For many of us, the thought of standing up in front of a crowd and speaking fills us with fear and dread. Addressing an audience, especially one you are not familiar with, can bring butterflies to the stomach, a stutter to your speech, and sentences filled with awkward pauses and “ums”. At best, we can feel that we under-performed. At worst, we suffer with nausea, a blank-mind, sweaty palms and an array of anxiety induced symptoms.
Public speaking is often at the top of people’s “NOT to do” lists, invoking fear, stress, and anxiety. But why is that? One theory is that the underlying fear of public speaking is rooted in a fear of failure; an issue that plagues most of humankind. We are neurologically programmed to avoid situations that generate discomfort and fear. When it comes to public speaking, this means that many of us choose to avoid the act altogether rather than risk failing at it.
My story – I’m one of the lucky ones
I am fortunate enough to be the exception to the rule. I have always enjoyed public speaking and I thrive when I am able to engage others, whether that is a friend, a small group of panellists, or an audience of 500 people. Speaking and presenting has been a part of my job for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I practiced the skill in school and found the experience fun and fulfilling. One of my favourite elements of public speaking is the opportunity to learn about my audience, how I can be of service, and in doing so, what I can learn about myself. Over the years, I have refined my ability to communicate ideas concisely. At the core of my motivation is the opportunity to help and inspire others.
If you can speak, you can influence. If you can influence, you can change lives – Rob Brown
Being able to speak in front of an audience and speak well is one of the most valuable tools you can have at your disposal, both professionally and personally. It is a pathway to inform, persuade and entertain others. Communication is the foundation for all relationships; it’s how we connect with and understand each other. If you are not naturally inclined towards public speaking, don’t worry – it is a skill, just like ballet, running, languages or poetry. Yes, some people are more naturally pre-disposed than others, but speaking is a skill just like any other; with persistence and practice, you will improve.
Key Lessons for Public Speaking
1. How do you get better and build confidence?
Practice, practice, PRACTICE! Practice until you know your material and can answer questions with confidence. Use a mirror or get a friend or group of friends or colleagues to provide feedback. Recording yourself is an excellent strategy – you’d be surprised how much you move your hands, make facial expressions or other odd things when you watch the recording back.
2. Be aware
Understand how your body language and voice projection can affect an audience. Practice using your diaphragm, so your voice carries in case the microphone does not work or is not available.
3. Know your audience
The golden rule of public speaking is your speech is about the audience, not you. Understanding your audience is critical to building the right structure, using the right language and being able to connect and engage. Remember you want to connect, not just speak at them. Nobody enjoys a lecture!
4. Building the right structure
Make sure you know what your goal and key messages are and have a general framework to follow. Know your central idea and main points and aim to capture the audience in the first 30 seconds. Similar to a strong elevator pitch, this will set the tone for the rest of the time you are presenting. Build polls or interactive elements to keep the audience engaged and finish strong with a dynamic ending that will stay in people’s minds.
5. Be adaptable
Watch for feedback and adapt to it. If something is not resonating or you are losing the audience, you need to adapt and change. Know your material so well that you can present without slides or props. The best speaker sessions are those that are natural, thoughtful, and not too “staged”.
6. Be yourself
Let your personality shine through! This will help you feel comfortable and build trust with your audience. Your audience has given you their precious time in sitting to listen to you. In return, give them your wisdom, your story and your authentic (appropriate!) views and vision.
7. Tell stories and be humorous and humble
Remember, humans connect through story. A personal touch will go a long way with your audience. Use a play on words or a funny narrative to enrich your key messaging and build a memorable bond, but above all stay authentic. If it is not true, don’t use it. Remember that no one expects or wants perfection, they want human stories, told with a little humour and humility.
8. Use prompts, but don’t read!
We all remember the boring classes at school where teachers read every line of a presentation in a monotone voice; this may feel like a safe approach, but it comes across as lazy and under-prepared! Instead, prepare a few prompts on cards and practice to ensure you remember the “flow” of your speech.
9. It’s all a learning curve
There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave. – Dale Carnegie
My best advice is to say “yes” to every opportunity to present or be a public speaker. Prepare, practice, try your best and learn from the experience. Be kind to yourself if mistakes happen and remember every “failure” is an opportunity to learn.
10. Have fun!
Bring your full self, smile and have fun! Your audience will feel and feed off your energy.
If you are nervous about public speaking, then congratulations, you’re human! If you play sport or music, you might recognise that on game day or competition day you get butterflies. But you know that you have hours and hours of practice behind you, so when the game starts or you step onto the platform you are ready to go with confidence and conviction, giving it your all. Public speaking is no different.
Remember that we get to CHOOSE the reality we live in. Let’s reframe the anxious butterflies in the stomach to courageous ones. Your confidence is simply waiting to be let out of its cage once you step onto that stage and passionately deliver your message. What are you waiting for?
Struggling with public speaking? Let’s connect and see how we can PIVOT your voice into a powerful force and open up new possibilities for your career and life.