people remember my screw-ups?”
It’s a common question, but I think you’re going to like the answer: No! Unless you’re being videotaped, nobody in your audience will remember those little mistakes. Ten minutes after your presentation, most people in the audience will have forgotten about you, but not about what you’ve said. So I’m telling you, unless you break down in tears on stage, nobody’s going to be talking or laughing about your screw-ups after the fact.
And even better than that, remember: Everybody is there to see you because they want to listen. You are the star of the show. This is liberating, not frightening. The audience wants to be entertained or enlightened. They are not there to see you fail, they are there to see you succeed. Focusing on that instead of them laughing at you can help calm those nerves.
I’m just planting this seed in your head. But the best thing about it is
3. Breath Control: Don’t be afraid to take a deep breath before beginning a section of your speech, or even at the beginning of a sentence. A good, deep breath has a relaxing effect and will allow you to project your voice and mitigate against any quavers, which leads into my next tip. But as a de-stresser, combined with your posture, deep breathing works wonders. Even better, your audience won’t notice it, so you have no reason to be self-conscious about your breathing.
4. Voice Modulation: Who would you rather listen to: Robin Williams as the English teacher in Dead Poets Society, or Ben Stein as the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?
You probably said Ben Stein because you’re a pain in the ass, but that’s alright, because I like you.
The point is this: If you speak either in a monotone or are constantly yelling, your presentation will be difficult to understand, off-putting, or both. Use your voice to highlight key parts of your speech. Sometimes it pays to speak softly at times, to get your audience to pay attention, before bringing the energy up during the important points.
The best way to do this is to rehearse, which we’ll get to later. But when it comes to rehearsing for the tone of voice you want to use, I don’t mean to necessarily memorize your speech, but to know what your key ideas are and match the most effective tone of voice to them. This is more of a “feel” thing, but it’s your speech, so you’ll be able to figure this out.
This video from Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich offers some great advice to help you add emotion to what you’re saying. Remember: Emotion is only useful if it helps to amplify your ideas.
5. The Best Way to Overcome Thinking Noises: “Um,” “like,” “uh,” “sort of,” “kind of” and “you know” are the biggest banes of all speakers’ existence. I use “so” too much, but have been known to toss in way more than my fair share of “um,” especially when starting a new sentence.
It’s important to cut these out because it goes to credibility: What is most likely to make the listener take you more seriously? Like it or not, people subconsciously place importance on things like this–no matter how brilliant your message is, and it is, if it’s peppered with “likes” and “you knows,” your credibility will diminish.
The best way to overcome this is the simple cliche you’ve heard most of your life: Silence. That’s right, just stop talking for a second. This actually works, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
And there’s a wonderful way to practice this technique. Unless you’re a hermit–and if you are, my hat is off to you for your dedication to your chosen lifestyle–you talk to people on a daily basis. So try to cut out your thinking noises in your everyday conversation and that habit will carry over to any speech you have to give.
6. Your Hands: Here’s another simple but effective tip: Use your hands. Not in that crazy Mediterranean way, but again, as a way to amplify your message.
This Washington Post article is a good primer, but here are some tips and gestures I’ve found to be effective.
Staccato chops, but don’t overdo it: Generally, favor short, staccato gestures for emphasis rather than florid swirls. And keep them within an imaginary box-shaped boundary near your midsection. Like it or not, politicians are great at this stuff, so let’s take a look at some gestures from a politician I’m sure most of you have heard of.
“Holding a globe”: President Obama does this one, and it’s a good way to project strength without seeming threatening. Check out his hands: It looks like he’s cradling some kind of spherical object, doesn’t it?
Not only does this project confidence, but it’s a good way to keep your hands occupied in a non-distracting way if you otherwise don’t know what to do with them.
An alternative to pointing: Pointing is a no-no, but I’m also not a fan of the “Clinton thumb.” Here’s a great alternative, once again courtesy of Mr. Obama. Take it away, Barack!
It’s like, I don’t know, a pinch or something. Either way, it’s less confrontational than a point and less hackneyed than the Clinton thumb, and can help you emphasize a point without seeming like you’re angry at that guy over there!
As with everything, rehearse in front of a mirror! Which brings us to my next tip.
7. Rehearse in front of a mirror: You will feel silly. You will feel dumb. I don’t care. This is important because like I said above, the unknown is your biggest source of anxiety. Rehearsing your speech and your body language can remove one variable from the equation entirely.
You are in control of more than you think. Take advantage of this and your fear will decrease dramatically.
8. Don’t memorize word-for-word, but know your ideas: Obviously, there will be times where you do have to read or memorize something word-for-word, and you will need to rehearse. But this can not only sound scripted (because it is), but it’s easy to get thrown off your game.
Instead, what I’ve found works better is to know your material and believe what you say. When you rehearse, work on memorizing the key beats of your presentation and the big idea behind each section. You will be able to fill in the rest extemporaneously, which will make your speech sound more natural. This, in turn, will mean that you will build a better rapport with your audience than if you were reading something line-by-line. Remember; It’s all about trust and persuasion.
9. Move!: Don’t be afraid to roam around on stage. Unless you’re expected–or prefer–to speak at a podium, you’ll have free reign of your speaking area. Not only does this give your audience something to look at to keep them engaged, it has two practical benefits:
- When making a transition from one section to the next, instead of saying “Sooooo” like I have a tendency to do, you can physically walk a few steps in a different direction. This will give you time to get your thoughts in order and use your body to trick your mind into thinking “Okay, we’re moving on.
- Walking will help dissipate nervous energy, and looks better than shifting your weight from foot to foot.
Public speaking is easier than you think, and most of the variable are within your control. The fact is, most of your anxiety is the result of placing too much importance on what other people think of you and being unprepared. The tips above have helped me with public speaking throughout my life, and they’ll help you do the same.
And if not, I want you to come to my house and give a 20-minute presentation to me and 200 of my closest friends and family about why they didn’t.
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