There’s a popular saying that people fear public speaking more than death. This claim is supported neither by statistics nor evolution (we’re hardwired to fear spiders and snakes and other critters that can kill us), but it feels true for a lot of people, myself once included.
I was bullied as a kid, so I spent a lot of my school career trying to fly under the radar. This plan went right out the window in junior high, when teachers suddenly decided that presentations and speeches were valuable teaching tools. Worst possible timing, because kids experiencing puberty are at the height of both self-conciousness and cruelty. I vividly recall my first speech – heart pounding so loud I could barely hear my voice, hands shaking so hard I dropped the cue cards, face so hot it could light a candle. I just about passed out from the combination of adrenaline and sweat-induced dehydration.
I’m over it now. Years of school presentations, teaching contracts, and writerly events gave me the experience I needed to conquer my fear.
And at my Fox Talk launch in November, something magical happened – for the first time, I felt the heady rush that stage actors must experience when the stars align and they’ve got their audience in the palms of their hands. Instead of simply pouring my energy into the presentation, I was actually drawing it from the crowd: amazing!
I can hardly believe how far I’ve come from that first terrified experience, and today I want to share some of the best strategies I’ve learned for making presentations, if not relaxing, at least easier:
- Practice. Like anything else, the more we speak, the better we get. If you’re really nervous, start in small, low-stakes situations, like sharing a story or opinion at a dinner party, and work your way up. The scariest speeches I’ve ever given were as a grad student at scientific conferences, with tenured professors in the room – not a good place to begin!
- Research. Do as much research as needed to feel confident with the material, and consider possible questions your audience might ask in advance, because answering questions on the fly can be the most nerve-wracking part of a speech.
- Rehearse. After you decide what you need to talk about, and build any visuals you’re going to need, practice, practice, practice. Give the speech out loud, in private or to your pets. Figure out where you stumble and repeat until smooth. Pay attention to when you need to click your slides, too.
- Breathe. Take a couple deep breaths right before you stand up to speak. If you lose your place or feel your nerves building, pause and take another deep breath. These pauses feel much longer to the speaker than the audience, so don’t worry about taking the time.
- Make eye contact. It sounds counterintuitive, but when I look people in the eye, I feel like I’m having a conversation with one person instead of a group, which is a lot less scary. Try to make eye contact with everyone in the room at least once while you’re talking. If this makes you really anxious, look people in the forehead instead of the eyes – they won’t be able to tell you’re cheating!
- Type your notes and staple the printouts – that way, if you drop them, you don’t have to spend 10 minutes in front of a crowd trying to put your speech back in order!
- Assume it’s going to go well! Smile and pretend you’re confident, and you’ll actually start to feel that way. I’m always amazed at how well this works.
For more tips and strategies, I recommend 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, by Susan Weinschenk. It’s well-organized and broken into bite-sized chunks so you can pick and choose which bits you want to focus on.
Is public speaking one of your fears? What are some of the best strategies you’ve used to overcome your nerves? What’s your worst – or best! – public speaking story?