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How To Get Better At Public Speaking

by Emma Sue Prince 20th August 2019

Most people feel nervous about public speaking. Here are some tips to keeping calm and presenting like a pro.

Up to 75% of us suffer from ’glossophobia’ or fear of public speaking. But presentations and articulating yourself with confidence are a key feature of working life and we need to be good at them. We need to be dynamic, passionate presenters.

But how? Fear of public speaking often feels like it hits you out of nowhere no matter how much you have prepared beforehand. Most people, regardless of how many presentations they give, experience some of this fear to a degree. Understanding where it comes from and having strategies in place to help you will go a long way towards building your confidence and skills in presenting. When it comes to public speaking the most common reactions are flight or freeze:

Flight – You avoid public speaking if at all possible. If you do have to speak, you speak as fast as you can so that you get through it as quickly as possible.
Freeze – You feel stiff and artificial as you speak, your mind goes blank.

Do either of those sound familiar? A couple of years ago I was delivering a new training workshop for a company in Bangladesh. I knew that the CEO would be one of the participants. I felt myself get a little nervous as we were setting up. When he walked into the room I got hot and my heart started racing. Why would I react in this way? I appear to have a notion around CEOs and it goes something like this:

‘CEOs are really important and I must have their approval’ and ‘This is a brand new workshop and it’s important that the CEO likes it’.

This demanding thought made me nervous. What was the result? I started to speak too fast and some of the instructions I gave for one of the exercises were unclear even though I knew the material inside out and had run the exercise many times before with other groups.

Here are some common demands people feel they have to hold themselves to when presenting and public speaking:
  • ‘I must be interesting and engaging.’
  • ‘I mustn’t leave anything out.’
  • ‘I mustn’t waffle.’
  • ‘I mustn’t show I’m nervous.’
  • ‘I’ve got to be able to answer every question.’
Now, these demands will make you nervous because you can’t guarantee that they’ll be met. What you need to be able to do is reduce their power and you do this by rationally analysing the truth and usefulness of these demands. For example, with my CEO demand I can see that it’s not essential that the CEO approves of me and that whether or not he approves or disapproves is not going to have an impact on my work because I feel confident in what I am doing. The first step is to reduce the power of those silly demands - they're usually rooted in something from our past anyway.

3 ways you can get better at public speaking

1. Connect with your audience.

It can be hard to feel relaxed and be yourself when you’re nervous but the most important thing you can do is connect with your audience. You do this by caring about the subject, being honest with the audience about why it’s important to you and why it matters and by showing your enthusiasm. Your audience will connect with that almost instantly. It also helps you take the focus off yourself.

2. Start strong.

It is a good idea to script the very beginning of your presentation because it’s crucial that at that point you are able to grab your audience’s attention and hold it. Remember that they will make up their mind about you in the very first few seconds or minutes. Don’t start by explaining who you are – try a story or an attention-grabbing (but interesting and relevant) image on a slide. If you’ve started strong you are well on your way as after that the audience will be on your side.

3. Remember to breathe.

If you find presenting difficult, it can be hard to be calm and relaxed about doing it. One option is to start by concentrating on your breathing. Slow it down, and make sure that you’re breathing fully. Make sure that you continue to pause for breath occasionally during your presentation too. Breathing will also move oxygen around your body, helping you to relax. Drinking water will help, too, to keep you hydrated.

The original version of this article was posted on Emma Sue Prince's LinkedIn. An edited version has been reposted here with the author's permission.

This is the fourth of the 'Working Smarter' series by Emma Sue Prince. The rest can be found below:

  1. 3 tips for working smarter
  2. Understanding your brain will change the way you work
  3. How to stop living inside your phone and get productive, focused and happy
  4. How to get better at public speaking (the one you're reading now)
  5. Coming soon!
  6. Coming soon!
  7. Coming soon!
  8. Coming soon!
  9. Coming soon!
Featured image credit: Photo by Tyler Callahan. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.