10 public speaking tips for the terrified

11th June 2017

Have you ever had to give a speech or a presentation in front of other people? Except for those who earn a living doing it, public speaking is not high on the development list for most people. Yet giving a speech or presentation in a public setting is something most of us will either want or have to do at some point in our careers. I know people who revel in it, who love being the centre of attention, no matter whether they’re in front of a small group in a meeting room or standing before an audience of hundreds on a conference stage. Yet, no matter the size of the audience, I know many, many more people who fear public speaking more than just about anything else. There’s even a scientific name for this fear: glossophobia, from the Greek ‘glossa’ (meaning tongue or language) and ‘phobos’ (the personification of fear in Greek mythology).

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I’m one of those people who is eloquent in a one-to-one or small group setting, but completely tongue-tied in more public situations. In social contexts, I far prefer a quiet dinner with friends to a large party with many unfamiliar faces. So, when I was invited a few years ago to give a main stage presentation at a large marketing conference I really didn’t want to do it.

I was terrified.

But I did it anyways.

You don’t have to be a ‘natural’ or an extrovert to be a great public speaker; I’m clearly not either.  But like everything else in work and life, there are skills and habits, and little tips, that can be learned and followed to become more effective in the spotlight. These are mine:

  1. Prepare and practice, over and over again: I script all my presentations word for word. And then I practice that script again and again and again until it becomes embedded in my psyche. Scripting enables me to do 2 things – to ensure first that I’m within the time limit and second that I cover everything I want to say in the way I want to say it. I practice out loud and in front of a mirror, mentally visualising being on stage until the script comes naturally, so that it sounds like I’m speaking extemporaneously instead of from a script.
  1. Check your notes and equipment: I still bring my script with me, with pages numbered and important points highlighted, even though I rarely refer to them anymore. I visit the room where I’m presenting beforehand, and check my slides and accompanying technology to make sure everything’s working. I walk onto the stage and decide where and how I’ll walk and stand. I also walk around the room to see what the stage looks like from the audience perspective. This all ensures that I’m comfortable with the room and not worrying about equipment working properly or that I’m forgetting something when I should be concentrating on relaxing.
  1. It’s not about you: my pet-peeve are those speakers who use the first 5-10 minutes of their presentations talking about themselves and what they or their organisations do. From an audience perspective, I don’t care about you, I care about what you say, relative to the topic your presentation is about. I’ve already read your bio in the speaker programme, and it’s likely you’ll be introduced before you walk on stage. Why would your audience want to hear all about you again?
  1. Start strong with a ‘grabber’: you need to grab your audience from the very first moments. A personal story, a quote from an expert or a shocking statistic – something that takes hold of your audience from your first words – gets them hooked and opens their minds to your message. I often start with a video but it needs to be a compelling one that acts as an introduction to the story you will be telling.
  1. Speak slowly and take your time: Mark Twain said ‘There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars’. I’m always nervous! My nerves most often manifest as rushing straight into a presentation and speaking too fast. You can never speak too slowly, especially if you’re speaking in another country where your language may be the audience’s second language. Use pauses for emphasis and don’t be afraid to stop and have a sip of water.
  1. Dress appropriately: it’s hot on stage, under the lights, and combined with nerves, you’ll probably sweat more than usual. I’ve found I’m most comfortable in looser-fitting, lighter-coloured clothing. But be sure to wear something that makes you feel good about yourself. Your confidence will soar if you think you look fabulous. And, though I’ve seen advice to the contrary, I never wear killer heels; unless you are really, really comfortable in them, they can affect your posture, inhibit your movement on stage and distract you if they’re uncomfortable.
  1. Keep your energy level high: many speakers walk around on stage to keep their energy levels up. But don’t pace! I personally find it extremely irritating when speakers continuously walk back and forth across the stage. I would much rather watch and listen to a speaker who stands at a podium, as long as their energy level remains high. Use gestures to emphasise key points, modulate your voice and above all, smile! If you look like you’re having a good time up there, your audience will enjoy listening.
  1. Make it personal: I try to make eye contact with individuals in the audience, looking directly at a specific person for an entire sentence or idea. This not only creates a connection with an individual, but the entire audience can feel it too. I find it really energising when I see people furiously scribbling notes and nodding their heads. It then looks like you’re having a conversation with the audience, speaking with them instead of at them. Furthermore, contrary to what most people think, continually looking at a point in the distance or panning across the room actually disconnects you from the audience.
  1. Never apologise: An apology will only draw attention to something that your audience probably hasn’t even noticed. Although an awful lot of speakers do this for slides that contain so much text or other elements that they can’t be read by the audience. If the audience can’t read it, don’t use it!
  1. Say Thank You when you’re done: I’m often astounded by how many speakers end their presentations awkwardly with something like ‘So, that’s it’ and look to the host to ‘end’ the session. This is usually down to nerves again, relief that it’s over and a desire to get off stage. But your audience has given you their time and attention. Acknowledging this with a simple thank you and a smile is not only right, your audiences will feel appreciated too!

I wasn’t terrible that first time, nor was I great.  But the entire process, though completely alien, proved to be one of the most important learning experiences of my life. I not only learned a whole lot about public speaking, I learned even more about myself. Since then I’ve gone on to speak at other events and conferences here in the UK and across Europe.  And while I haven’t learned to actually love it, the more I do it, the better I become.

I think there’s a life lesson in that.


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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