Across the globe, public speaking is still regarded as the single most common and debilitating phobia. In the U.S., for example, nearly a quarter of Americans consider it to be their greatest fear.
As a professional speaker, I’ve spent nearly a decade delivering keynote presentations to audiences that range from students to corporate executives and have discovered a handful of key principles that can help anyone move past their fear and improve their performance. Whether addressing a crowd of ten or ten thousand, these four practices will empower you to find your voice and rule the room.
Embrace the fear
Whether you’re an inexperienced novice or a seasoned pro, almost everyone encounters some degree of fear when having to address an audience. While many try to overcome this sense of nervousness by denying the tension or trying to muscle through it, the only real way to conquer the phobia is to do just the opposite: surrender to it entirely.
When you embrace fear and allow yourself to fully experience the emotions in real-time, the panic slowly begins to dissipate. What’s more, by accepting the notion that nerves can only be managed, not conquered, you remove much of the pressure that subconsciously fuels the dread. Soon you’ll discover that a significant portion of your anxiety stems from the potential of being afraid—not the actual fear itself.
Accepting the uncomfortable emotions for what they are and allowing them to be actively present is the first step in becoming a better speaker. Only then will you be able to take control of these encumbering feelings and channel them into a productive source of energy.
Remove the barriers
One of the most common and dangerous techniques that a speaker uses to quell performance anxiety is to construct barriers between he or she and the audience.
The quintessential example of this is when a presenter chooses to utilise the dreaded podium. Although tempting, doing this is the best way to guarantee that your audience will remain disengaged and alienated throughout your entire speech. As far as I can tell, these large wooden monstrosities serve no purpose but to provide the nervous lecturer with a false sense of safety and security. When, in fact, all they really do is create an impenetrable wall. By stepping out from behind the podium, you engage the audience by demonstrating a type of bravery and assuring everyone that you are in total control.
A similar barrier is established when one chooses to use a script. No matter how charismatic you may be, reading verbatim off a page of notes will always weaken your impact because it undercuts the primary objective of any presentation: to engage the crowd.
As a speaker, your most critical job is to establish a meaningful connection with the audience—only then can you teach, inspire, or enlighten. Although it may feel “safer” to construct a barrier, ultimately it will stand in your way.
Practice 360-degree listening
Being a great speaker is about more than just talking. In fact, the best presenters are those who can deliver a message while simultaneously listening and reacting to real-time feedback.
Think of an audience like a living and breathing organism. Every word you deliver, each action you express, elicits a positive or negative response. The goal is to calibrate your tone and delivery in a way that most resonates with the crowd.
As a professional speaker, I spend a good portion of time giving talks at conferences and organisations throughout the world. No matter what subject I may be discussing, the first three minutes of each speech is almost always identical. This is a strategic decision.
In those initial 180 seconds, I’m not actually thinking about any of the words I’m reciting. Instead, I’m carefully examining the crowd and making various mental notes about their general disposition. What makes them laugh? What makes them recoil (hopefully nothing)? Who do I have on my side and whom will I need to win over? These are just a few of the questions I assess from the very start.
Throughout the rest of the speech, I try to listen as much as I talk. I watch body language, monitor reactions, and note moments that seem to generate the greatest impact. This practice allows me to establish a deeper connection with the listener and highlights one of the most vital principles of public speaking: delivery is as (if not more) important than content.
Assess the situation
There’s no greater moment of clarity and reflection than in the hours directly following a presentation. If you’re new to speaking, this is a particularly crucial time to assess your performance and discover key opportunities for growth. My evaluation process is simple and centers around three basic questions: What did I achieve? What did I learn? What will I do better next time?
To begin, I document my areas of success. Where did I go right? What were the moments I was most proud of? Where did I make the greatest improvements? Starting this process by acknowledging your achievements is important because it provides the confidence you need to push onwards and continue harnessing your skills.
Next, I recount the lessons learned from the speech. Which assumptions did I get right? Which assumptions did I get wrong? Did the experience help initiate or clarify an idea that was previously unknown? You may be surprised at just how much wisdom can be gained from a single performance.
Finally, I take note of where I might have failed. Are there any patterns or trends? Is there one area where I continue to fall short? If so, why? Recognising and accepting your personal roadblocks is the only way to ever defeat them. And, while you should never be too hard on yourself, making these types of objective observations is the most efficient way to stimulate real, measurable improvement.