The following is the second of a two-part MediaMiser series on public speaking. For the first post on tips for writing a great speech, click here.
Anxiety about public speaking—dubbed “speech anxiety”, or “glossophobia”—is considered one of the most prevalent phobias out there, affecting 3 out of 4 people.
There are a lot of reasons to want to get over this kind of anxiety, but the most prevalent is that it can hold you back in your career—rendering you unable to pitch ideas in the boardroom, showcase your expertise in a field or take on lucrative speaking gigs.
But with enough practice, public speaking can go from one of life’s necessary evils to something you might actually enjoy. After all, there must be something to it if those who have endured the worst—Bill Clinton was famously booed off stage in 1988—have continued to get up there.
So where to begin?
1. Stop trying to be a “great” public speaker
People get so caught up in trying to be funny, eloquent and charming that it ends up feeling stilted. Richard Zeoli, author of The 7 Principles of Public Speaking, says it’s better to focus on being effective rather than perfect. He suggests you begin to think of public speaking as a conversation between you and the crowd.
“People want to listen to someone who is interesting, relaxed, and comfortable. In the routine conversations we have every day, we have no problem being ourselves. Yet too often, when we stand up to give a speech, something changes. We focus on the ‘public’ at the expense of the ‘speaking.’ To become an effective public speaker, you must do just the opposite: focus on the speaking and let go of the ‘public’.”
2. Practice & prepare
Being prepared is the easiest way to kill nerves. Becoming super familiar with your subject will boost your confidence, and shrink your chances of making a mistake in front of everyone.
There are many ways to practice: You can record yourself on a laptop, practice in front of a friend or start with small venues—clubs, networks—that will give you the opportunity to practice without all your peers watching. Typically, meetings of local Toastmasters groups have everyone in the same boat, delivering speeches in a small and supportive environment.
And if that’s too daunting, you can even hire a public speaking coach. Ask for feedback and figure out what your particular coping mechanisms are: reading word for word, lack of eye contact, rushing, fidgeting or freezing.
3. Identify your fear & develop a technique that works for you
We all get scared for different reasons. So identify what’s holding you back and talk it out with a coach or your practice group. Depending on your fear, there are usually a few tricks the pros recommend.
Self-conscious in front of large groups? Choose a few engaged members of the crowd and speak to one person at a time (an old political trick that personalizes the speech and tricks your brain into thinking it’s a conversation). Discomfort with your own body movement? If you can, go visit your stage to become familiar with it and learn to make use of the space. Terrified you’ll encounter a technical issue? Arrive with ample time to spare and have a backup laptop at the ready.
Eventually, you’ll no doubt get to the point where you can read the room and ad-lib, make jokes on the fly, involve the crowd and handle curveballs.
In the meantime, try to speak with passion and—if you can—find some enjoyment in the process.