If you tremble when you think of giving a speech, you’re not alone. It’s normal. Just thinking about it makes me shudder inside — and I’ve spent 18 years giving talks. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years to bust my fear of public speaking.
Illustration by Sam Wooley.
Preparation Is Key
You want your speech to flow like a river, and that won’t happen if you don’t take time to prepare for it. That’s not an easy goal but it can be done. Begin by setting aside time to assemble your piece. Move on by jotting down points you want to get across to your audience. Then arrange them logically, so they flow naturally from one to the next. After this you can mix in something more to hold your audience’s attention: stories, illustrations and props, like images and videos in your slideshow. You likely dread public speaking because you’re not sure what to tackle in your speech, and how to deliver it. By taking notes you make way for your talk to crystallise in your head. Strengthen your speech by doing your due diligence and researching your topic.
For example, let’s say you have a simple speaking assignment, like introducing a guest speaker. If you’re assigned to introduce a dignitary, rather than just read about the guest before the event, go talk to him personally. Find out who he really is and how he wants to be introduced. If you can’t meet in the flesh, you can use the phone or Skype. By speaking to him, you’ll learn his significant achievements, relevant positions he held and his credentials pertinent to the occasion at hand. Now you’re halfway done.
Know Your Audience
At this point you know what to talk about, but how to get it across to your audience is another story. First, you need to know who’ll be listening when you speak. To put it another way, know your audience. Find ways to get acquainted with your listeners. Aim to be intimate with them. Dig up their eccentricities, wants, aches and pet peeves. What are they dying to learn, to hear or to talk about? What are their interests? Be aware of their age bracket. Demographics is an integral part of discovering your audience. You don’t need a formal survey to get this information, either. Just interact with them in the first five minutes of your talk.
Be An Expert On Your Topic
Let's say you're giving a talk on love and romance. Think about your own love life. What are your romantic experiences? Or, think of lessons you've learned from famous love stories. Use these lessons to jazz up your talk.
You can also research love itself, and its fascinating, countless definitions across cultures and borders. Study them, and look at what interests you the most. Pick instances in your own life and connect them specifically to the definitions you studied. If you have time to prepare, you can interview experts and accumulate data for the "love-gems treasure box" you can share with your audience during your talk. Try to turn yourself into a love expert before standing on the podium. When the spotlight hits you, you'll be ready to speak with confidence, eloquence and authority.
Accentuate The Positive
What kind of a speaker are you? To be more effective, you have to identify your style. Get in touch with your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker and zero in on what you do best. Do you have a great sense of humour? Or are you a good storyteller? Perhaps you're someone who teaches well; someone who can break down concepts and explain complex ideas into simple facts. After a thorough analysis, pick your kind and focus on delivering your talk with your own style and in this way, you can shine like a star. Don't alter yourself because you think one style is better than another, or try to be somebody you're not.
Get Comfortable With the Environment
Go check the event venue where you'll speak. Acquaint yourself with the place. Get to know its size. By knowing the dimensions of the area, you'll be able to prepare your movements wisely.
The measurements of the venue are directly proportional to your gestures and movements. Big places require big gestures and wide movements. Small spaces demand the opposite. In a huge hall, you'll need to plan to have big hand gestures and body movements, otherwise you fail to engage your audience. If the venue is as small as a high school classroom, adjust accordingly. In a small space, rolling your eyes will catch people's attention. Even a half smile can emphasise a point.
If you check your speaking venue first, you'll also discover whether you'll have the freedom to walk to and fro an aisle, or you'll be confined in a tiny spot, like behind a podium. These small details are actually not small at all, and if you think thoroughly about them they will make all the difference in your speaking engagement.
Visualise Your Audience Naked (for Hilarity's Sake)
Fear of public speaking is related to the fear of criticism, and the fear of criticism is related to the fear of people's opinions and of non-acceptance. You won't beat this fear easily, but try this: Imagine that you're talking to a group of people who are wearing nothing but undies. I know that's weirdly funny, and that's exactly the point! Visualise the scene. I'm pretty sure you'll be smiling while climbing the stage.
Some question the effectiveness of this tactic, but the point is the best way to face the challenge of public speaking is to not take yourself too seriously. Besides, you're the speaker. You're in charge! When you're finally up on that podium, relax, take three long and deep breaths, smile and say hi to the crowd. If you're still nervous after saying hi, read your first two lines with all the confidence you can muster right from your script. After your first two lines, move on to your third, the fourth and so on. Maintain eye contact.
Generally, when you're done with your initial ten sentences, you're as good as done. Take it one step at a time, and once you're on your way, the rest is easy.
Pay Attention To Your Appearance
Don't overlook a key confidence booster on the day of your speech: your attire.
Make sure you're groomed and looking crisp in your favourite outfit. When you look great, you feel great. On the other hand, if you prefer a casual look and it's appropriate for your event, then go for that non-formal look. It will make you feel more comfortable and more engaging to an equally casual audience. Audiences initially judge you based on looks, so make an extra effort to dress to command respect and confidence.
Psyche Yourself Up
What is the worst thing that could happen if you stand up and talk before a big crowd? You might be booed and embarrassed, but unless you're speaking about a delicate political issue, which is unlikely, that's the absolute worst that could happen. No one will take you to court just for speaking in front of a crowd.
However, if you prepare properly, you'll never be embarrassed. Convince yourself of this: You'll prepare thoroughly and studiously, and you'll put up an engaging talk.
Practise Like Your Life Depends On It
For the time that you're on the podium, your life depends on how hard you prepared and practised. If you mess up, your audience will remember you for that. That's enough reason to practise, and keep practising. Record a video of yourself practising your speech and study your strengths and weaknesses. Pinpoint times when you use "like", "ummm" or "aaah", and do your best to eliminate them. There are many disfluencies like these, but "um" and "ah" are the most common. Discard them from your speech.
When you record yourself, you'll also notice whether you speak too fast or too slow. Adjust your talking speed so your audience will get the most of your presentation. Reviewing your speech on video is also a way to check if you have the tendency to speak in monotone. If you do, make a point to vary your tone. Remember, practice leads to perfection.