Here’s the truth: Most of us absolutely hate public speaking. We’d rather zip ourselves into a sleeping bag filled with hornets than have to get up in front of a room full of people and deliver a presentation.
Think that sounds a little overdramatic? It might be. But, consider this: Research reveals that a whopping 80% of us deal with speech anxiety—meaning we get those fluttering butterflies in our stomach and have trouble sleeping the night before we know we have to speak in front of others.
Yes, the vast majority of us dread public speaking. However, it’s one of those necessary evils of the working world. Whether it’s in a meeting, at a conference, or somewhere else entirely, you’re not going to be able to avoid giving presentations forever.
With that in mind, you’re probably on the lookout for some strategies that you can use to calm your nerves and speak in front of others with plenty of confidence.
What can you do—aside from leaning on that old (and ultimately disturbing and ineffective) trick of picturing the entire audience in their underwear?
We’ve pulled together seven different strategies to help you become a far better public speaker. Unfortunately, you might never eliminate those nerves altogether. But, at least you’ll be far better at coping with them.
Planning to sink some time and energy into becoming a better public speaker? Use Toggl to track your hours and your progress!
1. Invest in Preparation
Public speaking is nerve-wracking enough without feeling like you have to fly by the seat of your pants. This is why it’s so important that you invest enough time in preparing for your presentation—so you aren’t panicked in the heat of the moment.
To get started, answer a few brief questions about your speech:
- Who is it for (i.e. who is the target audience for this presentation)?
- What do you want them to learn?
Obviously, that’s a very simple start. But, by beginning with the basics, you’ll zone in on the main nuts and bolts that your presentation needs to cover.
From there, you can hash out a more detailed outline to follow—while still resting assured that your presentation won’t veer off course. Once you have the outline in place, you can move forward with producing any visual aids, note cards, and other supporting materials you’ll need to get you through your speech.
Another aspect that’s often overlooked—yet worthy of some advanced thought and preparation? Any potential questions that your audience might ask you.
If you’re planning on ending in a Q&A portion, take the time to think through potential questions your audience might ask. Or, you could even run through your presentation in front of a few friends (more on the importance of practice in a minute!) and see what questions spring to their minds.
By anticipating some of the answers you might need to provide, you can hopefully avoid that panicked moment when your heart leaps into your chest when you see a hand raised in the fourth row.
2. Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More
You’ve heard that practice makes perfect (well, technically, deliberate practice makes perfect). And, that sentiment rings true when it comes to public speaking.
The first time you deliver your presentation shouldn’t happen when you step foot on that stage or in front of that room. You should’ve talked your way through it several times before that.
Practice is reassuring, and also helps you work through any kinks that could crop up. But, there’s also some brain chemistry at work here.
I’ll spare you the major neuroscience lesson, but within our brains, there’s something called myelin—it’s the white stuff that covers much of the axons that extend out of our neurons (which you can think of as the basic building blocks of our brains).
What does myelin do? Well, scientists have found that it increases the strength and speed of the nerve impulses in our brain. While much of the creation of myelin occurs naturally, we can actually increase myelin production through—you guessed it—practice.
“As we practice, whether by writing every week, hitting jumpshots on the basketball court, or playing Call of Duty, we trigger a pattern of electrical signals through our neurons,” says Jason Shen in an article for Lifehacker, “Over time, that triggers the glial cell duo to myelinate those axons, increasing the speed and strength of the signal. It’s like going from dial-up to broadband.”
So, to put it simply, the more you practice (provided that your practice time is focused on quality and not just quantity) the better you’ll become at public speaking. The better you become? Well, the more confident you’ll feel when doing it.
3. Pick a Few Individual Audience Members
It can be intimidating to look out at a crowd full of people—particularly when you’re already feeling nervous about your speech.
Rather than having your eyes scan over the dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of people that are packed into that room, find a few specific audience members that you can make eye contact with throughout your presentation.
How does this help? Well, for starters, it makes things a whole lot less overwhelming for you. It’s much easier to feel relaxed when talking to a few select people—as opposed to a packed auditorium full of them. That feels more like a conversation, and less like a formal presentation.
Nerves aside, making this type of eye contact also makes your presentation far more engaging—for you, the person that you’re actively locking eyes with, and the other members of your audience.
“When you look someone in the eye, the rest of the audience will notice that you’re paying attention to someone. They’ll start watching you more carefully; first to see what you’re doing, and second because they’re hoping you might pay attention to them next,” says Nicole Dieker in a different article for Lifehacker.
4. Establish a Routine
Most of us find a lot of comfort in habits and routines. It’s the reason why you always get the same sandwich before your favorite sports team plays or you begin each and every Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper.
That predictability is reassuring—especially in circumstances when you’re already feeling anxious or there’s something big on the line. This is why it can be so helpful to establish your own routine that you return to ahead of any public speaking opportunity.
Maybe it’s a specific playlist your listen to. Or, perhaps it’s a set of stretches that you work your way through in order to loosen up your tense muscles.
Find an activity or two that relaxes you, and then implement it each and every time you need to speak in front of a crowd. Before long, that routine will be the main thing that helps to calm your nerves before your big presentation.
5. Keep Things Simple
There will be times when you need to explain complex topics to your audience—that’s inevitable. But, even when those opportunities arise, consider this your public speaking golden rule: Keep things simple.
No, that doesn’t mean that you can’t dive into the nitty gritty of those more advanced topics. You just need to do so in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your audience—meaning you can’t bombard them with statistics and tons of jargon right from the get-go.
Instead, make it your goal to communicate as simply as possible. Not only does this make your presentation that much more engaging for your audience, it also makes it easier for you to commit to memory and deliver. The last thing you need is to be panicking about how to pronounce words correctly.
6. Remember Your Body Language
One surefire way to appear nervous (not to mention distracting) during your speech? White-knuckle the sides of that podium, bite your lip, and shuffle your feet from side to side.
Yes, the words that you’re saying are important. However, often your nonverbal cues play just as large of role in how you’re perceived by your audience.
These cues come into play from the very start of your speech. Don’t begin talking as you walk out onto the stage or into the speaking area. Instead, walk purposefully to the place where you’ll be delivering your presentation, plant your feet, take a deep breath, and then begin speaking. It’s a much stronger start to your speech.
When you make gestures, don’t make tiny, almost unnoticeable movements toward your body. If you’re going to make a motion, you need to commit to it. That means gesturing away from your body in a way that seems intentional—and not hesitant or accidental.
Finally, take a page from some of the very best TED speakers and don’t hesitate to move around a little bit. Standing in one spot can be boring for your audience, plus you run the risk of locking your knees.
Walk around and engage with different points on the stage. That will make you appear far more relaxed, while also making for a far more captivating presentation.
7. Speak Really Slowly
Think about the last time you were nervous. What happened physically? Chances are, your palms became clammy, you felt short of breath, and your pulse sped up.
That’s natural. But, when your nerves kick into overdrive like that, do you know what else happens? Your rate of speech speeds up as well.
That means that—even when you think you’re speaking at a totally normal pace—your audience will have a difficult time understanding you as you speed through all of those important points you want to make.
When public speaking, you need to make a conscious effort to speak slowly—even more slowly than you think is necessary. That helps you combat those natural tendencies, no matter how nervous you become.
It might feel strange to you (and, that means you’re doing it right!). But, believe it or not, it’ll likely sound totally normal to your audience.
Over to You
When it comes to public speaking, nerves are to be expected. It’s anxiety-inducing to have to stand in front of a room full of people and provide a polished and professional presentation.
However, there are some strategies that you can use to conquer those pesky nerves of yours and become that much better at public speaking. To recap, some of our favorite strategies include:
- Investing plenty of time in preparation, including creating an outline of the main points you want to cover
- Practicing, practicing, and then practicing some more
- Making eye contact with individual audience members, as opposed to the entire crowd
- Establishing a pre-presentation routine to help you relax and feel more in control
- Keeping your presentation on the simpler side and avoiding complex jargon
- Paying attention to your body language and other nonverbal cues
- Making a conscious effort to speak slowly
Will implementing those tips and tactics inspire you to enjoy public speaking? Maybe not.
But, at the very least, you can rest easy with the knowledge that you’ll be able to get up there and deliver a solid presentation for your audience—no tears or hyperventilating required.