Public speaking makes most people nervous. It’s way up there among the things that people say cause them the most stress. I was privileged to be on the organising team of a TEDx event in 2019 and happily passed on some of these useful tips to the less experienced speakers.
1. Know exactly what you want to say
You should probably write yourself a script but don’t read off it on the big day. Learn it well enough so you know that you can fit everything you need to say into your allowed time. If you’re confident you know the order your points need to be spoken in, you can allow yourself a little bit of ad-lib when it comes to the performance.
If you don’t memorise the whole of your talk, at least know the first couple of lines and the very end. Getting off to the start you want, will help you to stay on track and remembering the conclusion will make sure you wrap up in a way that satisfies you.
2. Tell your story
In order to gain your audience’s trust and hold their attention, you need to make a connection.
Storytelling is something we humans do best. Your delivery of information is so much more likely to be memorable if you can make it entertaining. Give personal examples of why people need to hear your message if you can.
3. Consider using cue cards
If memorising an entire script is not one of your strong points, simply use some palm sizes cards with keywords written on them to guide you. You can easily glance at the top card in your hand to remind you what you want to talk about next. You can buy ring bound index cards which are a good size for this. The ring binder means that should you drop your cards, they will remain in order.
4. Time it right
Time is really important in public speaking. It’s vital that you allow yourself enough to fully prepare, rehearse and make changes. The first draft of your speech is likely to be very different from the finished piece. Start by roughly writing the information you need to include, then go through it again and again, choosing words and tones that feel right to you, allowing your own personality to shine through.
If you have a limited time to speak, make sure that you are well-rehearsed enough to fit everything you want to say into that time frame. This is where rehearsing is so important. You might find that when you first start to practice, you speak quite quickly but as time goes on and you get to know your script better and you begin to add more of your personality you won’t get through it so quickly. It would be awful if you ran out of time and had to omit something important in order to finish on time.
5. What to wear?
Obviously this depends on the occasion. If you are the Best Man at a wedding, you’ll very likely be wearing something that is quite different from what you normally wear. You might feel uncomfortable in which case, do rehearse your speech wearing your wedding outfit, even if it’s only to yourself in front of your bedroom mirror.
For most other presentations, you will not be as restricted so go for comfort as much as you possibly can. Don’t wear a waistband or shoes that are too tight. Avoid a scratchy label in the back of a shirt or anything that requires you to hold your tummy in or straps that are prone to slipping down. You don’t want to be distracted from your presentation or talk by uncomfortable clothing. Something old and familiar but clean and pressed is best as long as it is something you feel good in. Check what background you are going to be standing against. If your backdrop is black, don’t wear all black, you will look like a floating head. Dangling earrings can interfere with the sound if you are going to be wearing a microphone on a headpiece.
6. Be yourself
Don’t try to be something you’re not, the audience will know if you are a fake. It doesn’t matter if you don’t deliver a perfect performance, you are not an actor, you’re YOU with your own unique way of communicating. If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. The audience knows you are human: they will forgive you. Take a deep breath, gather your thoughts and laugh at yourself as you apologise. You might like to have a funny little quip prepared for such an occasion. If you can make fun of yourself, the audience will relax. Get flustered and they will feel embarrassed for you.
So what I’m saying is, make your nerves work for you. Most people love to root for the person who is likeable and honest and inexperienced. If you’re nervous, it’s OK to say so.
7. Record yourself
Video record yourself delivering your speech on an imaginary stage. This is a painful thing to do if you are not used to seeing and hearing yourself speak but in my opinion, it is the most useful tip I can give you. As you watch it replayed, you might notice annoying little habits that you can train yourself not to do. Small things which you never knew you did: like rocking from one foot to the other, pacing too much or not enough; or funny little actions you had no idea about until you watched yourself. The more you view and listen to yourself, the less it will make you squirm and the more confident you will get. Trust me on this one!
8. Don’t be a robot
Tell your story with enthusiasm and empathy. Alter your tone of voice, the pace and the volume throughout to keep it interesting. Don’t be afraid of pausing to emphasise important points. This is another good reason to record yourself when you are rehearsing. You’ll be able to judge how people will hear your speech.
9. Beware of drying up!
When you are anxious about speaking in public, on the radio or even making an important phone call, it’s natural to get dry mouth. When that happens it can cause panic. You feel like your tongue is sticking to the roof of your mouth and the words just won’t fit together. So be sure to have a drink to hand. There’s no shame in taking a moment for a mouthful of water. Notice that guests on TV chat shows always have a glass of water in front of them exactly for this reason.
10. Be friendly
Smile as you step onto the stage. Make an impact with your first sentence: a promise of a delightful journey or an exciting new idea. Seek out the people in the audience who are giving you eye contact, smiling and nodding. Whenever you need a shot of confidence, look at those people. They’ll be rooting for you and make you feel better. If you have the chance to speak to a few people before the event, you’ll find they are on your side. You’ve had a chat - you’re friends now - they want you to do well. Throughout your speech, smile a lot and bring warmth to your talk.
Most of all, enjoy yourself. If you’re relishing the occasion, your audience will too.