You tried to avoid this class but your advisor said you need it to graduate. You dread the thought of speaking in front of a large group. It’s too much to bear. How will you survive this public speaking class?
I’ve learned a thing or two in my time as a student and instructor, so let’s break down this daunting subject with the hopes of making it bearable. You just may learn a thing or two to make the experience less painful. Let’s start with what’s likely to be your first concern.
1.) What to do about anxiety
You may think you’re one of very few people affected by public speaking anxiety. This couldn’t be more wrong! It’s entirely normal to get stressed out or even paralyzed with fear before an upcoming speech.
Anxiety is often a sign that you care, and that’s a good thing. Harness that anxious energy towards preparing your notes and rehearsing your delivery. In this way, anxiety can be beneficial.
But public speaking anxiety is extremely uncomfortable and we want to get rid of it. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic goal. We’re human and we experience a full range of emotions, including fear.
But public speaking anxiety can be managed and reduced. You can use some tricks like running warm water over your hands, having a light snack, drinking water or tea, getting up for a short walk, or adopting the power-poses (see Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk).
Above all else, don’t forget to BREATHE. Take slow, deep and conscious breaths to calm your body and mind. Try counting out ten breaths. Or you can take a deliberate breath between your main points. This can even help you transition from one point to the next. I’ve seen many speakers run out of breath as they’re starting and it’s hard to watch. Remember to breathe and you’ll be okay!
2.) Improving your flow
There’s no greater punishment for an audience than sitting through a speech that’s read aloud, recited word-for-word, in which the speaker appears to be in their own world rather than in a room with other people.
A runner up scenario for ‘worst things speakers do’, is when the presenter is unprepared and obviously winging it. This kind of speech tends to have choppy pacing and no clear direction. We don’t want that.
What do you do if you want to sound conversational and natural? That’s what is known as extemporaneous speaking. Plan to create a set of separate speaking notes rather than reading from a full-script or winging it. I recommend note cards with bullet-points to indicate your structure and content. Use key words and phrases instead of full paragraphs. This should allow you to follow a smooth sequence, with greater fluidity, assuming you know the content well enough.
3.) How to start?
The most popular way to begin presentations is without any planned attention getter. “Um… so…like… today we’re going to talk about _______________”. I can already feel the audience tuning out. We tend to remember the first and last parts of a presentation more than everything else, so why waste the audience’s recollection with something so ineffective.
Carefully plan and rehearse the very first thing you say to catch the audience’s attention and demonstrate preparedness. This lets the audience know they are about to witness something that’s worth their while.
The best way to start? A compelling story that introduces your theme. Humans are storytellers; so tell a story to connect with the audience right away. You might also consider asking a thought-provoking question, sharing a powerful quote, or providing some shocking information.
It’s also a good idea to state your objective for the presentation. You might preview your main points or the theme of your talk. This sets up your talk and provides some direction for the audience. You may have heard the saying, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell them, and then you tell them what you’ve just told them”. Got it?
4.) Speak with power
Take a moment to think about somebody that you find terribly boring. It might not be a nice thought, but hold that aside for now. What is it that makes them boring? I’ll tell you; they don’t employ vocal variety. They’re likely to speak in a way that is monotone, quiet, or perhaps they mumble.
Contrast this with somebody who excites you when they speak. The exciting speaker does the exact opposite of the boring speaker; a captivating speaker uses inflection, projection, and articulation. Think about memorable voices like Morgan Freeman, David Attenborough, or Ellen. They make lots of money with their voices! They, and people like them, are masters at using vocal variety to keep audiences engaged. Pay attention to the way they vary their pitch, projection, and pacing. Notice the way they enunciate clearly. Begin to study voices like theirs that capture your attention.
One of the best suggestions may sound a little strange but I assure you it works: Read aloud to yourself. Just like when you were called on to read in class (except without the righteous judgement of your teacher and peers!). Pick up book whenever you have some downtime and sound out the words, focusing on your voice and articulation. This improves the dexterity of all the muscles involved in speech and helps you to develop a more memorable voice!
5.) Stop filler words
Do you use lots of filler words? There’s a good chance your speech is littered with fillers, assuming you’re not a trained communicator. “Um”, “so”, “like”, “you know", etc. are common fillers that get in the way of whatever it is we’re trying to say (“like”, “so”, and “you know” can be used correctly but we tend to rely on them unnecessarily in speech). If you want to sound more professional, seek to minimize your fillers as much as possible.
Can it be done? Yes! I’ll discuss two methods. First, you must start noticing filler words as you hear them around you. Keep track of fillers throughout your day. You might be using them often; or you might hear other people using “like” in-between every other word. If you’re taking notes in class or a meeting you might even keep a written tally, marking each time you hear the use of “um” .
I’ll warn you – this heightened awareness might drive you a little crazy when you realize how common and disruptive fillers are. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power!
The next method for reducing fillers is to include purposeful pauses, rather than “um” or “ah” between sentences. There’s something about silence that makes us uncomfortable, but we can use it strategically to end a point, to transition, or to create a dramatic moment. Things sound more powerful… with a deliberate pause!
Filler words have their place in casual conversations. If you try too hard to avoid them, you may come across as robotic or unnatural. But they detract from your authority in formal, professional settings and thus we should seek to minimize them to the best of our ability.
6.) Display confidence
A confident speaker places the audience at ease. On the other hand, audiences can sense a nervous speaker. And this desperation spreads through the room – they become anxious too. That’s why you want to display confidence, even if you have to fake it. What does that look like?
Smiling disarms the audience and makes them like you right away. Of course, you should match the tone of your message such as if you’re addressing a serious topic. But smiling, humor and a positive disposition help put the audience in a better mood.
You also have to check your posture. Are you hunched over, making yourself smaller, cowering in the corner? Or are you standing upright, with your shoulders back, ready to greet the crowd? Even if you don’t feel confident, changing your posture can influence how you feel.
What to do with your hands? Put them by your sides! Avoid distracting gestures. This is huge – we tend to do all sorts of weird movements with our hands during speech. Keep them at your sides and use large, sweeping, deliberate gestures where appropriate. If you’re not sure what to do with your hands… keep them by your sides!
Lastly, dress for success. A former teacher once told my class, “You should always dress for your next job”. There’s something to that. You feel more powerful and confident when you’re in your best attire. Take advantage of this during your next big speech. We also (unconsciously) judge people by their appearance. The audience sees you as an authority figure when you’re dressed for success.
7.) Maintain eye contact
Who and what are you supposed to look at during your speech? Well, look at the audience! You’ll lose their interest by looking at your notes, at the ground, or up at the ceiling. So let’s figure out how to approach eye contact.
First, scan around the room. Look at the whole audience from left to right and vice versa. Bounce around your eye contact so that the audience senses that your directing your message towards them.
You can also look for friendly faces in the crowd. Is there anyone who’s paying close attention to what you’re saying? Look at them while you’re making a point. Then once you finish your thought, you can find somebody else who seems particularly engaged. You can come back to these individuals throughout your presentation as it’s likely they will still be attentive.
Of course, some of us might not be comfortable making eye contact during a speech. It can be quite uncomfortable! In that case, you can direct your eye contact towards neutral spaces. Look between the aisles, focus on a point at the back of the room. Look at somebody’s shoulder. This way, at least, you are focusing on the audience rather than looking away from them; and nobody will know the difference.
It may feel a little overwhelming once you’re up there and everybody’s staring at you. But keep these methods in mind and you’ll be able to address your audience directly.
8.) Move with purpose
If you want to be a dynamic and powerful speaker, you must use the stage. There are rare occasions that may call for standing behind a podium or in one place, which may be totally appropriate in that instance. But most folks stand still when they have plenty of space at their disposal.
Move according to your points. Deliver one point while standing in a particular place, then move to another area to deliver the next point.
You might even try the speaker’s triangle, an easy path towards moving with purpose:
9.) Using visuals
Are you planning to incorporate visuals? If you choose to include some presentation software, such as PowerPoint or Prezi, it must be simple and clear.
Avoid adding to much text. Limit your points to fewer than six words per line and six lines per slide. Remember this six-by-six rule. Never read long sentences or paragraphs directly from the projector screen; and never turn your back to the audience if you can help it.
Plan to incorporate modest amounts of multimedia in the form of pictures and brief videos that are less than 60 seconds long. Images and videos are great ways to engage the audience and keep their attention. But a drawn-out picture show or a long video replaces too much of your speaking time and detracts from your stage presence. In any case, keep it brief.
A strong visual aid enhances your presentation. It should never replace or distract from your content. The visual aid serves your speech, not the other way around.
10.) Provide closure
Let’s wrap things up by discussing how to effectively conclude your speech. See what I did there? I indicated the end of this piece. You should do the same thing in your speech.
After you signal the closing, review everything that you’ve discussed. You might say something like, “today we discussed 4 key concepts” and then restate each of those concepts in a sentence or less. You can also restate the theme or objective of the talk. That might sound something like, “I hope you have a greater understanding of (insert objective here)”.
Finally, you’ll want to close with something memorable. Don’t leave them without a strong sense of closure. Nobody likes cliffhanger endings. Provide your audience with finality. I recommend ending with a call to action or by referencing something you said at the beginning of your speech. This leaves the audience with something more concrete or actionable.
Have you ever heard the saying, “drop the mic”? That’s the feeling you want to have when you’re done. The audience can feel it too. Avoid ambiguity or uncertainty in your closing. Don’t share anything new or irrelevant. Close with power and they’ll be sure to remember your speech in a positive light. You might decide to thank the audience and then you can enjoy your applause.
You made it through my top tips for public speaking students. I hope you find this information helpful – be sure to check out my other articles and videos – and stay tuned for more!