According to research, as many as 75% of all people dread public speaking – we get butterflies, we become anxious or panicky and we don’t sleep much the night before. It can get worse on the day, too. When we are super-nervous, adrenaline plays havoc with our ability to act normally.
‘Everyone has a rush of adrenaline before presenting – it’s our body’s normal "fight or flight" response,’ says Matt Eventoff of Princeton Public Speaking. Some people visibly shake throughout their speech while others freeze up and completely forget what they should be talking about. Many others simply endure the experience without properly engaging with the audience and fail to get their key messages across.
However, it needn’t be like this. You can reduce the anxiety and increase your confidence before your next presentation, by learning a few good – while avoiding a few poor – habits.
‘The best public speakers are nervous, but theirs is controlled nervousness,’ says Gavin Megaw from Hanover Communications, an international public affairs and communications consultancy.
Preparation and practice
First of all, the two golden rules that apply to any performance: preparation and practice. ‘Nothing else will make you more confident and more compelling – the more you prepare and the better handle you have on the material you are presenting, the better it will go,’ says Eventoff.
Remember what they say about first impressions and plan a powerful opening to your speech.
‘Make a bold claim on which you can deliver, assert something surprising or tell a story,’ suggests Mike Clayton, author of How to Speak so People Listen.
Whatever you choose to say, make sure you grab your audience’s attention – in a good way. ‘Be very careful with jokes unless you are very accomplished at telling them,’ warns Clayton.
As for the content of your speech, Megaw recommends you drill it down to no more than three to five key things or messages that you want people to remember.
‘De-cluttering your speech like this will help focus your mind and give you confidence that you can get your points across clearly and concisely,’ he says. Also, you need to do this to try and counteract something which you cannot control.
‘People switch off easily, get distracted by technology and take very little home with them as a result,’ says Megaw. ‘For this reason, you also need to repeat your key point or points again and again in bite-sized chunks – something Margaret Thatcher (pictured), Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were very good at doing. This leads to engagement and, more importantly, to people remembering.’
Pepper your speech with words that have great impact. ‘Use "power words" such as You and Your (pronouns that focus your speech on your listener); Imagine, Discover and Learn (evoke curiosity); Vital, Essential and Key (suggest a priority) and Improved, Better and Best (suggest merit),’ says Clayton. Keep all your words simple and your sentences short.
Once you have prepared your speech or presentation, practise delivering it out loud with all the equipment you plan on using and with a timer. Do it over and over again.
‘Rumour has it Winston Churchill practised for one hour per one minute of speech content he was delivering, so a five-minute presentation meant five hours of practice,’ says Eventoff. Churchill is universally recognised as one of the greatest orators of all times.
Own the room
It goes without saying that you should arrive early and check if the microphone and any visual aids are working.
‘When you have the opportunity to introduce yourself to a few people beforehand, take it,’ adds Eventoff. Later, it will feel like you have some allies in the audience.
Just before you start speaking, take your place, pause and survey the room waiting for everyone to notice you, and settle down, says Mike Clayton: ‘This puts you in control and means you have everyone's attention.’
Use the pause during the speech, too. ‘It shows confidence and allows you to take in the audience and pick "spots" to speak to, spread evenly across the room – ideally in a figure of eight,’ says Gavin Megaw.
The way you talk influences how your audience reacts to your speech, which will in turn affect how confident you feel.
‘Many speakers speak at around 150 words per minute, which is far too fast,’ says Megaw. ‘This fails to engage the room and ensures the speech will not compel. But if you use the pause or slow down the pace to make significant points, people will stay interested and will listen.’
Control the pitch and volume of your voice, too. ‘Lower pitch conveys more authority; volume is often misunderstood – paradoxically, if you speak more quietly, sometimes people hear more clearly, because they "lean in" to hear what you are saying,’ explains Clayton.
The way you stand and walk also sends a lot of signals to the audience.
‘A stable, upright posture presents a more imposing impression,’ says Clayton. Therefore, slouching is a complete non-no, as is moving around either too little or too much.
‘Movement must be controlled, so establish a mental anchor spot on the floor,’ says Megaw. ‘Pacing any more than a couple of yards away from that point is dangerous, as is moving up and down repeatedly – all of these things distract and disengage the audience. And never ever turn your back on them.’
Don’t forget to smile, look at the audience rather than at the back wall or the ceiling and know when to stop. It is both bad manners and bad practice to run over your allotted time. To end your speech, summarise your main points, conclude on an interesting remark or an appropriate punchline, thank your audience for listening and sit down.