Giving a speech before an audience is scary. Public speaking tops the list of human fears, and with good reason: delivering your thoughts before a crowd leaves you vulnerable, open to judgment, and worse, rejection. Still, employers look for people with good public delivery to represent their business, so it is an excellent skill to acquire.
I am not going to tell you it is easy, because it is not. Nor will I say you have nothing to worry about, because you should worry some. I do not think it will be helpful to pretend that this is not a challenge for many people. I do think, however, that acknowledging its difficulty and dealing with your fears will be worth it in the long run. After all, very few successful people were able to avoid all forms of public speaking.
Here are a few tips to fight your fears and develop confidence when delivering a speech.
Don’t add any additional discomfort: If you are already nervous about giving a speech, the last thing you need is heartburn from the Thai food you had for lunch further causing you distraction. Likewise, uncomfortable clothing, dry mouth, extremes in temperature, and many other controllable things may cause you stress or even pain while speaking. Try to limit these factors as much as possible: think about foods that upset your stomach, prepare to take a glass of water with you, dress in clothes that fit well, sleep to avoid fatigue. This way you can focus on your message without worrying about these other distractions.
Talk about topics you care about and/or know very well: This way you can appreciate the importance in your task or at least feel comfortable enough with the material that you will not have to question your understanding. If your boss (or professor) assigns you a topic, try to tailor it to your interest or expertise in some way. Likely, you were given the topic because you either obviously care about or understand it anyway.
Prepare: Even the most gifted speakers prepare beforehand. If you want to sound like you actually know something about your topic, you must practice. Even if you’re an expert on the subject, preparation well in advance will help organize your ideas, cut the unnecessary pieces, familiarize yourself with the speech’s structure, and grasp any time limits. Note that preparation is not the same as memorization; it is never good to sound like a robotic recording, but good preparation eliminates the need for memorization because you understand what point comes next without relying heavily on an outline or written notes.
Visit the venue beforehand if possible: If you’ll be using any media, understand how the provided equipment works instead of trying it out for the first time during the speech. This will prevent any unnecessary or embarrassing delays. Note how people will be arranged in the room. Will you have any problems with visual aids? Will you have to be louder than usual? It is better to learn of potential problems before your speech than be surprised by them during delivery.
You feel more nervous than you look: While shaky voice and shifting weight may signal to an audience slight nervousness, they’ll still likely assume you were much more collected than you felt you were at the time. Sure, your body is shooting you full of adrenaline, but luckily it isn’t also holding a sign above your head saying “Look at me! I’m scared!” We cannot see your internal environment, so keep that in mind.
Get past the Introduction: That’s the hardest part. After the intro, you’ll have adjusted to the situation. You won’t be perfectly comfortable, but once you start and get into the speech, you’ll find yourself easing up. Practice the introduction several times prior, so you’ll be especially familiar with it. This way, even if you’re scared witless, you will still be able to say the words until you get past the major jitters.
You won’t be perfect: You have not had enough practice; you’re not in an easy situation; and only very rarely are you even expected to deliver a perfect speech. You don’t have to be the president addressing the nation on your first try. Like every other difficult task in life, it comes with experience. Instead of focusing on absolute perfection, focus on doing your best to relay your message to your audience. If you have to say “umm” a few times or take a sip of water, that’s fine. If your message is delivered clearly and logically, then you have nothing to worry about.
Learning to speak in public may be difficult, but it is worth it. You’ll be better suited to address your coworkers, provide service to your customers, instruct students and/or employees, and even give presentations before a large audience. The ability to talk before an audience is an important skill, and getting past your nervousness is the first step in the art of public speaking.
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