Imagine this: you’re about to get online and for a speaking engagement where you are one of the main speakers, perhaps THE main speaker. You’ll be presenting in front of a [virtual] audience where they all have their eyes on YOU.
Do your palms get sweaty? Does your mouth feel like the Sahara or your fingers start fidgeting? Does your heartbeat increase, like it’s going to pound right out of your chest? Do you want to just make a break for the door or cancel the whole thing?! If so, then public speaking might stress you out a tad. And that’s ok! Public speaking has been stressing people out for centuries and yet we still do it…Why?!
Every day, we’re presenting webinars and lectures to other human beings as a way to communicate information in the most natural way that humans have found: to speak, sign, and/or write to one another about the things we know and are passionate about. Human beings desire to share information with each other, it’s almost like we’re compelled to do so.
But when it comes to stepping out on a stage in front of real people, using our own voice to share our thoughts, that’s when things can get a little hairy…
Welcome to the fear of stepping outside your comfort zone. You’re not at your kitchen table hotly debating the new Apple update with friends. You are on a stage in front of actual strangers (who might only know you from this interaction), and you’re about to lead them with YOUR WORDS.
This could be a new feeling, or it might be a familiar one. Either way, it’s one that can and will improve if we focus on doing so. And you know what I’m about to say next: there is no magic button or pill that allows us to instantly improve our public speaking ability. Which makes this the part where I break the bad news: getting comfortable with public speaking takes PRACTICE.
Let’s start with the basics:
- KNOW YOUR CONTENT – I can’t stress this enough. You need to feel comfortable and confident speaking about your intended content in general, with your peers, colleagues, decision-makers, friends, and family members. Who, by the way, have unwittingly become your practice audience for the content you’ll be delivering in the future.
- Posture: Be mindful of having good, upright posture, where your shoulders are back and your feet are flat on the floor, equally distributing your weight on both feet. Keep your head up, looking at the audience to whom you are speaking. You can take you index finger and thumb in a gentle L shape, inserting the L under your chin and under the dip in your clavicle (but not in the dip) – that is straight ahead. It’s okay to look down at your notes or what have you, but the default position for your head is upright, facing your audience.
- Breathing: Take deep breaths from your diaphragm (i.e. from your belly, NOT your chest). This will help with steadying your heart rate and calming your nerves. When we breathe from our chest, it’s a shallower breath, meaning we have to breathe more frequently which results in lowering our oxygen intake and increasing our heart rate, thus making us anxious and possibly dizzy. Additionally, good strong breathing helps us vocally deliver our content with power.
- Hair: Ensure that your hair is neither a distraction to you nor your audience. Example: you have long hair and a habit of moving it around while you speak (flipping it, curling it, etc.). Your audience could find it distracting that you’re constantly moving your hands up to your head/hair. Style your hair in a way that keeps it off your mind.
- Comfort First: Ladies, I also suggest wearing comfortable shoes and clothes that are not too distracting (unless that is relevant to your industry). You want to be both comfortable and to have the audience’s attention on your content, not on your clothes (and vice versa).
Afraid of a Crowd?
If you’re familiar with your content and comfortable with the process but it’s the audience aspect that is freaking you out, here are a few tools that can help you develop your nerve:
- Consider joining a public speaking development group, like Toastmasters, OR working with a local coach or speaking club, commonly found on places like MeetUp.
- Kim Barnes of Barnes Team Media suggests recording yourself in short increments, watching the play back and taking notes of the things you’d like to work on, then adjust accordingly. Rinse – Repeat
- Start small: there are frequent opportunities that arise during our time at work where we can practice public speaking with low pressure. For instance, you could be the team captain in group exercises, where you are responsible for sharing your team’s content with the larger group. Speak up in meetings, ask questions or deliver challenges when you know something needs to be called out. Work presentations or sales pitches are another opportunity to practice public speaking; invite a few extra folks when you’re able!
Ultimately though, you have to actually PRACTICE. I know, I know, “you have to practice,” I sound like your middle school band teacher. But Ms. Jenkins was right, practice leads to a more informed approach, which leads to increased comfort of your content, and improved confidence over time.
Remember that age-old idiom “Practice makes perfect” – While I don’t hold with the word perfect (which is a conversation for another time), practice does give us ample opportunity to grow in our abilities, in as much as we’re interested in doing so. The choice is yours.