It’s been said that public speaking is on par with death, snakes and spiders as one of the world’s most widespread fears. Despite minimal evidence (and almost zero research) to support this claim, it’s clear that many of us fear the slightest turn in the spotlight. Something as low-key as a rousing wedding toast can paralyze even the most loquacious personalities.
As with most phobias we seek to overcome, it’s helpful to confront the fear head-on and understand what’s driving the emotion before we can address specific remedies. Embarrassment, failure and judgment are among the most often-cited reasons for fear of public speaking, and while those are all rational reasons for being afraid, none of those outcomes would wound anything more fragile than the speaker’s ego.
Our clients often find themselves giving important presentations, speaking to media and representing their organizations. These are some of the tips that we share with them to help take fear out of the equation and ensure that public speaking doesn’t have to feel like getting ridiculed in front of the entire schoolyard.
Use nervousness to your advantage. Nervousness is part of the brain’s natural response to challenging or uncertain situations – it triggers the “fight or flight” response. “Flight” makes speakers rush through the material as quickly as possible, or clam up and freeze at the podium. Using the “fight” response instead is the key to building confidence, as nervousness can actually make you a more competent, engaging presenter. It’s OK to “look” nervous, as long as you channel that adrenaline in a positive, productive way.
Body language speaks volumes. If you look uncomfortable, then your audience will feel uncomfortable. Do not grip the podium, as it can make you look rigid and closed off from the audience. When you are presenting from notes or slides, stand up straight and make frequent eye contact. Slouching or looking down at your notes may make you appear disengaged. Try and step away from the podium to emphasize key points and give yourself more room for hand gestures, which can be very effective at getting an audience’s attention as long as they are used sparingly.
Tidy up your voice. Nothing is more distracting than awkward, voiced pauses during a speech. Rather than vocalizing your pauses with “ums” and “ahs,” simply pause if you need to think about the next topic you want to address – it will make you sound less flustered and could even add a dramatic air to your speech. Look out for other “crutch” words and phrases, such as “you know,” “so” and “well.” Instead of defaulting to a crutch word, try repeating your last idea for emphasis while you gather your thoughts for the next topic.
Find a rhythm and keep the beat. Cadence can be the difference between a boring presentation and an engaging one. A drawn-out, monotonous speech with an aimless, shuffling pace is a recipe for fluttering eyelids and fidgeting in the audience. Pick a consistent speed and stick with it, adding variety with your intonation rather than changing pace. Try and focus on being measured and deliberate with your speaking rhythm – like a mid-tempo song. If you have a limited amount of time for your presentation, time yourself delivering it and adjust your cadence accordingly.
Don’t panic. If your train of thought derails, remember what your childhood piano teacher taught you before the recital: the audience doesn’t know you screwed up, so why draw attention to it? Take a deep breath and count to five – just smile and give your brain a chance to process your next move. Don’t accentuate the fact that you are “lost” by resorting to those lazy crutch words like “umm” and “ahh” – just maintain your speaking cadence and backtrack if you need to retrace your steps. Use visual cues in your presentation to jog your memory, or vamp with a clever joke or anecdote until you get back on track.
Finally, a note about preparation – while it’s important to be familiar with your subject matter, the order of your presentation and the “flow” of your ideas, it’s even more critical to “internalize, not memorize” your remarks. That way, you are not shackled to technology or notes or anything that might get lost, misplaced or otherwise corrupted.
A good speech is one that is well rehearsed, but not robotic; one that comes from the heart and not the head. If you display confidence, expertise and positive body language, the words coming out of your mouth are almost a secondary attraction to your passion and belief in what you’re saying.