POSTED Wednesday 24-11-21
Does Public Speaking Get Any Easier? 5 Tips to Nail It
Whether you’re a candidate at an interview, the interviewer, someone struggling to communicate with domineering co-workers, or a leader looking to influence outcomes, public speaking can be an intimidating task. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly held fears. Chances are you will need public speaking skills for some unavoidable areas of life: boardrooms, team meetings, job interviews, presentations at work, etc. But! You are not alone in your fear; thankfully there are many ways to reduce your anxiety and to ensure that you have the courage to speak up, as well as a plethora of tips to ensure you are communicating succinctly and effectively. Gain control over your nerves and utilise them to your advantage so that you are communicating authentically and with impact.
- Be present and in the moment
You’ve probably heard it a million times, but breathe! This will help you be present rather than caught up in your own head. Nerves can be beneficial to any public speaking because they give you the energy to present and be confident, but uncontrolled, nerves can be a real hindrance. They might cause you to shake, sweat, speak too fast, or stumble over your words/not speak at all. I recently met a candidate who got severe stage fright because he hadn’t been in a physical room in front of people since before the pandemic, something that clearly worsened his nerves. Slowly breathing in and out helps control these physiological reactions and relaxes your body into a calmer state. If you find you’re having anxious thoughts about how the presentation will go, then try to meditate: simply close your eyes and acknowledge each thought as they enter your head before letting them go. If you need to pause mid-presentation, that’s fine also, and can even be an effective way to punctuate your presentation and keep your audience’s attention (see why here!)
Furthermore, the good news is that whoever you are presenting to will likely be more sympathetic to letting you have a moment to cool down, since the pandemic has increased levels of anxiety for all of us. We recently had a front-running candidate come in for an interview after only one hour’s sleep, as her mother had been taken into hospital and put on a ventilator due to Covid. We of course gave her the time she needed to mentally prepare.
- Have a strategy/game plan
It sounds obvious and you may have been doing this already, but perhaps your methodology needs a bit of work if you are still struggling. If you’re presenting a PowerPoint, it is tempting to fill your slides with as much information as possible to redirect attention away from yourself (the speaker) or to make the presentation dense and jargon-filled to avoid interaction and audience questions. Refrain from doing this. The result is an unengaging presentation with little progress made on the topic at hand.
Ideally, you want to be as visual as possible; it’s difficult for your audience to read your slides and listen to you at the same time, so visual aids, photos, graphs, etc. with minimal text will serve you best. This will of course draw more attention to you, which is why it’s best to prepare in advance what you’re going to say, with bullet point cards keeping you on track in terms of order and timing. Bullet point cards/notes are great for interviews and meetings too, as they keep you from rambling and help you remember exactly what you wanted to say amidst the nervousness.
- Be succinct
This leads nicely onto our third tip: be strategic and concise. It’s far better to make a few points clearly, coherently, and confidently than lots of different points erratically, disjointedly, and nervously. It’s a real skill to be able to convey complex information to a panel in 90 seconds without losing them – again, the power of the pause plays a key role here. There are also a few practical steps you can bear in mind when you are speaking, for instance:
- Avoid ‘throat-clearing’ sentences. Examples include “To get started today”, “Before I begin the presentation” (you’ve already begun!), and “As I said before.” We sometimes call this an “Ahem, ahem!” style of speaking. They’re mostly meaningless and detracting, so try to break the habit of using them. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, silence is fine, and it keeps your audience’s attention better than these superfluous phrases.
- Avoid diminishing language. It comes across as unconfident to others and psychologically puts you in an unconfident headspace. But more than anything, phrases like: “I want to talk a little bit about . . .” and “I’d just like to go over. . .” do no more than take up valuable time in your presentation that you could be using to make your point. Further, if you are trying to speak up against a domineering colleague, you will need to come across as confident in order to be properly heard.
- Build a metaphorical corral. This is great for people who tend to ramble. You can do this by saying: “Today, I’m going to discuss three aspects of this topic,” or in response to a question: “There are two things I’d like to say to respond.” This self-imposes limits to the amount you can speak if you tend to go off on tangents. It will also have the added benefit of helping you keep within the time constraints of your presentation.
As long as your presentation is similarly concise in its point-making, you can immensely improve your confidence with these practical steps.
- Know your audience
Paying attention to who your audience is will impact the content of your presentation, i.e., providing proper context if presenting to a board; acknowledging audience pain points, especially to boost morale in a team meeting; and avoiding jargon and dense data analysis in work presentations. Essentially, you need to keep it on ‘their message’, and make sure you know what they want out of your presentation; it’s similar to whetting their appetite by dangling a carrot in front of them to encourage them to come back to you. But more than that, knowing your audience will likely impact your structure, too. For board meetings especially, discussion results in the best decision-making; you may have to go out of your comfort zone and try flipping your presentation structure on its head. Try, for instance, to make a 5-minute presentation with 25 minutes of Q+A rather than the more standard 25 minutes with 5 minutes of Q+A.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to try to anticipate some of the questions your audience will ask – especially in interviews (either as interviewer or interviewee) – so that you can prepare answers in advance. Bear in mind it’s okay not to have the answers to everything, and to say that you need to check and get back to them; don’t let not knowing an answer topple your self-confidence for the rest of the presentation or Q+A.
Ultimately, having an audience in mind that you’re addressing will maximise engagement with your presentation. Even if you’re the primary speaker, it’s best to encourage a dialogue so that 1) you’re not taking up all the air space and 2) your audience feel heard and respected. This latter point is particularly important for creating a more inclusive atmosphere in team discussions, so that quieter team members have the opportunity to speak up and louder team members step back to allow others to participate.
- Strive for excellence over perfection
As the old saying goes: nobody’s perfect. It’s okay to stutter or slip up, and it doesn’t mean you can’t deliver something excellent at the end of the day, especially with practice. Traditionally, the advice is to practice in front of friends and family, and this works well if you will be presenting in front of a room full of people. If your presentations/meetings are still mostly virtual, however, then recording yourself on your laptop to see how you look and come across is a better way to rehearse, as the environment is similar/the same as when you will give your presentation to others. If you’re unsure how to record yourself with your laptop, you can read more here. If you’re using Zoom or Microsoft Teams then you can read here and here on how to set up a virtual background for maximal visual impact. For an interview, where you’re less likely to be familiar with your audience, the best option may be to blur your background or to set up somewhere in your house with a neutral background instead. Have a go at recording yourself and see how it goes. Practice will help you break out of bad habits, help you feel assured and confident, and better prepare you for any technical mishaps.
In summary, whenever public speaking becomes a requirement of life, the best balance is between style and substance. Use these tips to become more confident in asserting yourself or alternatively, to pull back if you tend to hog all the airtime. Public speaking doesn’t necessarily get any easier, but your ability to cope with the pressure and anxiety of it improves with preparation and practice. Best of luck!