5 Tips on How to Become an Incredible Public Speaker
Follow these useful strategies for conquering stage fright.
Whether you’re delivering presentations in front of colleagues, teaching industry workshops, or stepping onstage at a local or national conference, you’ve probably come across the same public-speaking advice one million times: “Picture them naked!” “Practice!” “Make eye contact!”
In my corporate years, I wrote speeches and helped prepare executives for their upcoming speaking engagements, from financial gatherings to SXSWedu. When it came to offering counsel, I used to give much of the same advice.
But this year, after launching my own business, I started booking my own speaking gigs. Much of the traditional guidance was helpful, but I found myself learning so many things beyond “Speak slowly!” that the new information helped ease my fears and allowed me to really engage the people I was talking to.
If you’re in the market for some advice but can’t think about your industry peers in the nude for one more second, here are five from-the-trenches tips:
1. Remember: It’s Not Actually About You
I know it feels like it’s about you. You’re the one coming up with the topic, doing all the work to prepare, and walking around slightly terrified for weeks in advance.
But here’s what it’s actually about: what you can teach your audience.
When you take the emphasis off you and place it on the message you want to deliver, everything changes. You pay less attention to what people think about you, and more attention to what you can teach them. You focus less on being “perfect” and more on being authentic. You worry less about image and more about truth.
You think less about you. You think more about them.
That’s how the most thought-provoking, compelling speeches (think: TED) come to life.
2. Get to Know What Fear Feels Like in Your Body
I don’t care how many times you meditate, practice, or envision the stage in the weeks leading up to your event: You will be afraid. You will have adrenaline pumping through your body. Your Fight or Flight will kick in, and you will seriously consider the latter.
We’re so afraid of being afraid–especially with 350 eyeballs on us–that we try to cure it ahead of time. When the curing doesn’t work and we end up onstage, still terrified, we panic. When we panic, we spend so much focus and energy trying to not pass out, we deliver speeches we don’t feel so great about.
Instead of spending precious prep time trying to get over your fear of public speaking, get to know it instead. What happens to your body when you’re afraid? Do you talk super fast? Get distracted? Feel like you’re going to throw up?
Once you’ve identified what fear feels like in your body …
3. Proactively Soothe That Fear
In an interview with Lindsey Stanberry of Refinery29, Chris Anderson, head of TED, explained that before an event he was especially nervous about, he went into the stairwell and did pushups. Burning off some of his adrenaline or nervous energy helped him feel both calm and confident.
And in an interview with Entrepreneur, Simon Sinek, author and public speaker, says that when he gets nervous, he tells himself: “You’re not nervous, you’re excited.” He noticed that when Olympic athletes were interviewed after events and asked if they were tense beforehand, they all replied that they were excited, not anxious. He explains how the simple reframe in his brain changes his attitude toward what he’s about to do, which soothes his nerves.
Marc Randolph, co-owner of Netflix, told CNBC that he’s done enough speeches to know that he’ll be terrified 15 minutes prior to the event, but that after two minutes onstage, he’ll get comfortable. So when he feels nervous, he reminds himself that he just needs to get two minutes in, and then all will be well.
No one can tell you what soothes your fear better than you. So get to know that fear of yours–especially how it manifests in your body–and then plan to include those comforting activities in your prep.
For example, I always build in an extra 20 minutes to track down a bottle of seltzer. This may sound like the most ridiculous soothing mechanism out there, but, for me, it works.
4. Prepare for Some Not-So-Friendly Faces
When I took the stage at an event in L.A. a few weeks ago, I found those friendly faces–you know, the ones who public-speaking advice experts tell you to pick out in the audience and then concentrate on. But here’s what most people leave out of that sage piece of advice: Sprinkled between the nodding heads, beaming faces, and encouraging smiles are inevitably going to be a few people who look as if they want you to leave the stage, like, immediately.
Whether you’re talking to 40 people or 400 people, there are a few unfriendly faces in every crowd. Whatever the reason for the face–impatience, chronic RBF, general disinterest–you have no control over it. If you spend energy trying to win those people over, you’ll end up distracted and deflated.
Instead, know in advance that they exist and are unavoidable; plan to make eye contact with the beaming, nodding, smiling faces that’ll also be there.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Go Rogue
Who loves listening to speakers read notes off a PowerPoint presentation? No one.
I know you want to make sure you’re prepared and don’t forget anything, but if you read notes out loud for a full hour, your audience isn’t going to connect with you or absorb what you’re telling them.
During my event in L.A. a few weeks ago, I did not take my own advice. I had a ton of information I wanted to cram into an hourlong session, so against my better judgment, I wrote myself a script and then tried really hard to pretend I wasn’t reading it.
Fifteen minutes in, my computer went black. After gathering myself, I went rogue–and was so much better for it. Yes, I forgot things. Yes, I had to pause twice to think about what I wanted to say next. But I was able to deliver all that information authentically, focus on the main points I wanted the audience to walk away with, and better engage with them by being truly present.
Here’s my suggestion: Write your main points on your slides. Have a piece of paper with the key pieces of information you want to get across in front of you. Practice, practice, practice. And then, when you step on that stage–even if your brain feels blank–trust that you know the material well enough (because at this point, you totally do). Start talking.
If you’ve never spoken in public before and are waiting for the “right time” to pitch yourself, there is no right time. If there’s an industry conference you’d love to speak at; a local event that for years you’ve envisioned standing on the stage of; or a team presentation you’d like to take the lead on, write a compelling pitch (or email your boss!) and throw your hat in the ring. You’ll be terrified. But if you follow this advice, you’ll also be incredible.