How To Not Suck At Public Speaking

“Preparation is the work, performance is the relaxation”

Collage photo via Getty Images

I’ve been terrified of the spotlight pretty much my entire life. At the age of (almost) 27, the number of times I’ve completely blown a speech (or, no lie, burst into tears in the middle of one), avoided having to give said speech, or turned various shades of red while speaking in front of a group as small as five people, well, it's way up there. And it's strange because I'm great at parties, make new friends easily, and have been called a social butterfly many times; but standing up and staring an audience in the face? I shrink and shrivel at the thought.

I feel truly blessed that my current line of work doesn’t involve making presentations and that my closest friends are still unmarried, so I have yet to give any toasts. Even so, I know that a moment in the spotlight is out there lurking somewhere in my future, the inevitable fear looming over me like a dark cloud.

Is it possible to find any comfort in this? Not really, but it does help knowing I’m not the only one. In fact, a number of surveys show that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death. Hard to believe? Yes. True for me? Also yes. But I don't want to live in fear. Instead, I want to get to the bottom of how I can tackle public speaking like a pro.

I spoke with four experts to get their advice. While it’s safe to say there is no magic hack to completely erase your fear (unfortunately, alcohol is not an option), these tips will certainly help make it easier.

Now, I’ll just have to put them to use—eek!

Prepare much earlier than you think you should
If you’re trying to successfully make a speech or presentation without letting your nerves get the best of you, preparation is key. Of course—especially if you’re a procrastinator—you’ll want to make sure you have enough time to prepare. And by enough time, we mean earlier than you think.

Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates and best-selling author of Speak Like a CEO and All The Leader You Can Be, tells me that she coaches her clients to start preparing far earlier than they imagined. “This allows time for thinking, editing, creating, and bringing the concepts alive with stories, visuals, and devices that engage the audience,” she says. “Before you even open a PowerPoint slide deck, sit down and analyze your audience. What do they know, what do they want to know, and why do they want to know it? What are their interests, what are their concerns, and what are their objections? Create an outline before you create a single slide or visual. This will help you tell the story as your audience needs it to be told.”

Another great way to prepare is to watch other speakers and study the way they go about presenting. Deena Baikowitz, chief networking officer and co-founder of Fireball Network, suggests watching speakers of all types, good and bad. “Watching excellent speakers is inspiring, as it helps to set the standards and demonstrate professional techniques,” she says. “However, watching horrible speakers is also excellent preparation, as it teaches you what not to do. Pay attention to what turns you on, and turns you off, about other speakers.”

If you’re feeing overwhelmed or stressed, remember something that one of Bates’ mentors once told her: “Preparation is the work, performance is the relaxation.” This is the tough part, and will ultimately help your fear subside.


Practice, practice, practice
It’s true: practice makes perfect. And if you’re petrified of speaking in front of a crowd of people, proper practice will help make it just a little less scary. Despite how obvious this may be, a lot of those in fear of speaking refuse to do it, thinking it will hurt them rather than help. “So many people worry needlessly that too much practice will make them sound rehearsed or robotic,” says Bates. “But I’ve been keynoting for almost 20 years and teaching clients to do the same. Practicing out loud is the fastest way to make a speech sound conversational, relaxed, and refreshing. A speech is a conversation with the audience—and that’s really each member of the audience.”

Other experts agree, noting that it’s one of the most vital ways to go into your talk prepared. “The best way to prepare is to practice, practice, practice,” says Dr. Christopher Willard, psychologist, public speaker, and author. “Each round of practice quells anxiety and will help you be ready for the big moment. The more you can practice and be off script, the better, so you are talking—not reading. Also, be sure not to practice your exact words, but practice saying just 90 percent of the same words and the same thing—that way even if you stumble with exact words, different ones will come right to mind and be just as good in the moment.” He also suggests practicing your speech on pretty much everyone you know (roommate, dog, sibling)—and if you’re brave enough, try recording it and rewatching it afterward.

Mentally build your confidence
Lack of confidence is a major culprit of public speaking fear, so while you should focus on boosting your confidence before an event you’ll be speaking at, this is something you should be doing all the time.

Work on building up your confidence from the inside. “Make sure that the voices in your head are supportive, rather than negating,” says Linda Ugelow, confidence and presentation skills coach. The kinder and more reassuring your deepest thoughts are, the better you’ll feel about yourself. She also recommends using visualization as another method to build confidence, by picturing yourself delivering your speech with ease, passion, focus, and clarity.

Put yourself in a good headspace
The moments before a speech, presentation, toast, etc. can be super nerve-racking. Whether you’re feeling jittery hours before or are having heart palpitations with just minutes to go, do what you can to put yourself in a good headspace.

We all know how comforting music can be when we’re looking to boost our mood (or allow ourselves to be emotional), so take advantage of it at this moment. Baikowitz suggests creating a playlist of just one or two songs, and to listen to it before every speech. “Make it energizing, or make it calming—pick the songs that put you in your best mood,” she says. “Then, play the same song(s) after the speech for positive reinforcement.”

Never underestimate the power of scent, either. “Scent is the strongest memory trigger,” says Baikowitz. “Wear a scent that puts you in a confident ‘I can conquer the world’ mood. Lavender oil is calming, while citrus scents are energizing." Not sure which one is best for you? Check out our list of the top ten essential oils, here.

Affirmations are a big help, even if you don’t necessarily believe them. The more you tell yourself something you want to believe, the more likely you’ll start to feel it. Ugelow recommends that basic affirmations such as “I’m excited” or “This is going to be fun” are a good place to start. It’s also great to stretch, jump around, and shake off any tension that might be building up, should space permit. If you don’t have much space, try tightening parts of your body and then releasing the tension.

Get to know the audience
One way to ease those public speaking jitters? Get to know your audience a little better. If every single person watching you is a complete stranger (or the vast majority), how could you not feel a bit nervous?

One way is to get to know them a bit beforehand. “Have a conversation with members of the audience before your speech,” says Baikowitz. “It will help you connect on a more personal/professional level. Start by focusing on those people when you’re talking—you’ll feel like you’re continuing the conversation, instead of lecturing.” This could mean chatting up those attending a conference you’re speaking at, members of your company you haven’t yet gotten to know well before a presentation, or getting to know your best friend’s distant relatives before delivering a wedding toast.

Of course, there’s not always time to talk to them before the big ordeal—so talk to them during. “By engaging your audience, you’ll better connect to them and create a conversation,” says Baikowitz. “Polling the audience is easy and effective—for example: ‘Show of hands: how many of you are on Instagram?’ or ‘Raise your hand if you love public speaking, or better yet, raise your hand if you’d rather swallow a flaming sword than give a speech.’” Willard also recommends engaging the audience, as it not only relaxes them but will also get you through your own anxiety—allowing you to speak more naturally.

And, of course, ignore the haters. “Focus on the people who smile, nod, and react,” says Baikowitz. “Don’t worry about those who seem to be stuck on their phones—either they don’t care, which you can’t really control, or they’re listening intently and taking notes.” She points out that even the most zoned-out-looking audience members have been the ones to wait around to tell her how much they’ve learned, and even ask her to be their coach.

It's all about body language
The way you present yourself on stage—despite how fast your heart might be pumping and how sick to your stomach with anxiety you may feel inside—plays a major role in your overall performance. The idea here is to pretty much fake it ‘til you make it.

Now, we definitely all hate being told to smile by unsolicited strangers, but in this case, it can actually have a really positive effect. “A smile not only conveys confidence; it changes your emotional state to one where you’re experiencing pleasure instead of pain,” says Bates.

When it comes to the rest of your body, Bates has a number of suggestions to help look more at ease (even if you’re totally freaking out): “Put your arms at your sides, and not behind your back. Don’t wring your hands, either—use gestures instead. Be sure not to grasp a pencil or other object, as you’ll be likely to play with it, which can convey anxiety, even if you’re actually not anxious.”

Another obvious sign of anxiety? Pacing. “Don’t pace,” says Bates. “If you want to walk, stand on the stage in one place for a time, and then move deliberately so that you can make eye contact with another part of the audience.” Of course, if you’re going to stand behind a podium, rather than walk across the stage, that’s fine too, but Bates recommends avoiding gripping onto it like a stress ball.

Posture also plays a role, and for Willard, that means standing nice and tall. “Practice standing tall and confident,” he says “The research of folks like Amy Cuddy at Harvard Business School even shows that standing tall and upright before doing something may change our body chemistry by boosting hormones that give confidence and lowering those that create stress.”

Also, try to avoid reading off your notecards for the majority of your speech. While some experts say that some notes are okay to have with you in case you get stuck, Baikowitz strongly advises against directly reading off of them. “Grown-ups don’t need someone to read to them unless it’s a sultry love poem—or mean tweets read by celebrities,” she says.

Still, even if your nerves get the best of you and you find that you still managed to pace, grip the podium, even shake a little, chances are no one else notices too much. “Just know that most people have no idea that you’re nervous,” says Bates. “I have polled audiences for 10 years. I’ll ask the speaker, ‘Were you nervous?’ and typically about 80 percent admit some level of anxiety. Then, I ask the audience if they could tell, and the vast majority respond, ‘No, we had no idea!’"

Remember to breathe!
Just like breathing exercises can help calm you down when you’re stressed or even having an anxiety attack, practicing (less obvious) breathing exercises mid-speech can also help calm you down and feel at ease, even while in the moment.

“Breathe!” says Ugelow. “Look around at the audience before you begin, and, as you’re talking, imagine their good energy and breathe it in. Pause and breathe every once in a while; it reads as confident and gives the audience time to integrate the information.” Willard agrees, suggesting mindfully feeling your breath go all the way into your belly and back out, as well as slowing your breath altogether.

Be patient with yourself, and take action to improve
When it comes down to it, you should cut yourself a bit of a break and be patient with yourself. You’re not going to become a superstar public speaker giving TED talks on the regular overnight, but you can certainly take some action to improve. “Take improv classes, singing lessons, try out Toastmakers, attend as many networking events and volunteer projects as you can to practice your public speaking, or even hire a presentation coach, such as Fireball,” recommends Baikowitz. I promise, there is hope for all of us.