Feel the fear and do it anyway. Isn’t that what they say? And public speaking is one situation where that quote is particularly poignant.
It’s perfectly natural to feel the adrenalin pumping when you’re about to walk onto that stage. Very few public speakers, even seasoned ones, feel completely comfortable before they start. But here’s the good news: there are plenty of things you can do to make sure that the experience is a positive one, and that by the time you leave that stage you’re bursting with pride and ready to do it all over again.
Let's dive in...
Preparation for public speaking is key
Start planning your speech by noting down your ‘why’, that key piece of value that you need to communicate? Everything else will stem from this – all of the points you make and the stories you tell throughout your speech should be relevant and tangible, logically building to your conclusion: your ultimate ‘why.’
Don’t be afraid to ‘spice it up’ with some little details or colourful stories. It’s all part of the recipe for the perfect speech. Including thought-provoking or emotive stories helps to solidify your message in your audience’s mind and keeps them engaged and following along intently with you. I always suggest including at least one bit of ‘spice’ per minute – this could be something funny, emotionally weighty or simply something that stands out.
Remember, it's stories that make for a great presentation, not facts or slides. You want to avoid 'Death by Powerpoint' at any cost.
How to add 'spice' to your speech
Sir Ken Robinson understands the importance of 'spice', and uses it brilliantly and memorably in his TedX talk Do Schools Kill Creativity?, He was simply talking about living near Stratford, but this anecdote draws his audience even further into his story and connects him to them with laughter:
“…we lived in a place called Snitterfield, just outside Stratford, which is where Shakespeare’s father was born. Are you struck by a new thought? I was. You don’t think of Shakespeare having a father, do you? Do you? Because you don’t think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? “Must try harder.” Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, “Go to bed now,” to William Shakespeare, “and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”
These few lines are packed with spice, comedy and unique observations. The result? An audience and viewers giggling and enjoying every minute, everyone is totally receptive to the profound points when they come, and one of the most watched Ted Talks of all time. So find your spice and unique perspective and let the results unfold.
For more tips on how to learn from TED speakers, read: How to speak so people want to listen.
Find someone to help you practise your speech
Practising your speech is vital; there’s no getting away from it. You need to repeat it over and over to get the rhythm right, practise when to pause, and tune the intonation in your voice. And while practising alone is valuable, practising with someone else is far more beneficial.
Once you’re confident you’ve got your speech nailed down, try delivering it to a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them for detailed feedback: which bits do they like, which bits of ‘spice’ really hit home – were there any bits that were particularly memorable? Or were there any points that weren’t quite clear? Were they left with questions? Have your listener feedback on what they took to be your main point or key takeaway and check it’s in line with your intention.
Make sure you address any feedback and try not to take it as criticism. Constructive feedback is merely a great way to ensure your delivery will be perfect on the day.
Look confident even when you don’t feel it
I mentioned adrenalin earlier, but that nervous energy doesn’t have to be a negative thing. If you know how to channel them, nerves are identical to excitement and they impact the body in the same way. The only difference is your internal narrative – what you’re telling yourself about them. Take back control by telling yourself you’re excited, a positive emotion, rather than thinking 'I'm nervous', which sounds negative.
And while you’re at it try some visualisation. Picture yourself behind that lectern having just finished your speech, a smile on your face and rapturous applause ringing in your ears. It really is possible to change your mindset in this way.
How to overcome nerves right before you start
It's normal to feel nervous before walking out on to a stage, so don't fight your feelings. It’s important that you overcome your nerves, not by getting rid of them, but by not letting them control your performance.
Before you head out in front of your audience, take a moment to concentrate on your ‘why’ and initiate a power pose – lift your chest, hold your head high and throw your arms out to the side – this works to release cortisol from the brain and can literally change the way you feel about yourself in a moment.
Combine this with some deep breathing to calm your body and prevent the panic setting in. It’s natural - evolutionary, even - that when the fear kicks in your body goes into fight or flight mode. Your breathing becomes shallower, reaching only the top of your lungs, and the brain takes this as a signal to release adrenaline and enter panic mode.
The good news is you can work to reverse this by taking deep breaths. Breathe in for a count of five, hold for five and breathe out for 5. This will send good, calming signals to your brain. Don’t forget though - a little bit of adrenalin is good, it will make you feel alive and give you the energy to make an impact.
Make a great first impression
Getting off to a good start will help you feel confident, so be sure to make a good first impression on your audience. Enter the stage area confidently, don’t rush to your position, but stride assuredly. When you reach your mark, take a moment. Take another breath and look around you. Give your attention to the audience before you start. Aim for soft eye contact and use your peripheral vision – look towards the back wall if you don’t feel comfortable staring people in the eye.
This is called "speaker state" by Eric Edmeades, whose public speaking residential I went on recently. It’s a valuable idea and a crucial concept for every public speaker. Those first few moments of taking your space pay rich dividends later.
Commit to your delivery
Delivering a speech to an audience is all about connection. If you receive feedback that suggests your audience is following along with you, you’ll feel more confident, you’ll relax, and in turn, they’ll begin to feel more of a connection with you.
No matter how much you’ve practised your speech in the quiet safety of your own home, remember that there is now a live audience in front of you. Interact with them, respond to them, pause when they laugh. Keep your eyes softly focused but connect with them and smile when you see them nodding and laughing. Stay in the moment with them and don’t rush to reach the next part. Give your audience respect; give them time to digest your words, and don't bury your head in your notes - more tips on that here.
And finally, deliver your words with passion. Believe in your thorough planning and your sprinkling of ‘spice’. Know you’re telling a good story with a powerful ‘why’. That’s how you’ll truly gain connection - by showing your audience how much you believe in what you’re saying.
…And never apologise for being nervous
Nerves are natural, they show you care about doing a good job. But make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself. Giving a speech doesn’t have to be about showing the audience what a great public speaker you are, it’s about having something valuable to share and sharing it in a way that allows your audience to feel your passion and believe in it too.
Start with a story that's worth telling, and you’ll be on a roll. Your audience’s reaction will give you the confidence you need to go on to deliver a first-rate speech…despite those feelings of fear.
Want more tips and advice for public speaking? Read our Ultimate Guide to Improving your Communication.