What could possibly be worse than death? For many, the answer is not snakes, spiders or heights: It’s public speaking. Perhaps you cringe at simply hearing the phrase. Maybe your palms start to sweat. Rest assured; these reactions are normal for many people. Even if you have no plans to be a public speaker, odds are that at some point in your life you will be called upon to present before a group, whether it be a toast at a wedding or a job interview in front of a panel. By following these simple tips, you can turn your nerves into confidence. Who knows, you may even learn to enjoy the experience!
Know your audience
When preparing for a speech, this should always be Step 1. Are you presenting to a room of medical professionals? Or are you talking to a group of high school students about preparing for college? Considering your audience’s wants, needs and interests will help frame your presentation. Use examples and draw upon experiences that appeal to your audience. If at all possible, familiarize yourself with the venue as well. Will you have a podium and/or lectern? A microphone? How much space will there be to move around?
This one should almost go without saying. Practicing a speech—in front of a mirror or a friend—will go a long way toward helping you feel comfortable with your content. Pay particular attention to what you do with your hands. Avoid putting them in your pockets or indulging other nervous behaviors that may detract attention away from you and your presentation. Hands are important, but don’t forget your legs and feet, either. Fidgeting unnecessarily, rocking back and forth, or pacing can be seen as a sign of nervousness or untrustworthiness. There’s a careful balance between using your hands and moving around the stage to make a point and moving so much that you’re just distracting.
… but not too much!
Believe it or not, it is possible to over-prepare for a speech. Many people try to memorize a speech word for word, but unless you’re an experienced public speaker, you run the risk of sounding robotic in your delivery. This can happen even to public figures. How often are you able to tell when a speaker is reading from a TelePrompTer? It’s often easier to achieve a more conversational tone when you speak from a brief outline of key points rather than memorize a script.
Check your appearance beforehand
This may sound vain at first, but nothing is worse than being in front of a group and wondering if you have a mustard stain on your chin or your hair is sticking up. Taking a quick glance in the mirror before you go on will alleviate these concerns so that you can focus on your content.
Begin your speech with something that will grab the audience’s attention immediately—but stick to what works best for you. Jokes can be great, but don’t force them if you’re uncomfortable telling jokes. Beginning with a powerful quote, a startling statistic or a compelling anecdote can also be effective.
Use verbal pauses to your advantage
When we’re nervous, we aren’t comfortable with silence. Typically, we try to fill it with vocal tics such as “umm,” “uhh,” “like” and “ya know.” These fillers can be incredibly distracting. Instead of trying to fill the silence, embrace it. Use brief pauses to your advantage. Pausing periodically after key points throughout your speech gives the audience time to process the information. It also gives you a moment to take a breath before moving to your next point.
At the end of the day, preparation is the key to keeping your nerves under control and delivering a high-quality speech. Want to hear a little-known secret most public speakers probably never thought to tell you? We all get nervous. In fact, being nervous before a speech can actually be a good thing. It is often an indication that you care about the speaking opportunity and that you want your audience to view your presentation as valuable and worthy of their time.
While it’s unlikely these tips will remove your anxiety completely, they can certainly help turn nervous energy into positive energy that will aid you in preparing for your speaking engagement. They’ll increase your confidence in your delivery and leave you proud of the job you did.
Jonathan Francis is the Digital Studio coordinator for the Lexington Public Library. He graduated from the University of Louisville with a Bachelor of Science in Communication and completed his Master of Arts in Communication at Bellarmine University in 2010. He previously taught Public Speaking at the University of Kentucky. In addition to his job at the library, Jonathan does freelance voice-over work through his website, RetroRaconteur.com.