I read somewhere that most people would rather get a root canal than speak in public. Having done both, I can verify that they produce equal amounts of panic, nausea, elevated blood pressure, sleep disturbance, and generalized anxiety. However, in my opinion, public speaking edges out root canals, for the basic reason that roots are important to a healthy smile, and who wants to give up smiling?
As someone who used to hide behind people to avoid being picked on in class (I spoke all of five sentences from K-3 grade), I am a living, breathing testament to the fact that public speaking does not kill you. Before my book was published, I spoke exactly once in public, as part of a law firm initiation ritual where every new lawyer was forced to make a speech about something on the spot. After that, I got violently ill and had to stay home for a week.
Since my book has been published, I have publicly spoken twenty-two times, to audiences of between 5 and 2000 people. Whenever I’m asked to speak somewhere, I still have to fight the urge to say, “Are you kidding me?” and flee. Even after 22 events, I still get so nervous to the point where I sometimes break out in a rash on my face (which is great when you’re about to speak in public). The good news is, public speaking is something at which you can improve with time and practice. It is also something at which you can excel, despite your inner scaredy-cat. I am frequently asked back to events where I’ve spoken, which is arguably the highest praise a speaker can receive.
I consulted my buddy Stephanie—who actually prefers speaking in public over going to the dentist—and together we came up with a list of ways to beat your fear of public speaking.
- Remember that your audience wants to hear you speak. They have not come bearing pocketfuls of tomatoes. Project confidence, even if you don’t feel it. In this way, you create a positive feedback loop. The audience responds better to someone who acts like they have it together, and in turn, they will bolster you.
- If you can, do some stress-busting exercises before you go on. I always wear flats and walk around as much as is practical. It gets out the jitters, and helps me loosen up. In addition, mentally visualize turning whatever stress you’re experiencing into excitement. Excitement is a great springboard for presenting. Everyone likes an enthusiastic speaker, and when you feel excited it’s much harder to feel scared.
- Invite a buddy along. Everything is more fun when you have a friend to do it with you it. So, if you’ve been asked to teach a class, or speak in front of a group about your book, see if you can invite another writer to speak with you. The audience benefits, too, since they’ll get to hear TWO authors.
- A little preparation can go along way. If you’re on a panel, ask for questions in advance and outline possible answers. To be honest, I don’t just outline, I write my answers word for word, an exercise that helps me organize my thoughts. Practice saying those answers in front of a mirror. Don’t memorize your answers, just the key points you want to make.
- If you’re giving a keynote only agree to speak on a subject you’re comfortable with. Keynotes can (and probably should be) intimidating, but they’re far less frightening when you feel as if you have a firm grasp on the subject you’re discussing.
- Be interested in your audience. Thank them for coming, and acknowledge in some way that you know who they are. Find a few friendly faces and let them bolster you. Last month Stephanie was speaking at a conference on a Friday night and the first thing her fellow speaker did was thank the audience for spending their Friday evening sitting in a lecture hall. Not only did this earn a nice chuckle, but it made everyone in the room feel appreciated, which meant suddenly there were a lot more smiling faces.
- Think of something only you can say. Some writing advice is universal, but no one has had the same experiences as you. So don’t be afraid to share your personal journey if it relates to your subject. Not only will this ensure your audience is hearing something fresh, it might help them connect to you on a more personal level.
- Consider handouts, when appropriate. We can’t tell you how many times people have thanked us for taking the time to make handouts. Handouts allow attendees to absorb what you’re saying rather than frantically take notes. In addition, preparing handouts helps you organize your talk, so that you can ensure all the information you’re compiling is presented in the best order and backed up with examples.
Stephanie: If you would like to actually hear Stacey speak in public, her book launch for OUTRUN THE MOON is next Thursday, May 26, 7 pm at Books, Inc. Palo Alto! We hope you can join us then!
We’d love to hear any tips you have in the comments!