Public speaking is without question the most feared yet necessary aspect of career advancement.
There are not many people who look forward to presenting – no matter how small the audience. Unfortunately, oral presentations are unavoidable if you wish to maximise your career potential. And I’m not just talking about a CFO presenting to a company’s shareholders. Even entry-level professionals are required to communicate information to large groups of people – or else they’re doomed to stay entry level.
Most public-speaking books focus on reminding you of the undeniable benefits of acquiring expert presentation skills. Using the promise of newly found riches and promotion, they try to motivate the nerves out of you – or at least play on your fear of what you would be missing if you did not adopt their ideas. But, it seems to me that is like trying to get a smoker to abstain from cigarettes by continually showing pictures of deformed lungs and oxygen tanks. You know it benefits you to become a better presenter, just like a smoker knows the benefits of abstaining from cigarettes. Reminding you of its importance only adds to the discomfort and anxiety of the impending presentation.
That’s what brought you to this article.
How would you like to be actually excited to give a speech in front of hundreds of people? Wouldn’t it be nice to be so comfortable presenting that you could focus on informing and persuading rather than sweating and hyperventilating? What if I could virtually guarantee an anxiety-free, polished presentation that will engage your audience and make you appear as a seasoned public speaker?
This essay was born out of desperation. As an undergraduate I chose to study communications because everything that I thought I wanted to do with my life suggested that major as the obvious choice. Whether I chose to pursue television or radio, or to become an educator, a motivational speaker, or a marketing executive, all my options required sound interpersonal communication skills and public-speaking expertise.
Unfortunately for me, I was crippled by stage fright. I thought I would get over my anxiety (or least develop coping mechanisms) with the help of a speech course I was required to take as an undergrad. However, this speech class (and many like it) only taught the parameters of the speech: inform, persuade, entertain, demonstrate, time requirement, etc. I was never taught how to speak in front of others. Thus, after a few rather upsetting public failures, I knew I had to take responsibility to develop enough skill not only to pass the class but to thrive as a public speaker. In less than a semester, I devised a plan that literally took me from full-blown, embarrassing public panic attacks to accomplished professional speaker.
What’s great about this essay is that you don’t need a semester to hone your oral presentation skills and eliminate speech anxiety. This article is designed for you to read in one sitting, implement its three simple steps, and kick ass on your presentation – even if your presentation is scheduled for later today!
Practise Fifteen Times (after you’ve written your outline):
Mark Twain is famous for saying that he “…never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.” Speech preparation is undoubtedly the most crucial requirement for lowering presentation anxiety. Yet it is also the most neglected and misunderstood.
As a teacher, I often assign a paper or project with an oral component. The outline for the speech is required in order for the student to receive their grade. This is a common expectation of almost all oral presentations in every classroom from middle school to college. (That same habit usually spills over into the business world, as well). I use the outline to formatively assess the student and give immediate written feedback as their presentation is developing. The outline is absolutely essential; it takes time and often extensive research. It informs or persuades, and provides a clear direction for the entire presentation.
The fact that the outline is so imperative leads many presenters to view it as the end point of their preparation. Once the outline has been painstakingly researched, typed, and printed, many of them are never reviewed until the speech is being presented. This is a costly mistake. The outline itself does not have the content necessary to support a quality speech – it merely provides bullet points of reminders to the presenter’s direction. Even speakers with exceptional outlines have fallen victim to speech anxiety, stage fright, dead air, and ultimately, embarrassment. This is not because of an inferior outline. Rather, it is because they failed to prepare after the outline was written. Indeed, the outline helps the presenter organise ideas and construct a stable overview of the speech. However, the outline is the starting point of your speech. Once the outline is complete, repetitive, deliberate practice is needed to provide the content necessary to fill the space between bullets.
If you are a student, write your outline to your instructor’s specifications. If you are preparing for a presentation as part of your job and don’t care about a grade, I recommend ditching the outline altogether in favour of a simple bullet list of main topics with an inch of white space placed between each. (But if an outline works best for you, by all means use it). Do not try to type everything that you want to say in the speech into your outline; that will cause you to unintentionally memorise your speech as you rehearse. A memorised speech can be as damaging as delivering your speech without preparation. A memorised oral presentation sounds scripted and amateur, and you will lose all credibility with your audience. Also, you run the very high risk of “dropping a line” and losing your place in the monologue. Once that happens, it is nearly impossible to recover; your adrenaline and cortisol levels will skyrocket and you’ll find it difficult to bring clarity to your thoughts.
As an undergrad, I was required to give a speech at least once in every class in my communications major. Early on, I wasn’t good. In fact, remembering back to one of my earliest speeches makes me wince… A LOT. I started relatively strong but then began to stumbled over words. Not surprisingly, I lost my place in my outline, and then immediately felt a jolt of panic ripping through my stomach. I remember my heart racing and feeling faint. My head spun and ached and my limbs went numb. I felt as if I was looking down onto my body frozen in front of fifty classmates. My fight or flight response kicked in and I involuntarily started pacing quickly back and forth in front of the audience while desperately trying to piece together some semblance of a coherent speech. I hyperventilated and nearly blacked out. It was a two-minute speech.
This was the first of six required speeches for that semester-long class. It was a class I needed to be accepted to the School of Communications at the University of Colorado, and obviously a class I needed to graduate. I nearly failed the first speech and had five more to present before the end of the semester – with each successive speech requiring additional time! If I barely limped through a two-minute speech my prospects of passing the next speech were bleak, not to mention passing the class.
The foundation of my programme started with my own desperation to pass a freshman-level speech class. Since I anticipated another embarrassing failure in front of more than fifty students, I became fixated on my outline and my rising level of discomfort. I found a room in the college hall and read through my outline to an imaginary audience. Even being up front in an empty room caused my stomach to churn and my pulse to race.
My first attempt left me mumbling and fumbling through my outline and I finished well over a minute short. Predictably, I covered all my bullets in a rush and was left searching for material to fill the time void. I started again from the beginning, but this time, when an interesting and relevant impromptu remark came from my mouth, I paused, pencilled it in next to the proper place in my outline, then continued with the rest of the speech. I did this four or five times until I developed a pretty good flow and enough spontaneous content to fill the time requirements.
Even though I was still noticeably nervous and jittery during my second speech, I filled the time requirement and received a decent grade. I had the same uncomfortable and mediocre outcome for the next two speeches.
The mistake I was making was this: once I had practised long enough to develop content and fill the time requirement, I assumed I was prepared enough to give my speech. Many people make the same mistake and end up struggling through an “um” and “er”-filled, choppy speech. The reality is that this is when one should start to meticulously polish and hone one’s presentation.
After the initial preparation, that is, practising your speech and adding enough impromptu notes to meet length expectations, the fun work begins. Your speech must now be performed at least fifteen times before you present. Get in the habit of making a hashmark at the top of your notes page every time you complete a full run-through. Start from the beginning and do not give yourself a hashmark until you have made it through to the end. With each mark you will feel your confidence soar and your anxiety wane. You will be so polished that you may actually look forward to your presentation. It’s a simple three-step process:
1. Write your outline or notes page.
2. Practise until you have added enough impromptu material to meet time requirement.
3. Rehearse (not memorise) your speech at least fifteen times before you present.
Take the Focus off Yourself
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Jerry Seinfeld
So you have written your outline and practised your spontaneous speech fifteen times. By this time, your speech should flow nicely and be nearly void of vocalised pauses and imperfections (the “ums” and “ers” and “ya knows”). Undoubtedly, you will now feel much more confident and prepared, which should, in turn, greatly reduce your anxiety.
However, you’re still nervous. Really nervous.
Even with a well-prepared speech, one in which you are very familiar with the content and certain of the direction, you can still be crippled by stage fright. Once you step behind the podium you will be the centre of attention and the sole person responsible for informing and/or persuading a group of total strangers. You alone will be steering the ship, and as soon as you begin, you are figuratively handcuffed to the stage. This ominous task can leave you feeling naked and completely vulnerable, which in turn will spike your adrenaline; sweating, dry mouth, spinning head and racing heart soon follow. At this point, most presenters would do anything escape the heat of the spotlight. And that’s exactly what you should do.
I’m not suggesting that you should run from the stage or out of the classroom and never return – that would defeat the purpose. However, there is no law that says that you must start your speech standing front and centre of your audience. In fact, that very misconception is one of the biggest reasons so many people fear public speaking. When you start a speech standing in front of an audience, it will be immediately apparent to you that there is an extreme power imbalance – and you’re on the wrong side. What you need is an easy way to find a more equitable distribution of power and tip the scales in your favour.
As a middle-school teacher, every year I was required to give an introduction speech to the parents of my 175 students. That translates into presenting to roughly 300 parents that night for over an hour. No matter how many times I practised Back to School night, presenting to that many parents after a full day of work was an incredibly intimidating prospect that I approached with apprehension. However, I learned early on as a teacher that after the initial introduction, the parents weren’t there to see me. They were interested in how they could help enhance their child’s education and experience in middle school. Once I knew they were more interested in the message than the messenger, it was easy to change the focus of the presentation.
First, I would allow people to pack the room as I made small talk with any parents that I recognised. (Mixing with the crowd before you begin is a great way to burn off some nervous energy, by the way.) As the last of the parents started to funnel in, I would make my way to the light switch which was situated right next to the door through which they entered. As I began my speech, still standing near the door at the side of the room, I would welcome them to Back to School night and give a very short introduction. After the initial pleasantries, I would smoothly segue and ask them to direct their eyes to the screen at the front of the room. As they did, I turned off the lights. At this point, even if they were staring at me, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I’d now have them focusing on the message: homework policy, upcoming tests or projects, supplies needed, contact information, etc. The parents took copious notes and asked question after question. This brought an equilibrium to the power struggle, calmed my nerves, and allowed me to ease into the remainder of the presentation.
Find something that takes the focus off you but still allows you to convey the information. In the past, I have used a warm-up strategy that gives the audience just enough “work” to steal strength away from their numbers. I’ve had questionnaires or audience polls printed and placed at the tables or face down at everyone’s seat before the speech starts. Or I’ve given a short intro and hooked them with a topical, humorous cartoon that I project on the screen when impact or redirection is needed.
If the venue allows, break your audience into preassigned small groups shortly after your introduction. Have them move to other parts of the room and give each group a small assignment or task that will later help emphasise the content of your speech. Rather than just talking at them, get them involved in your presentation. Remember, many of your audience members are not auditory or even visual learners; in order to persuade, get them to “touch” your speech. Think about what kind of speech would interest you: the one where the presenter reads from slide after boring slide, or the one where the presenter taps the strengths of a heterogeneous crowd with games, team building, and group assignments. If you do this well, you’ll become a facilitator of the presentation rather than the presenter.
With today’s technology, it’s increasingly simple to balance the disequilibrium that comes from being one vs. many. Websites and apps like Kahoot, Nearpod, Survey Monkey or Google Forms allow for audience interaction while simultaneously collecting and disseminating information. Best yet, it puts the audience’s focus on their phones or computers (the message) and away from the messenger, at least for a little while.
Do not, however, make the mistake of using a PowerPoint or a Prezi for your entire presentation. Nothing says “amateur speaker circa 1993” like a PowerPoint presentation, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys them. Indeed, you’ll get eye rolls from the majority of your audience. The screen should be used sparingly to enhance the presentation; it should never be the foundation of the presentation.
Ideas to take the focus off yourself:
● Start your speech from the back or side of the room. There is no rule that says you must start front and centre. However, make sure you have a focal point for the audience to concentrate on if you do start from somewhere other than the podium.
● Turn down the lights and direct them to the focal point.
● Use interactive technology such as Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Kahoot, QR codes and Nearpod.
● Break the audience into smaller, collaborative groups and give them a task related to your content.
● Start with an activity that gets the audience involved.
Give Yourself an “Out”
You’re undoubtedly reading this because you have a fear of public speaking, and you probably have a presentation lurking in the near future. You may have had (or fear having) an unfortunate experience like the one I mentioned earlier.
So, what happens when you’ve prepared fifteen times, found a way to take the focus off yourself and ease into the presentation, and you still go blank and panic? Even with a perfectly rehearsed speech, there is still the chance that things could go unpredictably wrong. In fact, the unknown is the real reason you fear public speaking in the first place. Preparing helps to control and envision the outcome of your speech but does not guarantee its success. Taking the focus off yourself greatly reduces anxiety – but may not eliminate it altogether. Also, there is the chance that you may be faced with a situation completely out of your control: a rude, interrupting audience member, uncooperative technology, arriving late through no fault of your own, or just having to go a few rounds with good, old-fashioned, out-of-nowhere stage fright.
If any of these happens and your presentation starts to free-fall, it’s time to pull the emergency chute.
Giving yourself an “out” is chance for you to press the pause button on a speech gone horribly wrong. It literally gives you the option to start your speech completely anew. It is an opportunity for you to stop long enough to collect your thoughts, calm your nerves, find your place in your outline, and return focused and relaxed.
I like to have a 3–5-minute video cued for just such an occasion. The video is topical but general enough for me to inject it into any part of my speech. Believe me, your audience will be none the wiser. In fact, most people appreciate the refreshing change of pace.
Giving yourself an “out” helps you in two ways. First, as I mentioned earlier, it allows for a “do-over” and gives you time to refocus. Second, knowing you have access to a momentary abort switch offers another layer of anxiety reduction before your presentation even starts. Think of the difference a reserve chute (or lack thereof) makes to a skydiver: he/she may never need the chute, but knowing it is there is what gives them confidence to actually jump.
If you use the method I’ve developed I can almost guarantee with 100% certainty that your speech will be a success. Better yet, you’ll be more comfortable presenting than you ever thought possible. Indeed, your audience will be impressed with your engaging, polished presentation and public-speaking ability. Whether it’s your freshman speech class or your most important client, there is no method more powerful yet simple: rehearse fifteen times, take the focus off yourself, give yourself an “out”, and of course, don’t be afraid to jump.
It’s important to point out that rehearsing your speech should be the foundation of your preparation. It is the first, and indeed only, step necessary for creating an impactful and polished presentation. Diffusing attention from yourself and giving yourself an “out” will help to alleviate stress and anxiety, but neither tactic can carry the weight of the presentation. Those strategies should be used in support of an already quality speech.
One of the best presentations I ever gave was when I was working as a marketing representative for one of the world’s largest technology companies. This was during the mid-nineties when technology was not readily available to insert into my presentation. I was pitching the owners of this company a very large communications system as a way to streamline their voice and data network. I knew this one sale would secure my quota for the entire year. There was no way to give myself an out or take the attention off myself. It was me, front and centre, pitching to the company officers and employees in a packed boardroom.
Luckily for me, I prepared as I always did and arrived with fifteen hashmarks on the top of my notes page. The preparation not only created content and smoothed delivery, it helped to eliminate unnecessary and potentially boring “filler” that could have been detrimental to the message. The presentation I created was smooth and efficient, yet incredibly impactful. In fact, the speech went so well that instead of questioning the features and benefits of my product, the president and owner offered me the job of marketing director for their company.
That feeling of nailing your presentation and leaving the podium with a sense of accomplishment is not only possible, it is achievable with the few steps I’ve outlined in this essay. The power is within you to become the inspirational speaker you admire. Once you’ve worked the steps to prepare for a few presentations, you may even look forward to your next crowded room full of expectant faces.
Jonathan Robinette M.Ed. is an educator and author. He holds three California clear teaching credentials as well as an Administrative Services credential. He has an undergraduate degree in Communications and a Master’s in Education. He writes regularly on the topics of education, curriculum development, administrative practices, and public speaking. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.