Public speaking: top tips for setting yourself up for success
Article3min21 May 2019
In his famous song Lose Yourself, Eminem raps: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy … He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready.” The song is about a rap battle but Eminem could have been talking about the way people feel before public speaking.
Is it possible to overcome one of society’s biggest phobias, the fear of public speaking?
One of society’s biggest phobias, Glossophobia, or fear of public speaking, can be debilitating for many. It can affect anyone, from a company director presenting at an annual general meeting, to a student speaking in front of peers in a classroom.
Why so scared?
Because public speaking is not something most people do regularly, they don’t spend much time thinking about it or preparing for it, says radio announcer and public speaking coach, Moyra Major.
Major says there are many reasons why people fear speaking in public, from worry about judgement, to fear of making a mistake, and shyness and anxiety.
“When it’s time to do it, we don’t know how or where to start. We hate the idea and therefore the fear builds in our minds because we’ve hidden away without working on it.”
Along with sweaty palms and weak knees, it’s not uncommon for people to experience shaky hands and voice, excessive sweating, increased heart rate, rapid or shallow breathing and a dry or weak voice. Sound familiar?
Overcoming your fear
What is comforting, says Major, is that there is a large number of people who have struggled with the fear for years but who have worked hard on their public speaking skills to achieve a natural presenting voice and calm exterior.
Warren Buffett, Winston Churchill, Sir Richard Branson and Rowan Atkinson all overcame their fear of public speaking to carve out successful careers in their chosen industries, for example.
Major believes nerves are a physical feeling that something is important to you.
“The feeling of a great speech can be addictive. It’s just about how much you let that feeling control you, instead of you controlling your nerves.”
International keynote speaker, Rachael Robertson agrees. “We feel like we’re being judged and we need to perform,” she says.
“Nerves mean you care. Once you get rid of that and realise everyone there wants you to succeed, you’ll be okay.”
Tips for speaking with confidence
Despite popular belief, losing the fear of public speaking is not about picturing your audience in their underwear or seeking out ‘Dutch courage’ before you step up to the podium. Here are some tips to help you succeed:
Preparation is key. Know your subject matter inside and out. Whether it’s preparing for a job interview or a speech in front of 500 people, knowing what you want to say and the message you’re hoping to get across will instil you with more confidence and stop you getting flustered. “Through preparation you can get better and through practice you can get the fear under control,” says Major.
Know your content. “Know your key messages and don’t try to learn what you want to say off by heart,” says Robertson. “If you’ve learnt your speech word for word and somebody’s phone goes off, you’ll lose your train of thought. If you just know the key points you want to get across it’s much easier to pick up the thread again.”
Appeal to your audience. Filling your presentation with stories will make it relatable to the majority of the audience but you will need some data points in there too, says Robertson. “Eighty to ninety per cent of people love a story. But you need to pass the ‘so what?’ test.” She applies the story, insight, application rule.
Change your mindset. Stepping up to a microphone and commanding attention in front of a crowd requires a belief that you can do this. Think about all the people listening that are about to learn something from you. People are there because they want to be and value what you have to say. “You need a big change in mindset, a lot of motivation and intrinsic confidence in the message you're delivering,” Major says.
Make eye contact. “I try to make contact with almost everyone for a couple of seconds, so they feel like I’m talking to them,” says Robertson. “And I find the laughers. Pay special attention to them – we call them ‘the stars’. As long as it’s genuine and you make eye contact with most people, that’s all it takes.”
Go slowly. Think about yourself as the listener. If someone is speaking unclearly or too fast, it’s hard to keep up and you find your attention drifting away. Speak clearly, confidently and at a pace that suits you. “Be gentle with yourself and take your time. It’s not a race,” says Major.
Practice, practice, practice. Finally, it’s all about practice. Says Robertson: “Know your content, keep it simple and practice.”