I can still remember my worst public speaking moment.
I had just started at this ad agency and our new client was coming to the office to do a meet and greet.
I desperately wanted to make a good first impression. I had to show what I was made of.
I’m not generally a shy guy, but it turned into one of those awful public speaking moments everyone fears. As I stood up in the front of the room, my heart raced, my palms sweated, I couldn’t catch my breath…
But worst of all, as I spoke, I had this self-sabotage commentary running through my head: “Oh. My. God….I wish I could just STOP. I wish I could just FINISH right now. But everyone’s eyes are on ME…”
Fortunately, the moment did eventually pass. And I made it through the meeting without wetting my pants or throwing up on a client. I even managed not to get fired. My boss was gracious about it, saying later that maybe I could use a bit more practice with public speaking, “you know, to clean up some of the umm’s, etc.” Yeah, there were those, too.
I never had a moment quite that bad again. But over the years, sometimes I’ve felt like my public speaking skills were just as inconsistent and elusive as my pool game: sometimes I was epic, other times I was epically bad. And for awhile I couldn’t seem to figure out when the Steve Jobs version of me was going to show up and when it was going to be Steve Urkel.
I wish there was some magic bullet—some secret—to amazing public speaking. But what I’ve learned after years of trial and error is that the solution isn’t that sexy. It’s like other things in life: great public speaking comes from practice, plus a few little tricks that can improve your chances of success.
I can’t help you with the practice part, you’re on your own there. But here are 18 tips that will help you avoid stage fright and take your public speaking skills to a new level:
1. Connect with the audience before you speak
A crowd is scary, but individuals aren’t. If you can just remember that the crowd you’re getting in front of is just made up of individual people you’ll be okay. Before the presentation, try to meet as many people as you can—introduce yourself. You’ll find that most of these people are just regular humans. Everyday people.
The typical advice is to imagine your audience in your underwear. At some events that may not be very pleasurable. So, as a close second, just try to connect with them as people, find out about their personal life, their hobbies, their family. It will make you feel much more at ease when you’re up on stage later looking out in the audience: you won’t see a random scowling audience member, you’ll see Jason, the accountant from Pittsburgh who has 2 daughters and loves to watch karate movies and drink PBR when his wife goes on yoga retreats.
2. Stand up straight and look sharp
Some people think what they say while giving a speech is the most important thing. Turns out that according to research, people’s perception of public speakers is most influenced by 2 things: one is how you appear visually—do you look confident, are you standing up straight? The other is how your voice sounds—does it sound commanding, are you using interesting inflection?
Standing up straight is maybe 60% of the battle. If you just stand up there in front of the audience and LOOK confident, you’re already more than halfway to being a great speaker.
3. Use gestures deliberately and make them count
One of the most nerve-racking things to think about when you’re up in front of an audience is what to do with your hands. A lot of speaking coaches will say that you should try to keep them down at your sides and not gesture too much. But this is easier said than done. And besides, it’s natural for people talk with their hands. I say, don’t worry about it. Use your hands the way that you would talk when speaking with someone one-on-one.
The key, however is to avoid the appearance of “flailing” where there’s too much hand motion. When using your hands, it’s important to be deliberate—keep your gestures big and purposeful. Whenever possible, if you have numbered points, use your hand to clearly call out the number for each point. “There are 3 things…[hold up 3 sign]. The first point is [hold up 1 finger].” It may seem like it’s overkill and like you’re playing charades, but this really helps the audience follow your points.
4. Breathe…then keep breathing
While it’s pretty basic advice, it absolutely needs to be said. If you don’t control your breathing, you’re allowing your body to stay in that initial “fight or flight” stage that you may have felt right before you walked up there. In contrast, when you slow yourself down with deep, oxygen-rich breaths, you are able to be in the moment, you’re able to loosen up your body and most importantly, able to think on your feet. When you can think on your feet you inhabit your speech more, so you’re not just reciting lines. You believe each point and feeling the weight of each statement as you deliver it, which ultimately makes it more believable and engaging for the audience.
5. Maintain eye contact
Eye contact is the key to connecting with your audience. While it may sound touchy-feely, there is a definite exchange of energy when a speaker scans the room, connecting with individuals. If you’ve ever witnessed a speaker who just looked off into space vs. a dynamic speaker who made it a point to connect with a few individuals, the difference is palpable.
From a purely practical standpoint, making eye contact with your audience has the effect of keeping everyone awake: ”I better pay attention, he might pick me next.” What’s also interesting is that by looking at a single individual and connecting with them, often others around them think you’re looking at them as well. Sort of like 3 for the price of one…
6. Jump right in with dramatic flair
One of the signs of a seasoned presenter is the ability to launch their presentation and immediately hook you. None of this “ok, I’ll go ahead and start now.” Or, “Uh hi guys, uh thanks for having me here.” A seasoned presenter doesn’t ever make you think about the fact that they’re presenting. Instead, from the moment the presenter walks up there, everything they do is part of controlling your experience of their presentation.
A few great ways to start with dramatic flair are to begin with a famous quote, mention a key statistic, ask a provocative question, mention a news item, begin with a personal revelation of some kind (Last Tuesday was the first time I ever used deodorant!). Or, if you’re really feeling ballsy, the most masterful presenters begin with a dramatic pause. Yep, just you and the audience, separated by a big pregnant pause. It’s like just in that moment when the audience has just quieted as they see you coming up, you just stop, breathe and survey the room. When done well it can be powerful: you could hear a pin drop. The audience is on the edge of their seats. And that brief tension heightens what you say right after that. Like you’ve withheld water, and finally quenched their thirst.
7. Be a storyteller
The best public speakers don’t just give you their point of view in a series of statements. They paint pictures with their words. They use the age-old advice in writing: show, don’t tell. Instead of telling you how bad things are in Detroit, they tell you a story about a man with 4 kids and a wife who used to make great money at the auto plant until he lost his job and now has to collect cans and do odd jobs to make ends meet.
Humans are hard-wired to get involved with stories. Stories are like oratory crack: as soon as we hear a little bit of a story, we gotta have more. “But how does it end? Does he end up finding another job?” What’s great about this is that telling a series of stories can help you reinforce one singular point in rich ways. Many great books do the same thing: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People (affiliate link) makes maybe 3 points total, but reinforces them with about 30 different stories, each story adding another layer of persuasiveness.
8. Master the pause, play the empty space
One of the biggest signs of a novice speaker—and you’ll notice this in interviews as well—is the inclination to fill the empty space. As amateurs, we’re worried if we pause too long, it may sound unintelligent. In fact, the opposite is true. Some of the most masterful public speakers deliberately pause between points. A well-paced pause has an amazing effect. If the audience has been listening, it has the effect of being a massive punctuation on the previous point. Or it has the effect of building suspense for the point to come. From a practical standpoint, it also allows the audience a moment to digest the point you’ve just communicated and let it sink in.
It reminds me of a quote I heard about music once: the best soloists (think Miles Davis) don’t just play the notes, they play the empty space between the notes. It’s not just the notes that communicate feeling and tone and emotion; it’s the way they’re spaced out and they way they are punctuated and amplified by silence. So too with dramatic pauses in public speaking.
9. Recharge on individuals
One of the best ways to keep the fear of the crowd from psyching you out is to pay attention to the individuals, and use them to “recharge” when you can—to regain your mojo. When you start to feel yourself getting nervous, look to one individual and stay with them for a bit. Look into their eyes as you speak. There’s a 99% chance that when you focus on them, they’re going to be highly intent on looking back at you, and if they can sense you’re feeling a little nervous, they’ll give you some encouragement through their intent gaze and encouraging smile. Stay with them a moment, until you feel like you’ve regained your stride, and then move on to other audience members.
10. Engage with the audience during the talk
Another way to calm your own nerves and keep the audience attentive is to engage them early and often. Some of the best speakers keep an audience on the edge of their seats by involving them throughout their presentation. An easy way to do this is by asking the audience questions—especially at the start. “How many of your have ever…raise your hands?” By forcing them to physically get involved, they can’t help but be engaged. I mean, who know what you’re going to make them do next? You’d also be surprised at how quickly this gets rid of any of your nerves. This is one of the best ways to remember that you’re not standing in front of some faceless crowd silently judging you. These people are just individuals…who hope you don’t put them on the spot next.
11. Never memorize, but cheat sheets are ok
You should never memorize your speech. You’re much better off if you can try to remember the main points—and think about those as the skeleton that you’re going to add “meat” to as you speak. When you memorize your speech word for word, all it takes is forgetting a few key sentences and you can be totally thrown off. And even if you do pull it off, unless you’re very good, it can come across as wooden—people can tell you’re reciting a script and it’s less engaging. If you need a cheat-sheet, it’s ok to use prompt cards with some of your high-level points jotted down or an outline you can refer back to.
12. Know what you’re talking about
Nothing will take the edge off the nerves as much the simple knowledge that you actually know the topic you’re speaking about. There were times I would worry about doing a presentation because I was fretting over the details. Then I would remember, hey I know this stuff. If I was sitting on an airplane next to someone we could chat about this and I could hold my own. Not that I would stop preparing and just wing it. But it helps give you a certain fortitude.
You may think, well when would I present on something I’m not knowledgeable about? Where I’ve seen it happen most often is in a group presentation where the content gets carved up and shared by multiple presenters. Especially if you’re the junior person, you may end up getting stuck with a few odds and ends. And while you can speak to the surface level to all these things, it pays to do some research and make sure you have a deeper comfort-level with the subject matter.
13. Practice, practice, then practice some more
Most people don’t practice their presentations enough, and it shows. I’ve written about this before in the context of best man speeches. If you really want to wow your audience, you need to go through it multiple times until it becomes muscle memory. Again, not that you should count on memorizing the words verbatim. It’s more that you should be getting used to the cadence and the dramatic pauses. And the sections where you might engage the audience. Or the way you’ll use a visual aid. In The Art of the Start (affiliate link), Guy Kawasaki recommends practicing a presentation at least 25 times. He says that ironically, the more you practice, the easier it is for you to sound natural, like you’re delivering it off the cuff. Another trick as you’re practicing is to film yourself or record the audio. The first watch is going to be painful, but you’ll pick up on some fine-tuning things you may not have noticed otherwise.
Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” It’s easy to self-sabotage even before you go on stage and think “oh boy, I’m going to bomb!” But as Ford’s quote reminds us, it’s just as easy to psyche ourselves into believing that we’ll succeed. So why not give ourselves an advantage by being positive? Visualize success—actual success. Visualize confidently delivering your speech, and looking out to see the women swooning, grown men crying, old men stomping their canes in uproarious approval (ok, maybe it won’t be quite like that, but you get the idea).
15. Know your audience
Another critically important tip is to really know your audience. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more you can tailor your message to them. Also, the more you’ll remember that these are just people—not some abstract scary audience who’s judging you. Most importantly, it reminds you that your presentation is part of a dialog. Even though you might be the only one on stage with a mic, you need to treat it like a dialog. You should be speaking with them, not at them.
16. Structure your presentation
As you’re preparing a presentation, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the details. “What am I even trying say here, or am just filling time?” And if you feel that way, you can imagine how your audience feels when you get up there. If you take the time to map out the high-level structure of your presentation, it can go a long way to making your planning and prep easier. But it also makes it clearer for the audience. The best way is to use the old approach of “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” You may think that repeating your main point 3 times is overkill in a short presentation, but In fact it’s critical to drive home your point. Even better is to include some signposts along the way so your audience knows where you are. For example:
- I’m going to tell you 3 reasons that Rocky Road ice cream should be declared the US national dessert
- The first reason Rocky Road should be declared the national dessert…
- The second reason…
- The third and final reason…
- So, I think I’ve shared some compelling reasons why Rocky Road should be formally recognized by our country for the superior dessert that it is. I urge you all to write your congressmen, thank you!
The sad fact is that the audience isn’t always hanging on your every word. They might zone out for a moment. They might have to check their smartphone. So it helps to ensure your presentation is well-structured and reinforces your main point consistently throughout.
17. Spend some time in the space if you can
While this may not help everyone, I find it helpful if I know the venue or the room where I’m going to speak. That way I can truly visualize what it’s going to be like when I’m up there. Sometimes, if you envisioned the room setup a different way it can throw you off when you get up there.
18. Embrace nerves
As a novice presenter, when you get anxious before your presentation, you immediately think, “oh no, I’m just going to get way too nervous and not be able to regain my composure on stage.” What’s reassuring is that almost all of the greatest presenters say they are a little nervous right before going on stage. In The Exceptional Presenter (affiliate link), Timothy Koegel writes about how Johnny Carson did 4000 shows for the Tonight Show, and said he was always a little nervous right before going on stage. Other performers have said similar things, and gone so far as to say that the moment they don’t feel a twinge of that last-minute nervousness, they’ll know it’s time to give up show biz—it would be a sign their heart’s no longer in it.
So, next time you feel nervous right before getting up there, take comfort in knowing it happens to everyone, even the pros. And nerves can be your friend: when you are a little nervous at the beginning of your presentation, your senses are sharpened, your energy level is up, it shows the audience that you care about this moment.
Again, there’s no real magic fix for avoiding stage fright and being a more effective public speaker. The best thing is just to continue getting up on stage and taking advantage of opportunities to practice. And beyond that, the tips above—if consistently used—can help you hone your presentation skills so you can crush stage fright and become a masterful public speaker.
What tricks have you found helpful for public speaking? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!