We all know someone, whether real or famous, who can rise to any occasion, delivering killer quips and holding a rapt audience’s attention seemingly on a whim. Sensational speakers may appear to be imbued with some kind of magic magnetism or innate charisma, but there are no smoke and mirrors where public speaking is concerned; experts say that confident presenters are made, not born. We looked into the public speaking tips and tricks that can turn a reasonably good speech into a brilliant one.
It’s true that some of us are more prone to public speaking anxiety than others, but perfecting the art of public speaking is akin to flexing a muscle – the more practice, training and challenges you take on, the better you’ll become. Just bear in mind that you don’t need to deliver a ‘perfect’ performance. Public speaking PBs are achieved by putting in the hours offstage, just as medals are really won in the gym.
Ready to learn the secrets of Oprah et al? Here’s how to skill-up and step-up, one Zoom meeting at a time.
Eyes on the prize
Whether you’re aiming to inform, persuade or just generally charm your prospective audience, establishing a connection without eye contact is nigh-on impossible. Holding eye contact can, however, feel just as daunting as speaking itself, particularly if you’re on the shy side. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable in the eye contact department, at least initially, you’ll soon reap the rewards in a public speaking setting.
Begin by rehearsing your talk in front of the mirror, holding eye contact with yourself and noticing your mannerisms and body language. It doesn’t matter if your speech isn’t complete – experts estimate that around 80% of our communication is non-verbal, and seeing as eyes are the windows to our soul, it makes sense to let our audience in. The sooner that you can get to work on the physicality of your public speaking, the better.
That said, a fleeting glance doesn’t cut it, as only briefly catching someone’s eye can make us appear more anxious and less sure of what we’re saying. Aim to hold eye contact for between 2-3 seconds, first practising in the mirror and then focusing on maintaining eye contact with family, friends and colleagues in less formal settings. Even holding eye contact with your laptop camera counts according to communication consultant and author of How to be a DIVA at Public Speaking Shola Kaye:
“We needn’t physically be in people’s company to establish engaging eye contact – having cameras turned on you can be an even more intense experience than maintaining dynamic eye contact in person. In this way I think that video can provide an excellent means by which to practice and develop your presentation skills, both verbally and otherwise.”
Alongside establishing a rapport with your audience with a well-timed ‘smies’ (smiling with eyes), practicing breathwork can help to both alleviate nerves and improve the rhythm, clarity and energy of your speeches.
Catch your breath
You’ve been inhaling/exhaling since day dot, but have you been harnessing the power of your breath to get your point across? It turns out that breathing is as much a skill as it is a vital life function.
Breathing deeply and fully into our belly (as you might during a yoga class) not only calms the ‘fight or flight’ response that so many of us feel when faced with a captive audience but it also lends power to our voice, as presenter, actor and author of Improvise!: Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work Max Dickens explains:
“To gain an audience’s trust, how we present our voice and body must match the message that we’re trying to get across. It’s pointless trying to deliver interesting content without expressive body language and vocal power.
“Breathwork plays a big part in this. Practice ‘punching’ out the first and last words of your sentences with muscularity. This will deliver an extra layer of impact and it’s a technique used by some of the world’s best speakers and performers (Youtube is your friend here).
“Secondly, use silences between breaths to your advantage. Pause where you want to add emphasis. Silences show huge confidence, as long as you own them.”
Letting silences linger can feel awkward at first so rehearse using emphatic silences conversationally, allowing communication to be ‘digested’ and resisting the urge to fill the void. As for practising breathwork, everything from yogic breathing classes, known as pranayama, to joining a choir can help you to master the kind of diaphragmatic breathing that improves both poise and delivery. Speaking of which…
Join the club
There’s likely only so much talking to yourself in the shower that you (and your family/ roommates) can bear – joining a public speaking network such as Toastmasters will take your skills to a whole new level. The global organisation of 16,200 public speaking clubs may primarily be operating online for now but the support, learning pathways and opportunities to exercise your public speaking muscles in a friendly and constructive environment are as valuable as ever. You needn’t dive in at the deep-end to chair a meeting or deliver a speech during your first session – projects and presentations can be completed at your own pace, all with personalised feedback to help you to gradually up your game.
If you’re feeling even more brave, Max recommends bringing a bit of drama into your weekly routine:
“Taking improv classes is a gamechanger – they’re not just for actors. Improv classes will help you to shed your fear of failure, give you lots of practice talking in front of others in a safe and encouraging environment, and you’ll learn not to be afraid of the unexpected.”
Londoners can join Max at a socially-distanced improv session at Hoopla, but if the likes of impromptu stand-up has you quaking in your boots, hosting a book club or even encouraging daily dinner table debates using tools such as Table Topics conversation starters are fun ways to polish up your public speaking act. Just make sure that you keep it regular – as with a workout routine, little and often trumps the occasional marathon.
Lastly, when both warming-up in front of friends and giving a speech itself, don’t forget to listen as well as talk. Asking questions, presenting a group with an activity or remembering audience members’ names (a classic magicians’ trick) will take engagement and energy levels to fresh heights. Max reveals that professional comedians listen more than they speak – it might seem counterintuitive but it prevents them from getting stuck in their own heads and improves both material and audience response. Go ahead and break a leg.
It’s important to get your mindset right before a speech. We asked the experts for their tips in Part 1 of our Public Speaking Workshop
In the first of our series of public speaking workshops, Anna Lao-Kaim discusses the pre-presentation principles: ‘Getting your mindset right.’
The red face, shaky legs, dry rice cake mouth and stress sweats – most of us are familiar with the symptoms of a bout of pre-presentation nerves. For some, a fear of public speaking is akin to a kind of paralysis, with The British Council reporting that 75% of us experience severe performance anxiety while 10% suffer from a debilitating public speaking phobia (known as glossophobia).
The stats are equally revealing in the US, where The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 73% of the population experiences anxiety around public speaking. The knowledge that even Mark Zuckerberg blow dries his armpits to eliminate “anxiety sweat” before delivering speeches is testament to the fact that public speaking can strike terror into the hearts, minds and voices of even the world’s most successful CEOs.
I got a particularly acute case of the public speaking scaries last summer at the prospect of giving a speech at my wedding. In addition to pitching the tone and length just so, I knew that I would be delivering my speech to a large audience, with the inclusion of excerpts in Thai and Polish as a nod to my new husband’s heritage, after having had most likely not a lot of sleep and with the whole performance being filmed.
I was a rabbit in the headlights of my Word doc but understanding that almost everyone feels the fear, that few people are natural born speakers and that confidence comes in many forms helped me to step up to the mic. As did stand-up comedian and author Viv Groskop’s How To Own The Room, a book that examines and dissects the power of women using their voice and cheers readers on to do the same. Groskop emphasises that effective, exciting (yes, really) public speaking is really just a state of mind – here’s how to get yours in a great place before you grace the stage or start the Zoom call.
Flip the negatives
Even the most seemingly serene of speakers is likely paddling an adrenalin wave. Award-winning speaker and communication consultant Shola Kaye explains that a fear of public speaking is primal:
“We crave the protection and approval of the group. Back in the caveman days, if we were ostracised from society for doing something wrong we would die either from being attacked by wild animals or due to exposure to harsh elements.
“The primitive part of our mind still maintains these fears and that’s why, even though being laughed at, criticised or rejected won’t kill us, we hold onto that basic fear and overemphasise the impact of screwing up a talk.”
Negative self-talk may have protective prehistoric precedence but that doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge it. Shola has some ‘be your own cheerleader’ advice up her sleeve:
“It can be hard to shut off negative experiences but a great way to overcome them is to list all of the negative chatter and ‘flip it’. If your internal monologue is ‘I’m rubbish at speaking’, turn that statement on its head by switching it to ‘I’m a decent speaker and getting better all the time’.
“When you’ve flipped your list of negatives, throw away the original doubts and read the positives like a mantra. This will train your brain to expect success.”
Mantras not quite hitting spot yet? Shola advises workshopping your speech beforehand:
“Write a vivid script visualising everything going brilliantly. Perhaps you’re getting high-fives from the crowd, laughs and maybe even a standing ovation at the end. Record it and then listen back to it at night, during quiet moments or whenever imposter syndrome creeps in.”
Embrace the fear
Shola also advocates harnessing your natural ‘fight or flight’ response to a public speaking opportunity for good:
“It’s important to feel excited about what’s to come and to anticipate a great accomplishment rather than a failure.”
If nothing else, bear in mind that your crowd will have confidence in you to begin with, not to mention the fact that a fear of public speaking is so universal that they’ll have sympathy in spades if you do experience a bout of brain freeze.
Stand your ground
Hypnotherapist Malminder Gill emphasises that, if you’re giving a talk, you can glean self-esteem by focussing on the fact that you already possess something valuable that’s worth sharing:
“There will be a reason why you are choosing or have been asked to present. It is likely that you are giving a speech on account of your wisdom and/or life experience that you can communicate to others.
“Instead of putting the spotlight on your own anxiety, reframe your outlook to concentrate on what you’d love to share with your audience. Concentrating on the benefits of what you are doing and keeping this positive objective at the forefront of your mind will make your fear much less significant. Be the expert that people already know you are and you’ll exude confidence.”
Screen out the stress
Given that remote working is likely to continue well into the future, adding digital glitches and inevitable WFH interruptions into the mix could stand to make presenting even more daunting. Gill attests that the Zoom ‘room’ can actually play to your speech-giving advantage:
“Hosting a talk on video actually has some perks. You can keep notes just out of sight, open another window on your screen so that you don’t have to look at everyone’s faces as you’re speaking and tailor lighting and the angle of your screen exactly as you’d like it. Light a calming candle, set the scene and take your time getting ready rather than worrying about a frantic commute.”
If the dog bounds in it’ll only add to the energy of your speech, after all, authenticity is key to delivering a memorable performance. No one expects perfection and it’s the speaking and showing up that counts. Who knows, Fido’s entrance could even go viral?
For more advice, check out our Personal Development section. Learn how to win at difficult conversations here.