For those who dread public speaking, avoidance can seem like a sensible strategy. If it’s a source of anxiety, why not leave it to those who are naturally good at it? The truth is that some of the most compelling speakers in history have had to overcome some degree of fear, including Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson and Mahatma Gandhi.
What is public speaking?
For many people, the ability to stand up and speak to colleagues or clients will be an expectation at work – certainly if you are keen to move into a more senior role. Because as unnatural as it can feel to some of us, public speaking is an important tool. When a person speaks engagingly to an audience, they can influence action, change minds, and transfer knowledge in a way that is extremely effective.
Whether you are delivering a sales pitch, introducing yourself at a networking event or presenting your ideas in a meeting, it is always an opportunity to achieve something. Companies thrive on good communication, so your skills in this area will matter greatly to your employer, and get you noticed for all the right reasons. Don’t let nervousness hold you back.
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Why is public speaking so daunting?
Public speaking anxiety is remarkably common. ‘Glossophobia’, as it is termed, is thought to affect around one in four people. To some extent, nerves are normal – even beneficial – though it might not feel that way when you are battling through a presentation with a dry mouth and trembling hands.
The reasons why this social phobia is so prevalent vary from person to person, but typically, it relates to a fear of failure or embarrassment. Some say they are self-conscious about appearing nervous when the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. But with simple techniques, and a positive mindset, you can use this heightened energy and self-awareness to your advantage.
Simple tips to improve your public-speaking skills
It can take years to master the art of public speaking, but with these basic techniques, you will see an immediate difference in your performance. Remember: once you have made a note of our tips, the best way to prepare for success is with practice, practice, practice.
Deliver a good introduction
Before you launch into your speech or presentation, think about your opening. If you were reading a new book and the first paragraph was dull or muddled, you would probably put it down. The same goes for public speaking: your introduction should hook your audience and make them lean into what you are about to share with them.
So how do you do that? First of all, start planning the structure of your speech as soon as possible, so that you have plenty of time to research, redraft, and rehearse. Depending on the objective and who you are addressing, you might want to combine information and storytelling, such as a surprising statistic and a personal anecdote. Give your audience reasons to feel intrigued so that they stay with you from the start.
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Pay attention to your body language
Incredibly, somewhere around 70% of our communication is nonverbal, so public speaking is an exercise in body language as much as oration. When we are feeling defensive, our instinct is to shrink ourselves and to take a protective stance, which your audience will pick up on. Before you begin, scan your posture; are you standing tall? Are you creating space by projecting your chest outwards? Are your arms relaxed? Maintaining an open, self-assured position will not only give the impression of confidence, but actually make you feel more at ease and in control, too.
Know your audience
A skilled public speaker will always adapt their speech to the audience in front of them. The point of addressing a collective group of people is to make a connection, or convince them of something, and you cannot do that if you don’t have a good understanding of who you are speaking to. For example, if you wanted to convince senior management that flexible working would be good for your department, but you are unequipped to say how this will impact productivity, you might wish you had read the room more carefully.
Think about the interests, level of understanding, attitudes, and beliefs of your audience and adapt your style appropriately. When you take an audience-centered approach, you are far more likely to bridge the gap between you and them, so that they quickly feel less like strangers and more like supporters.
Allow for pauses
It makes sense: you are desperate to get to the end of your speech, so you race to the end. The problem is, this only increases the likelihood of tripping over your words, or expressing yourself inaccurately. If you find that your pace is quickening, take a moment. Force yourself to slow down by breathing deeply, and allow yourself to gather your thoughts. This won’t be jarring to your audience; pauses are a natural part of conversation and they will only make you more engaging to listen to.
Repeat questions in your own words
Your presentation is over, you did brilliantly and stuck to the script you had prepared. But now there’s a Q&A session that requires you to think on your feet. How do you handle it? If somebody in the audience asks you a question, that’s a good sign – they are clearly interested in what you have to say.
Try to anticipate questions as part of your preparation, but if you are faced with one that you don’t immediately know how to answer, that’s okay. Repeat the question in your own words to demonstrate that you were listening, that you understand, and to give yourself time to formulate a thoughtful response that ends your presentation on a great note.