People are usually afraid of public speaking and it’s understandable. After all, when you speak in public you’re standing up in front of others and presenting your ideas. You’re leaving yourself open to judgement, criticism and even rejection. For a lot of people, this makes public speaking one of the things they fear the most and this often has a negative impact on their career success.
Public speaking isn’t just standing on a podium talking to a roomful of people. If you’ve ever had to make a presentation at work, interview in front of a panel, or teach a skill to a class, then you’ve done public speaking. And often these forms of public speaking are as frightening to people as the idea of speaking to a big crowd. If you share this fear, it probably affects many of your career choices, limits your job opportunities, and even decreases your chance of getting that raise you’re been dreaming about. Learning better public speaking skills can help you with all of these activities and more.
Public speaking also teaches you to talk more concisely and effectively. It teaches you the skills to persuade, entertain and educate other people. And these skills are useful in every context. If you teach your children, want to be able to tell some of the great stories of your life, or just want to be able to be more comfortable talking in groups, public speaking skills can help.
What parts of your life would be improved if you could communicate more confidently and effectively? And how long are you going to let your fear stop you from developing those skills?
The Benefits of Improving Your Public Speaking Skills
Apart from the obvious, there are a number of ways that public speaking skills can improve your life. At work they can help you present your work and your ideas more effectively and persuasively. They’ll help you negotiate with your boss when it’s time for a pay raise. And they’ll make you stand out in an office full of candidates with the same skills when promotion time comes around. Learning good public speaking skills also improves your confidence. After all, by doing it, you’re facing down one of your biggest fears, and nothing is more confidence inspiring than that.
Public speaking will also help you at home. With your family, you’ll be able to use the skills you learn to be a better leader, someone who can inspire, persuade and teach. You’ll learn how to communicate better with your friends and spouse, to empathize and understand their point of view. This will help to make you a more compassionate person and one who’s more responsive to the needs and signals of the people around them. And this will benefit all of your relationships.
The Problem with Public Speaking
Public speaking is so useful that it seems like everyone should be learning how to do it. But there’s a major problem that gets in the way. Most people are afraid of public speaking. In fact, some sources claim that for most people it’s their biggest fear, even bigger than their fear of death. This fits with the statistics as well, with around 30 percent of Americans reporting that they’re afraid or very afraid of public speaking. It seems unlikely that people are actually more afraid of speaking than they are of death because this would probably change if these same people found themselves in a life threatening situation. But the fact that people believe they’re more afraid of speaking than of death speaks to the seriousness of this fear. And fears like that don’t let go easily.
There are several theories about where this fear comes from. Some researchers claim that it’s a relic of our shared past. Human beings evolved to live in groups for safety and protection, and anything that threatened that group dynamic was to be avoided. In modern terms, this means that when you’re standing alone on a podium, it might prompt the fear of rejection and set off this ancient alarm. Other theories suggest that the fear of public speaking actually increases our alertness for signs that the audience is bored or uninterested during the speech, and this then heightens the fear. But whatever the reason is, this fear is deeply rooted and extremely influential in the lives of a lot of people.
How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking
Learning to overcome your fear of public speaking is key if you want to do it well. If you’re nervous, it will show, no matter how controlled you are. And for an audience, there’s nothing more nerve wracking than feeling the speaker’s nerves. The audience will feel your tension and it will make them uneasy and nervous as well. And this will never make for a great speech. To start to overcome your fear of public speaking, try the following ideas:
Before you go out on stage, take a moment to yourself and just breathe. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. This will flood your body with oxygen and it will also calm you as well. When you’re nervous, you tend to breathe quickly and shallowly. But if you force your body to breathe as if it’s calm, it will automatically calm down. This tip applies once you’re actually on stage as well. Make sure you’re breathing slowly and deeply throughout your speech. This will give you the oxygen that you need to project your voice properly while it also helps your nerves.
If you’re really scared of public speaking, start small. You will only make the situation worse if you just decide to jump in the deep end and give a speech in front of hundreds of people on your first time. Instead, try giving short speeches in front of your partner, your children, or other friends and family. Research groups that will teach you good public speaking skills and prepare yourself to call them and sign up for a course or event. Take small steps towards your goal. It doesn’t matter how small the steps actually are, because any movement will eventually get you there.
There’s no magic pill to getting over the fear of public speaking. Like any other fear, you just have to do it. With practice and experience, you will learn that it’s not as scary as advertised, and eventually your nerves will ease. But this means you will have to grit your teeth through speeches that have your knees knocking until your find this comfort zone. It’s not always comfortable to face your fears in this way, but it’s essential if you want to overcome them.
Take a class
There’s nothing like feeling as if you have the credentials to do something. Learning the theory of a topic, practicing it with other beginners, and watching as your skills grow is an experience that can give you a lot of confidence. That’s why a public speaking class can be so valuable during this stage. It will give you the knowledge that your skill base is solid as well as an ‘official’ acknowledgement of your skills.
Get expert help
If your nerves are really bad, there’s no shame in getting some help to overcome them. Enlisting the help of a counselor or psychologist will allow you to talk through your fears. They will also be able to give you expert advice and tips that could be invaluable in learning to master really crippling fear.
If you’re nervous when you’re talking, remember to slow down. This is good advice even if your nerves are relatively mild. Newcomers to public speaking often rush through their speech, eager to get it done so they can sit down. This can not only cause you to make mistakes, it means that the audience probably doesn’t have the time to absorb very much of what you’re saying. Instead, deliberately slow down, even if it feels strange.
The Qualities of a Great Speaker
If you’ve ever seen a great public speaker, then you probably remember it very well. There are some people who are good public speakers, and their talks are enjoyable, but there’s something about great speakers and great speeches that stays with you.
History is full of great speakers, people whose words not only inspired their contemporaries but also resonated down through the years to inspire people today. People like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi are some more recent great speakers, but there’s a long tradition of public speaking being pivotal in life and politics. As far back as the great Roman Empire, the most powerful men were also the best public speakers. This is demonstrated through the lives and successes of men such as Cicero, one of the most memorable personalities and public speakers from this period of time.
These great public speakers talked in their own way, on a variety of topics, but they had some things in common that you can strive for in your own public speaking efforts. Some of these qualities are:
No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s writing or speaking or raising children or saving lives, if you don’t have passion then you will never be great at it. You may be competent. You may even be successful. But you will never be great. You don’t have to be passionate about public speaking itself, but if you choose a topic you’re passionate about, something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand upright, you will learn to be a great speaker.
There’s nothing worse for an audience than feeling scared for a speaker. If you see someone on a stage trembling and cringing, you naturally feel bad for them. You feel for them, worry about them, and this bond creates stress, unease and overwhelms anything the speaker might actually say. That’s why building your confidence in public speaking is one of the most helpful things you can do to improve your performance. It’s also something that will come over time. So get practicing now.
You don’t have to be a perfect speaker and sometimes it’s the little stumbles and what you do afterwards that make you human and help you connect to the audience. But you do need to be able to get your point across clearly, so everyone can understand. That’s why working on how you talk is so important if you want to be a good public speaker.
You can have all the good information in the world but if you can’t connect and engage with your audience, you’re just wasting your time. This means addressing people directly and treating them like a part of the conversation. It means revealing a little piece of who you are, and recognizing something similar in the people you’re talking to. This can be difficult if you’re addressing a massive crowd of people. However, if you share stories about yourself and make eye contact with specific members of the audience, you will be well on the way to doing it.
There’s a lot of talk about authenticity these days and some of it’s fairly confusing. Public speakers are often told to be authentic while presenting a persona to the audience. This sounds like counterintuitive advice, but it really isn’t. Every person is made up of a combination of selves. There is the self who enjoys travelling and the one who likes staying cozy at home. There’s the self that loves the attention and focus of being on stage and the one who wants to be anonymous on their day off. Every single person has multiple facets to their personality that they bring out according to the situation and its needs and public speaking is no different. Show your audience a real part of you that’s congruent with your public speaking task, and they will respond to it.
When you give a speech, you need to be completely focused on your audience. You need to be able to sense their mood, to adjust your speech to their needs and wants. If you lose focus, if you find yourself thinking about something else, you’ll probably lose your place in the speech and lose your audience at the same time. Because they will sense your distraction, and there’s nothing worse for an audience than feeling as if the speaker isn’t interested in what they have to say.
Empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotional experience of another person. In public speaking, it gives you the ability to connect with your audience and to understand them. But more than that, it makes you the type of person that they’re willing to connect with as well.
The Importance of Body Language
When you’re working on your public speaking skills, don’t forget about your body language. This might seem like a small part of your speech, and something you can do naturally, but in reality it’s harder than you think to convey the right body language. And it’s all too easy to say all the right things, and have your body language completely contradict everything you’re saying.
Body language is the movements, gestures and postures of every part of your body. These convey messages that other people can easily pick up, communicating your mood and your real intentions even when you’re trying to control it. Your body language says a lot more than your mouth does, with about 55% of your message being conveyed through this channel. Only about 7% of what you say is in the actual words you use and 38% is in vocal elements such as tone or pace. These numbers may not be exact, it’s not really something you can solidly quantify, but it indicates just how important your body language is anyway.
Key Body Language Techniques for Public Speaking
When you’re working on your body language, there are several guidelines to keep in mind. You want to adopt and practice body language that’s open and expansive, that encourages trust and interest in your audience. And you want to convey confidence as well, so your audience feels good about watching you and trusting in what you have to say. Some very effective body language techniques for public speaking include:
Don’t create a barrier
When people are nervous, they usually try to protect themselves by covering their body or their face with their hands and arms. This will make you look defensive and nervous. Don’t create a barrier between you and your audience. Keep your hands at your sides or use them to make gestures, just don’t try to use them to protect yourself.
Obey the rules of good posture
A lot of people slouch, stand with their weight on one foot, or round their shoulders, particularly if they’re nervous. Make sure you obey the rules of good posture during your speech by keeping your head up and your shoulders back. This will make you seem taller and more confident.
Make eye contact
Don’t scan the back of the room or any follow other tip that encourages you to keep your eyes away from the audience. It might be nerve racking, but try to make eye contact with several people in your audience. This will help to build your connection with the audience at large.
Move only if you’re comfortable
If you’re comfortable on the stage you can move across it. But if you’re uncomfortable, this will probably make you look like an animal pacing behind bars. So if you feel nervous, then wait until your confidence grows before you start using every inch of that stage.
This is basic but important. Make sure you smile. It softens your face, helps you feel less nervous, and helps you connect with your audience.
Make sure you use gestures
Make sure you point at your visual aids and gesture when you make a particularly important point. If you keep your arms by your side, you will look rigid and frightened. Learning to gesture while you’re speaking can feel a little awkward at first, particularly if you’re not the sort of person who talks with their hands. But even the smallest gesture can put the audience at ease, draw their attention, or emphasize something important, so try it.
Expert Tips for Improving your Public Speaking Skills
If you’re working to improve your public speaking skills, there are a number of techniques and tips that you can try. The following will give you a great basis for the development of this skill and improve your confidence at the same time.
Don’t copy anyone
Don’t try to be anyone else on the stage. You can watch great speakers and gain inspiration and help from their manner and way of speaking, but if you try to copy them it will just seem fake. Audiences can sense if you’re being inauthentic, so find a way to learn and adapt other people’s techniques to find your own style.
Speak, and speak often
The only way to get over a fear of something is to do it, and to do it often enough that the fear naturally fades away. It might not go away completely, lots of great public speaker report that they still feel a little uneasy before a speech, and actually use those nerves to improve their presentation. But as long as you keep at it, most of your fear should fade as you gain experience and confidence in your skills.
Practice out loud
When you have a speech that you have to give, make sure you practice it a lot. You should never read your speech off your cards during the real thing, so you need to practice it enough that you know it by heart.
When you’re practicing your speech, get feedback from friends and family, anyone who will listen really. Ask them to sit and listen and give kind but constructive feedback about your manner and about the content of the speech. And take these ideas and use them to improve your speech.
Read the audience
Learn to read your audience when you talk. This means watching their faces, looking for signs of understanding or confusion, and adjusting your speech to match. For example, if you mention a funny incident and no one laughs, don’t just keep harping on the story. Move on quickly and keep the lesson in mind for next time.
Respect your audience
This is paramount. Even if you’re giving your speech to educate your audience, this doesn’t mean that you should lecture them or talk down to them. This doesn’t even really work in school, and it definitely doesn’t work well with adults. Talk to your audience like you would talk to a good friend and share your information instead.
Public speaking is a major fear for many people. You might worry that you’re going to embarrass yourself, that you’ll forget what you want to say, or not be able to say it properly. These probably all seem like valid fears when you’re thinking about learning this very valuable skill. But public speaking is a skill like any other. You can learn how to do it properly and practice until you’re more comfortable doing it. Eventually, you’ll probably become so comfortable speaking in public that you won’t understand what you were so worried about. Dedicating yourself to this process will teach you all the skills and techniques that you need to give great speeches. And it will also increase you confidence, both while you’re on the podium and off it as well.
What are the best tips for great public speaking that you’ve learned? Share them with us in the comments below.