It is very common to hear that public speaking ranks high among the list of things that we might fear. Some studies have also looked into claims about the fear of public speaking ranking above the fear of death. The purpose of this post is not to discourage you with more facts about how much we dread talking in front of people but is meant to give you some ideas that you can act on so that you can overcome your anxieties and become a successful speaker. This post is a summary of what I have learned from reading books on public speaking, observing and learning from professional speakers but more importantly things I have learned from my own mistakes.
- Start Small and Keep Building Up
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. This famous Chinese proverb is applicable to many aspects of life and public speaking is no exception. If you have no experience speaking in front of people then chances are that you won’t be able to miraculously deliver Ted Talks over night. Unless you have an innate talent that is, but in most cases great speeches come from experience and from a lot of practice. Your first speech can last 5 minutes but make sure that you put in a lot of effort in preparing and practicing it. For example, at Toastmasters the first speech tends to be what gets commonly referred to as the “Icebreaker Speech”. Some might consider this to be just a short speech used for presenting themselves to other club members but there’s definitely more to this exercise. This short speech is meant to help you build confidence and once you have completed your first speech, you will start hearing that voice in your head saying: “OK I have done speeches in the past, I can do this.” Start small but start, your first speech doesn’t have to be perfect, start getting those speech hours under your belt and keep working towards your goal. Once you feel comfortable with short speeches you can start building up towards longer ones.
- Overcome the Fear of your Audience
Arguably a great percentage of the fear of pubic speaking stems from receiving criticism from our listeners. What if they think my speech is awful? What if.. What if.. our minds get filled with a lot of these negative what if type of thoughts. My mind was full of them when I started. The most sound piece of advice that I received was to think about the audience in a more rational manner, rather than irrationally classifying them as group of people who are routing for my failure. The truth in most cases turns out to be that your audience will most likely be bored and will be too busy with their own thoughts to pay attention. A subset of the people who have been engaged by your speech are the ones that that be categorised as your potential fans. These are the people who have a vested interest in the topic that you are talking about, these are the people that you need to engage. Do you see what’s happened here? By thinking rationally about your audience and their potential interests, we have changed a negative mindset to a positive one that will help you succeed. This is just a small example of how public speaking should be approached. If you know your audience and their expectations, even before the delivery of your speech, you will be able have a fairly accurate prediction as to how your speech will be perceived and work towards engaging them rather than fearing them.
- Develop your Style
Another big mistake that people make is trying to develop a speech style that is very different from their natural style. People might have in their minds an image of a great speech and they might try to imitate it but the speech ends up becoming unnatural and disingenuous. As speakers, it’s important for us to become aware of our style and to polish that style accordingly. For this reason it might be worthwhile recording our own speeches to try and get a glimpse of what the audience is viewing and hearing. I tried this myself and was really surprised to see a gap between my perceived speech style and what I saw on the recording. I was also able to identify a few bad habits that I was not aware of. I am sure that a lot of people will feel embarrassed watching themselves on video but I think this part of the process is very important. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways for us to understand and identify our style and ultimately accept it. Having your own style will also help boost your confidence and will help you prepare and deliver your speeches with less effort.
- Practise Regularly
They say that you lose what you don’t use and I think that to an extent this applies to public speaking. A lot of the fear comes from stepping out of your comfort zone when you are trying something new. The greatest speakers are the ones who have turned speaking into a routine and see it as second nature. Don’t just think of public speaking as an extraordinary event but consider it to be a natural part of your life; even when you are talking to colleagues, friends and family you have in front of you an audience. While you don’t have to give them formal speeches, you have the opportunity to test your communication skills. Do you feel like your message is being understood? What can you tell from their body language? Delivering a great speech is also about getting your message across so communication skills are key. Once you develop strong communication skills you can create a positive mindset and soon you should be hearing a voice in your head: “I am a good communicator”. This should act as a confidence boost for you to deliver your speeches.
Speaking in front of people sounds like a daunting task but don’t worry, you are not alone. Countless people have been in your position and countless people including myself have overcome this fear. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that you won’t sometimes feel nervous before giving a speech. This is true of even the greatest speakers who might not feel at ease before delivering a very important talk but what makes the difference is that these successful people are able to turn these fears into positive adrenaline that will help them perform well.
 Dwyer, K. K., & Davidson, M. M. (2012). Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? Communication Research Reports, 29(2), 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824096.2012.667772