What is your greatest fear? Spiders? Heights? If you’re like most people, fear of public speaking is probably high on the list. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, 73% of the population is affected by glossophobia - the fancy name for “public speaking anxiety.” It makes sense; putting yourself out there can be nerve wracking, especially when you’re doing it onstage in front of a large audience. But it can also be incredibly fun and a fantastic way to communicate ideas and build your audience.
Now, I was a weird kid. I actually loved public speaking. I regularly competed in events like the American Legion Oratorical Contest and The National Shakespeare Competition. That’s not to say that I didn’t get nervous, but the nerves helped to fuel a sense of anticipation and excitement. There was something so electrifying about finding the right hook for the start of your speech or discovering the perfect way to land the ending.
I still love communicating with a crowd today. Whether I’m acting in a play or delivering a presentation at work, I find myself utilizing the skills that I learned way back in those high school oratory competitions. And now, as we re-enter co-work spaces after two years of meetings over Zoom, I thought it’d be a good time to share some of my favorite public speaking tips and tricks.
Practice, practice, practice!
This one is obvious, but it really is the key to minimizing those nerves on the day of your presentation. Sometimes, when we’re nervous about something coming up, we’ll put off working on it in an effort to avoid thinking about it. But putting in the time to rehearse your speech or presentation will make you feel so much more confident when you’re doing it for real. Don’t worry about being word perfect, just practice enough to make you feel comfortable with the flow of the speech.
Rehearse with a friend if you can and practice making deliberate eye contact during the speech. Make sure to use a timer so you have a sense of how long it’s running. Remember to breathe and exhale slowly while you speak so that your voice can resonate. I also always read through the lines each night before bed, which always seems to help with memorization. Practice a little bit every day leading up to it, and you’ll feel prepared and ready to knock your presentation out of the park!
Be strategic in how you organize your notes:
This one will change slightly depending on the nature of your presentation. If you’re going to be standing at a podium delivering a longer speech, then I recommend printing the speech in a large enough font to be easy to read. I always bold the sentences that I want to add particular emphasis to. I also break up my speech not by paragraph, but by where I plan to take pauses at key moments. You’ll be the only one seeing these notes, so make sure they're organized as effectively as possible for you to read. For other kinds of presentations, it can be more useful to have notes prepared on index cards (i.e., workshops and panels) or to speak extemporaneously with a slideshow behind you or a small outline printed out (i.e. office presentations). Know what type of presentation you’ll be giving and what the speaking area looks like, so that you can have the right kind of notes prepared to aid you.
Ultimately, you never want to be reading off the page with your head down. You want to be talking directly to your audience and connecting with them. So take the pressure off of saying everything perfectly. It’s much more important to make eye contact and focus on the message you’re trying to convey.
Don’t be afraid to bring your personality into the speech:
Maybe I shouldn’t share this anecdote, but one time I gave a speech during a high school debate class that totally bombed (okay, maybe it didn’t totally bomb, but it sure felt that way at the time). There was a lot of possible information to cover in my topic, and boy did I try to cover all of it! I crammed in as many facts and statistics as possible without leaving any room to relate the topic back to me. The person I was debating won not because they were necessarily a walking encyclopedia on the topic, but because they injected some humor and a few personal anecdotes into their speech too.
That’s not to say that you have to be a stand-up comedian. If you don’t feel comfortable trying to be funny in a speech, definitely don’t force it! Instead, think about what feels authentic to you and your experience. More than anything, you want to show the audience your own personal connection to the topic and why it is so important to you. That, interwoven with your key facts and statistics, is what will grab the audience’s attention and make them feel connected to you.
Remember to relax, breathe, and have fun!
Nerves can be your friend. I always remind myself that if I’m nervous, it means that I care about the outcome… That I’m passionate about what I’m saying and doing. Just take deep breaths, have water on hand, and try to direct any nervous energy into an adrenaline rush that fuels your delivery. Pace yourself and remember to take pauses throughout at key moments.
And most importantly, try and have fun. The more you practice giving speeches, the better you will become. Instead of giving up after that one failed speech in high school, I kept on competing and eventually became a national and state champion in several competitions. I learned to incorporate my personality, effectively prepare and organize my notes, and deliver my message with confidence and pride.
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Written by Jessie Cannizzaro