If you’re like most people, you’d rather get a root canal than speak in front of a crowd. Public speaking is one of those things we go out of our way to avoid. However, knowing how to speak confidently in front of others can lead to huge payoffs for your career.
For example, being a great public speaker can help you confidently ask your boss or HR team to give you that promotion you’re perfect for. It can help you interview for the job of your dreams. It can help you deliver a presentation that convinces your team to move forward on one of your ideas, giving you a chance to get noticed by top leadership and keep climbing the corporate ladder. If you’re a small business owner or freelancer, great public speaking skills can help grow your business, land new clients, or raise some much-needed venture capital.
And these scenarios only scratch the surface. Improving your public speaking skills can pay off in thousands of different ways. Let’s look at what you can do to overcome your fear of public speaking and improve your technique.
The Many Benefits of Public Speaking
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers rank verbal communication skills as the most important trait they look for in candidates. You can have a top degree or years of experience in your field, but if you can’t communicate effectively, your other accolades won’t do you much good.
Knowing how to communicate one-on-one is essential, but so is the ability to communicate with a group. No matter which field you’re in, chances are high that one day you’ll have to get up in front of others and talk to them about something. Situations you might face include:
- Leading regular team meetings
- Negotiating your salary
- Pitching your company’s services to potential clients
- Training new hires in your organization
- Participating in a panel interview with a hiring team
- Giving a presentation at your industry’s trade conference
- Convince organization leaders not to lay off your team
The ability to speak well in front of a crowd can be incredibly important in your personal life too. Perhaps your child’s school is facing budget cuts and might have to close, and you want to speak up at the next school board meeting to try to convince them to keep the doors open another year. Or maybe your town is facing a controversial decision, such as whether or not to allow fracking within city limits, and you want to speak in front of the city council about the issue.
Another benefit of building your public speaking skills is that it teaches you how to overcome fear. Yes, it’s a challenge to get up in front of others and make your case, and you often have to think on your feet and deal with surprises. But as you get better, your confidence will skyrocket, which can open up opportunities in all areas of your life.
How to Minimize Your Fear of Public Speaking
According to the 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, 20% of Americans say they are “afraid” or “very afraid” of public speaking. Some people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying.
Research shows that our phobia surrounding public speaking is so strong that it isn’t even minimized in virtual reality. In a study published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, researchers asked a group of people to step up on stage, in a virtual reality environment with a virtual audience, and give a speech. The group who was phobic about public speaking showed a significant increase in signs of anxiety, even though they knew they were speaking to a simulation.
Experienced public speakers Mark Bonchek and Mandy Gonzalez write on Harvard Business Review that the fear surrounding speaking in public never really goes away. You might still get butterflies in your stomach before you step onstage or sweaty hands before leading your next big meeting, even after you’ve gotten better at public speaking. The good news is that while you might not be able to eliminate your fear completely, there are ways you can minimize it so you can perform at your best.
You’re due to make an important presentation in an hour, and you’re scrambling. Your slides aren’t finished, the flow of your speech is still disorganized, and you haven’t practiced at all. Can you imagine how anxious you’d be in this scenario?
Award-winning professional speaker Somers White once said, “Ninety percent of how well [a] talk will go is determined before the speaker steps on the platform.” Being prepared is one of the most important things you can do to minimize your fear of public speaking. If you’re not prepared, deep breathing and visualization techniques won’t do you a bit of good.
It takes a great deal of time to prepare adequately for a speech or public presentation. Some public speaking experts estimate that you should spend one hour of preparation for every minute of your speech. Here’s what you should do in that time.
Step 1: Identify Your Purpose
As best-selling author Harvey Diamond said, “If you don’t know what you want to achieve in your presentation, your audience never will.”
Stop and think about why you’re giving this speech or presentation. Are you trying to convince your audience to do something? Are you informing them about something? Are you trying to compel them to act?
Identify the “why” behind your speech; this will help keep your thoughts focused and on point. Next, come up with one sentences that expresses this “why.” You might end up using this sentence as the title of your speech, but at the very least, it will help you stay focused when you start researching and gathering material.
Step 2: Identify Your Audience
Once you pin down the “why” of your speech, look at who you’ll be talking to. When you know your audience, you have a better chance of connecting with them. Ask yourself: Why is this topic important to my audience? What do they need to learn from my presentation?
Next, think about your audience’s existing knowledge and skill level. For example, if you’re speaking to people who know very little about your topic, you need to avoid using jargon or complex technical terms. If you’re speaking to people who know your industry well, they’ll be familiar with the terms commonly used in your field.
If you’re presenting to a foreign audience, conduct plenty of research beforehand to identify any cultural differences that might get in the way of good communication. This will help you avoid miscommunication or making a gaffe that might negatively affect your reputation.
One way to better understand your audience is to talk to the event sponsor or organizer. They might have some insights into who is likely to attend your speech. If you’re speaking to a group within your organization, make a list of attendees and spend time thinking about their levels of expertise and how your topic might benefit them, either personally or professionally.
Another technique is to greet people at the door as they walk in. This gives you a chance to ask questions about their expectations and skill level.
Step 3: Build Your Outline
Now, it’s time to construct an outline for your speech. This outline will give you a framework on which to build.
Your outline will start out very basic, with just three core elements:
- Introduction. Introduce yourself and explain to your audience what they can expect to learn from your speech. If you’re trying to convince your audience of something (e.g., that they should buy your product), use the introduction to explain how you will solve their problem (e.g., how much money they will save by using your services) or how they’ll benefit from the information you’ll be presenting.
- Body. The body of the outline contains your core message and should have, at most, three main points; any more than this and you risk losing your audience. Start by listing each of your main points and then, underneath, list the research, statistics, stories, or insights you’ll use to support each point.
- Conclusion. Your conclusion should reiterate, as concisely as possible, everything you just told your audience. You also need to explain what you want your audience to do with this information. What action do you want them to take when all is said and done?
As you start to get organized and write your speech, think carefully about which stories you can use to better connect with your audience. Yes, these people will be there to learn something new, but they also want to get to know you and to feel as excited about this topic as you are. How could you make your speech more personal?
You can find more detailed information on writing a solid outline from Toastmasters International.
Step 4: Organize Your Visual Aids
According to Toastmasters International, people remember 40% more when they hear and see something simultaneously. However, too many speakers use their visual aids as a crutch, creating a ton of slides and then reading them like cue cards. That will quickly bore your audience, which is the last thing you want to do.
A picture can be worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, but you need to make sure it’s a good picture. Use your visual aids to drive home your most important points, and choose images and graphs that convey emotion or simplify information.
Keep in mind that while PowerPoint can be useful, it can also become tedious for your audience. Each slide should contain a minimal number of words. The more you talk, rather than read, the more believable you’ll be. It’s also a good idea to vary your visual aids, such as using slides and physical objects to make your point.
Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice
Your speech might be compelling and thoroughly researched. It might have some great jokes and emotional stories. But if you don’t practice and then practice some more, it won’t matter. Your speech will flop, and your audience will walk away uninformed and uninspired.
Every time you practice, you’ll get a little better. You’ll learn the material, figure out which phrases are awkward and unwieldy, and get a better sense of how each of your points should flow naturally into each other.
Start by practicing in front of the mirror. Look yourself in the eye as much as possible, and focus on memorizing your content so you rely less on your cue cards. From the beginning, practice using your visual aids (yes, even when you’re in front of the mirror). It will make using them second-nature when the big day comes.
Once you feel comfortable with your content, practice in front of an audience. This could be your family, a group of colleagues, or even your dog. You’ll be amazed at how speaking to people, even those you know well, will change how you deliver your message.
Ask your friends and family to ask tough questions at the end so you get better at thinking on your feet. Also ask them to give you honest feedback, such as:
- Are your jokes funny, or do they miss the boat?
- Did you appear nervous or natural?
- Were your points logical and easy to follow?
- Were any of your gestures distracting?
- Was your pacing slow enough?
- Did your visual aids add to your message, or were they a distraction?
If you can, record this particular practice speech so you can watch it afterward. Pay special attention to your breath and the speed of your delivery; chances are, you’ll be talking too fast due to nerves. Practice slowing down and taking deep breaths next time.
Treat every practice as if it’s the real thing. Don’t merely go through the motions or casually flip through your slides while you mumble your main points. Include every pause and every transition when you practice. If you act like it’s real every single time, you’ll be much more polished and confident on the day of.
Last, practice your speech in the setting in which you’ll be giving it whenever possible. For example, if you’re giving a speech in your company boardroom, practice in the boardroom. If you’re giving a presentation at a trade conference, go to the venue and practice there.
The advantage to practicing in your final setting is that you’ll feel much more comfortable when it’s time to give your speech. You’ll be familiar with the layout of the room, how to use the audiovisual equipment, and how much space you have to move around.
Write Down Your Fears
Preparing for your speech is, hands down, one of the best ways to overcome your fears. After all, when you’re comfortable with your material, your confidence will naturally go up. But there is more you can do.
In their piece on Harvard Business Review, Bonchek and Gonzalez recommend being honest about your fears. To do this, sit down and make a list of every fear you have about public speaking. Write these fears down, being as specific as possible. Then, imagine a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario for each fear.
For example, you might be afraid that you’ll get onstage and your visual aids won’t work. What’s the worst that could happen in this scenario? You might be caught off-guard and wind up stumbling through your speech. To avoid this, practice what you’ll do if your equipment fails. What’s the best that might happen in this scenario? Well, you might be forced to improvise and end up giving a powerful and moving speech that’s much better than if you’d stuck strictly to your notes and slides.
We tend to dramatize our worst-case scenarios and don’t give much thought to the best-case scenarios. Reality often falls somewhere in between these extremes. Giving voice to your fears can help you come up with a plan for overcoming them if they should happen.
How to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills
Dialing down your fear of public speaking is important. After all, if you’re completely terrified of speaking, you won’t have much intellectual or emotional room to improve your technique.
However, once you’ve gotten your speech organized and you’ve practiced enough to know your material inside and out, there are plenty of strategies you can use to transform yourself into a confident, compelling speaker.
1. Use Silence to Your Advantage
According to actor Sir Ralph Richardson, “The most precious things in speech are the pauses.” While he was speaking of acting, the same is true for public speaking.
A well-timed pause gives your audience a few seconds to absorb something you really want them to know. Pauses can also add drama and emotional charge to your words. As you practice, find places to insert pauses to emphasize your most important points.
2. Practice Your Gestures
Your body language communicates more to your audience than your words ever will.
Researchers at the Center for Body Language studied the body language of successful leaders across a range of fields. As researcher Kasia Wezowski wrote on Harvard Business Review, they found that the right gestures can help you build trust with your audience and make you appear relaxed and confident.
For example, one of the best gestures to build trust is named “the Clinton Box” after former President Bill Clinton. Wezowski explains that early in his political career, Clinton used big, wide gestures in his speeches, which made him look untrustworthy to his audience. To help keep his gestures under control, his coaches asked him to imagine a box in front of his chest and stomach and to keep his hands within that box. When you use “the Clinton Box,” your audience is more likely to feel that you’re telling the truth.
There are plenty of other body language techniques you can use to communicate important messages to your audience. If you’re sitting down in a meeting, making a pyramid or steeple with your hands while you talk can signal to others that you’re relaxed and confident. If you’re standing, keep your legs shoulder-width apart; a wider stance indicates greater self-confidence.
One way to get better at your body language and gestures is to watch other great speakers online. TED Talks are a great place to start. You can also check out “The Silent Language of Leaders” by Carol Kinsey Gomen, which goes into detail about how you can use your facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone to be a more effective communicator.
3. Find a Friendly Face
You’re due onstage in less than a minute, and your nerves are out of control. What can you do to calm down?
One way to ground yourself is by closing your eyes and taking several deep, slow breaths. Try not to think; instead, focus solely on the sound of your breath. Feel your feet on the ground.
Another technique is to find a friendly face or two in the crowd. Tell yourself that these people are interested in what you have to say and that they are nice people. For the first few seconds, or even the first few minutes, focus on talking to them. This can help you calm down while you get into the flow of your speech. Once you’re less nervous, make eye contact with others in the room.
4. Adopt a Power Pose Before Your Talk
In her TED Talk “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy states that holding particular body poses for just two minutes can increase the level of testosterone in your body. Whether you’re a man or a woman, this boost of testosterone can lower your stress and increase your confidence.
Cuddy calls these poses “expressions of power,” and they’re as ancient as the human race itself. Even animals use these poses to express confidence and dominance in different situations.
An expression of power pose is basically anything that makes you look bigger. So, adopt a wide stance with your legs and hold your arms out or stand on your tiptoes and reach for the sky. Your goal is to take up as much space as possible. Remember to hold these poses for a full two minutes.
Do this in a quiet corner right before the start of your speech, and you might be surprised by how effective it is at lessening your anxiety and boosting your confidence.
5. Join a Public Speaking Club
Toastmasters International is the largest public speaking club in the world. It was started in 1924 to help people improve their public speaking and leadership skills. To date, there are more than 354,000 members in 141 countries.
Toastmasters International gives you the opportunity to learn by doing. Membership means giving a lot of speeches in front of live audiences. You’ll be paired with a mentor who is an experienced public speaker and will get feedback from your audience immediately after every speech. It’s trial by fire, with plenty of help and coaching along the way.
6. Learn From the Best
As you might imagine, there are a copious number of books that can teach you how to become a better public speaker.
One classic is Dale Carnegie’s “How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking.” Another best-seller is “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds” by Carmine Gallo. If you’re looking for a laugh while you learn, don’t miss Scott Berkun’s “Confessions of a Public Speaker.”
You can also head to YouTube for videos on how to improve your public speaking skills. A great place to start is “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking” by TED Talks curator Chris Anderson.
Your ability to speak well in public can have an enormous impact on your success in life. Polishing these skills gives you the power to convince people to change their minds or see the value in your ideas. Confidence in your ability to speak in front of a group can keep you visible in a competitive organization, help you land promotions you might have otherwise been passed over for, or motivate new clients and customers to try your business.
Simply put, being a good public speaker helps you build rock-solid credibility, but it will only come with practice and experience. So get practicing!
What tips and techniques do you find most useful when you have to speak in public? How have you gotten over any public speaking fears?