Public speaking routinely tops the list of common phobias. Butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, anxiety are all typical manifestations of the discomfort, which is often much less noticeable to the audience than to the one doing the speaking. However, unlike being trapped in a dark room with snakes, glossophobia (fear of public speaking) affects the ability to do something much more common. From a wedding toast to an informal presentation, most of us have experienced the sudden terror of speaking to a crowd and wondering: “What if I suck?”
How to conquer this demon? For many people, the root is not the speaking part itself, but rather the fear of failure (atychiphobia). Unrealistic comparisons are often to blame, as videos of great speakers like Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey serve as lofty targets. Their charisma is rare, but they made it their own; rather than attempting to copy them, you should seek our own voice and style.
To me, some of the best speakers in the world are stand-up comedians. Perhaps you never thought of them as speakers, but that’s truly their profession. Show after show, they go on stage and perform, regardless of the venue or audience size. Their connection to the audience is not fabricated but rather the product of hours of hard work. While their monologues have been fine-tuned after hundreds of performances, their delivery is not robotic. Their pauses are measured and the emphasis plays off the crowd’s reaction. While they may not be giving speeches in front of the United Nations, they nevertheless connect with the audience in a manner worthy of emulation.
Here’s how you can be just as good as them.
Practice With a Reason
Practicing a speech goes beyond reading it a few times. Assemble your friends and family and deliver it multiple times. Give them specific responsibilities (check for filler words, for fidgeting, for proper enunciation, etc.) to avoid the dreaded “that was good” milquetoast response. I also recommend practicing in front of a mirror, as you will be more in tune with mannerisms and speech patterns.
A very counter-intuitive idea is to silently practice the speech. Run through it in your head, but pay attention to the gestures you incorporate to convey your meaning. They will become much more powerful when done in unison with your voice. (You could also record yourself using your phone’s video camera, but mute the speaker when playing it back, so you can see how the speech flows.)
Re-imagine the Audience
A boxing match or a robbery is a hostile situation. A presentation, on the other hand, should not be. The audience wants you to succeed! Why else would they be there? Unless you happen to be presenting to a group of sadists, your suffering is not on their agenda; rather, they want to be entertained or informed. Get them on your side by establishing close links before you begin speaking.
Enter the room early, mingle with the crowd, engage in small talk. Observe the groups and cliques to understand the relationships, and incorporate the knowledge as you establish eye contact with individuals, rather than a sea of faces. Getting the “inside scoop” on the crowd can break the ice much more than an “off the shelf” joke that lacks any connection.
Self-confidence is the key to remaining calm. If you are asked to present to the board of directors on your project, 99 out of 100 times, you will be the expert on the topic. It’s your project and they wish to be briefed on it. Worrying about the opportunity yields no reward; preparing for it, on the other hand, does. Seek the advice of those who have presented to the board to anticipate the type of questions to be asked to showcase your expertise.
Focus on the Main Points
Perhaps the most important tip covers the speech itself. A prayer or the Oath of Allegiance must be recited verbatim. A speech, on the other hand, does not. Trying to memorize every single line creates unnecessary pressure. Instead, focus on one or two keywords from each topic. Control the flow, rather than allow it to control you.
My wife and I wrote our own vows for our wedding. Screwing that up would have been horrible, right? Except … no one would have known. She and I alone knew our lines. If we skipped one or transposed one, so what? The guests were not there to judge, nor would they have known if we changed the order of the vows. The same concept applies to public speaking. Practice making your points and the transitions between them, and forget about memorizing every single word.
Becoming a great public speaker doesn’t happen overnight, but your attitude toward the craft can be toggled like a light switch. Give yourself some goals to measure your progress, focus on the small wins and the level of improvement will soon become apparent. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even become the next Kevin Hart or Amy Schumer.