Speaking Up

Public speaking can be intimidating for even the most confident of us. But there are ways to make it easier.

By Jane Hosking

The thought of standing up in front of a crowd can evoke feelings of dread and fear in many of us. But like it or not, speaking in public is something you will most likely be called on to do at some point in your life, whether it be for a business meeting, or a speech at a social event. So instead of avoiding every public speaking opportunity that comes your way, here are some tips we’ve developed with the help of public speaking expert Zein Ghanma on how to be prepared.

1- Do it scared

If public speaking is something that twists your stomach into knots and sends you into a cold sweat, then the worst thing you can do is avoid it. As hard as it may seem, you need to be prepared to do it scared. According to Ghanma, public speaking isn’t a skill that we’re born with; we master it through practice. “When we deal with something that is foreign to us, we’re always afraid,” she said, adding that once we become more familiar with being in the spotlight, it gets easier. For those who hate public speaking, Ghanma advises working up to it little by little. “When you go to a lecture, get out of your comfort zone without having too much spotlight on you by asking a question.” She believes that taking these little steps, as often as possible, can help you become more courageous and reduce your fear, until you start enjoying public speaking.

2- Condition yourself

For people who are afraid of public speaking, it’s often their fear of failure that ultimately trips them up during a speech. The internal dialogue, which tells you that you can’t do it, is your biggest enemy in delivering a successful speech or presentation. Ghanma believes that instead of over analyzing and criticizing yourself, you need to block out the negative thoughts and psychologically condition yourself to succeed. “If you keep telling yourself, ‘I can’t do this, I hate this, I’m going to mess it up,’ then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said, adding that you need to tell yourself that mistakes are ok and that what you are sharing with your audience is valuable to them.

3- Get physical

One of the things that people often fail to do when they’re speaking publicly is to manage themselves physically. When we feel nervous, our bodies often show it. We may sweat, shake, move too much, freeze, or fail to make eye contact. According to Ghanma, it’s all about camouflage. “Even if you feel tense, people are not seeing all of that tension and you can find ways to control the physical manifestation of your fear,” she said. Ghanma added that one of the best ways to do this is to breathe. As simple as it may sound, she said that when people are in the spotlight they often forget to breathe properly. This can increase stress levels, make muscles tense up, voice disappear, and make the mind go hazy.

4- Tell stories

People are hardwired for stories. By weaving relevant anecdotes and real life examples into your speech you will engage your audience and keep them interested. Think of Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University graduates in 2005 where he told the story of how he dropped out of college, launched Apple from his parents’ garage, and what he learned from his first brush with death. Jobs’ stories captivated his audience and left a lasting mark. “When we visualize characters, places, and events, we connect with them,” said Ghanma.

5- Make it visual

As entertaining as you think you may be as a speaker, you can always enhance your performance with visual aids or props. These will help you communicate an idea, keep your audience engaged, and will also make you feel more at ease by taking the focus off yourself. Visual aids and props can include:

  • Diagrams, graphs, and charts
  • Maps
  • Slides (not the boring type)
  • Video clips
  • Handouts
  • Photographs
  • Relevant physical objects

6- Plan and structure

 It’s important to communicate your ideas clearly to keep your audience engaged. To achieve this you need to prepare in advance and structure your thoughts. This means beginning a presentation or speech with a compelling intro that grabs your audience’s attention, before presenting your points in a clear and logical sequence. “If you don’t organize your ideas, you leave it up to your audience to organize them,” said Ghanma.

7- Target your audience

To avoid boring members of your audience, Ghanma believes it’s important to learn as much about them beforehand. “You want to be one of the audience, don’t be alien. Connect with their lives, their needs, and their interests,” she said. This will ensure that what you say is relevant and interesting to them, and will stop them from zoning out.

8- Be conversational

Few things are worse than listening to a monotone drone of a speech. Variety and expression in your voice is essential if you want to captivate your audience. Ghanma advises that you keep your tone as conversational as possible. “What you need to learn to do is speak your speech off the page,” she said, even though it might take some practice. Winston Churchill, for example, overcame a speech impediment and became one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century by developing the skill of public speaking through repetition; sometimes practicing a speech for hours.