Public Speaking is Bloody Terrifying
Every single time I talk to a group of people I experience the same feelings: fear, anxiety and an overwhelming desire to be sick. Even preparing to podcast (ahem… that’s basically talking to myself) gives me butterflies.
But I love it.
And apparently, I look like I love it too. After a talk, people often ask, "Were you nervous?" My immediate reply is always, "Yes, terrified". My response surprises them.
Despite the fact that I find public speaking nerve-wracking, I love it, and I can present in a confident, capable way.
How is That Possible?
With careful preparation, as well as the use of specific routines, I can reduce my fear to a manageable level. I have learned to re-frame my nerves positively.
We learn stress and anxiety are bad, and more often than not, they are.
But pre-performance nerves, whether you are a speaker, athlete, teacher, or actor, can be an asset. You just need to know how to transform those nerves from negative to positive.
A Bit of Biology
It’s useful to understand what happens to our bodies when we are nervous. It’s all about the brain. Your brain has one important job - to keep you alive. It makes your organs work and keeps you safe.
When you are in a potentially dangerous situation, for example, standing in front of a group of people, preparing to speak, you experience the feeling of fear.
In response to your fear, your brain releases adrenaline and other stress hormones such as cortisol in preparation for a “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline super-charges you so that you’ve got extra energy and power for fight or flight. It’s amazing - you can even see and hear better.
The more fearful you are, the greater the adrenaline surge.
How Does This Help Me?
If you perceive a situation to be utterly terrifying, there is going to be a lot of adrenaline shooting through your body. A bit of adrenaline is good. Too much adrenaline is going to make you feel awful (heart thumping, sweating, panic… you’ll be opting for “flight" any moment).
The brain does not know what you are scared of - it only knows your emotional reaction to the thing that scares you. If you are feeling terrified, it’s going flood your body with adrenaline. If you are only mildly scared, less adrenaline is needed. That’s the key.
If you can make the prospect of speaking in public seem less scary, your body will not produce as much adrenaline. You can do this through practice, careful preparation and routine.
The second thing we can do is carefully manage the remaining adrenaline and use it positively.
Here are some strategies to help before, during, and after your public speaking engagement.
Become a Better Speaker
If you know you are a good public speaker, your feeling of confidence will dramatically reduce your fear.
The more public speaking you do, the more confident you become. You’ll still feel some nerves - this is healthy. Anyone who walks into a public speaking gig with no nerves at all is cocky. Cocky people aren’t engaging. They are irritating.
If you are new to public speaking you need to practice, but not necessarily in front of others at this stage. That comes later.
One of the best ways to improve your public speaking is to record yourself and listen back. Video is better than audio, but let’s take one step at a time. It’s going to make you cringe but do it anyway.
Listen out for:
- Verbal fillers: for example, “umm” and “err”. We use fillers because gaps in speech make us uncomfortable. Also, they buy us "thinking time". Verbal fillers can irritate your audience*. After a while, it’s all they can hear. They focus on counting the number of times you say “like” and ignore your actual message completely. Try to minimise your use of verbal fillers and instead, just pause. A pause can be incredibly engaging. Popular TED speaker, Sir Ken Robinson, demonstrates this beautifully. He’s also got fantastic comic timing - if you want to see a master public speaker at work, watch as much Sir Ken as much as you can.
- Pace: the excess adrenaline caused by fear makes everything move a bit more quickly. In a traditional “fight or flight” situation, it would be your legs or fists moving fast. When you are giving a talk, it will be your breathing and speech that speed up. Public speaking is very different to conversing with just one person. You need to remember your audience is made up of lots of different individuals. Perhaps some speak English as a second language or are not familiar with your accent. You want to speak to be understood by all, so you must speak more slowly than normal. It will feel odd, but re-record yourself speaking more slowly and listen. Also, practice pausing.
- Mouth sounds: microphones pick up the (utterly gross) sound a dry mouth makes. Nerves will make your mouth dry. Drink water before giving your speech (not too much - remember the effects adrenaline can have on your bladder) and if possible, have water available during your talk.
*I am aware I used some verbal fillers on my podcast (“so” is a favourite). I’m aiming for a very conversational style for the show, and as such, I leave fillers in so it sounds natural. This article is about formal public speaking where different standards apply.
Once you’ve practised alone, it’s time to bring in some trusted friends for feedback. Your family are either going to be too kind or too harsh when it comes to giving feedback (I learned that one the hard way!) Find trusted friends who will provide genuine, constructive feedback. Ask them to identify what you are doing well, and your areas for improvement.
Know Your Audience
You cannot prepare for a public speaking engagement without understanding who your audience are. Ask yourself these key questions:
- Why are they there?
- What are their expectations of you?
You could take this exercise a step further and “design” your typical audience member. Give them a name, appearance, age, employment history, religious and political views. Then prepare a talk just for them.
Public speaking starts with writing. Many of the rules for crafting a compelling story apply to writing a speech. For example:
- Ensure your address as a beginning, middle and end. If appropriate, recap regularly and sum up at the end.
- Outline your topics first using headings or keywords - then build your sentences.
- Engage your audience from the start. Ask questions. Interact.
- Use the rule of three to reinforce points (for example “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”).
- Show don’t tell - use examples and stories to illustrate your point. It will be far more memorable.
Write the speech from start to finish and read it out loud, record it and get feedback.
Of course, you don’t want to read your speech word for word on the day. If you do, you will not get a chance to engage with your audience. It’s boring watching someone speak to you with their face buried in a pile of notes.
Your speech needs to be distilled down to discrete cue cards. Here are some tips for creating cue cards:
- Use a sentence or heading, to sum up the topic of each card.
- Include keywords to jog your memory.
- Type your cue cards if there is any chance you won’t be able to read your handwriting on the day.
- Colour code your cue cards if your speech includes key themes.
- Number your cards.
- Write on one side of each card only.
- Include approximate timings on your cards.
- Use plenty of white space.
- Think about answers to likely questions and put them on relevant cards.
Power Posing and Routine
In Amy Cuddy’s popular TED talk, and later in her book “Presence”, she explores the effect positive body language can have on the mind. Cuddy advocates a “fake it till you make it” approach to confidence. If you look and sound confident - you will be more confident. Use the power of body language to melt nerves away.
It might sound like a load of old bunkum, but what have you got to lose? Try holding a Wonder Woman style pose (stand straight, hands on hips, chin up) for a few minutes before you make a speech.
Use your posing time to centre your body and mind and then go for it. Your power pose, combined with some deep breathing and quiet time, might just stem the flow of excess adrenaline and allow you to turn those butterflies into an asset.
I’d recommend turning a chain of activities like this into a habit. Routines are calming and can ground you before stepping into the unknown.
Once you’ve started to speak, you won’t have the mental capacity to remember long and complicated coping strategies. Here are just a few simple things you can do:
- If it’s appropriate, have water with you. You can take a sip to fix a dry mouth, or at any point, if you lose your train of thought or need a moment to centre yourself, take a sip.
- Wear breathable, comfortable clothes, where possible. Don’t wear a colour that will show up an attack of stress sweating. If you are on a stage with lighting, it will be warm - bear that in mind.
- Think about your physical status. I have a fantastic book called Teach Yourself The Clinton Factor by David Gillespie and Mark Warren which explores the power of status. Regardless of your feelings for ex-American President Bill Clinton, he was an incredibly charismatic communicator. Think about your physicality when presenting to a group of people on a scale of one to ten (one being small, quiet and ineffectual; ten being over the top, loud and dictatorial). Imagine this not only in terms of physical status (stance, hand gestures, eye contact and facial expression) but also vocal tone and vocabulary. One of the reasons President Clinton was popular with so many different types of people (despite, ahem… some significant misdemeanours) was he always pitched his presentation between five and seven. He was sufficiently “presidential” but also “normal” and subsequently very engaging. Can you use this when you give a speech?
- You must make eye contact with people when presenting or speaking to them. Don’t single out one person - share your eye contact with the room. This article has some great tips.
- Write the word “breathe” on every cue card. You might forget! Excess adrenaline makes you breath more quickly. Slowing your breathing down will calm you, make you feel better and slow your pace.
Take a moment to reflect on what you’ve just achieved. Take note of what your body feels like now the fear has gone. I suspect it will feel pretty darn good. That’s why I love public speaking.
Please feel free to share your public speaking experiences, along with personal tips and tricks in the comments. Thank you.