How to nail public speaking

Whether it’s a small presentation or a keynote speech in front of thousands of people, public speaking can be a challenge. Here’s how to face it head-on
by Bethan Rees

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population. At some point in your career, you might have to make a speech or presentation in front of a group of people. But if you’re not fully confident in public speaking, it can be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences.

Sweaty palms, blotchy skin and stumbling over your words – these can all be avoided with a few helpful tips. Here’s how to nail public speaking.
Plan, and plan some more Having a clear idea of what you are going to say, and how you’re going to say it, can help you become more relaxed. If you don’t have a well-defined plan at first, write all the topics you want to cover in your speech or presentation first. Second, transform the key points from your brain dump into an initial script. 

Remind yourself of how important a book’s first paragraph is. If it doesn’t catch your attention in the first few lines, you might put that book down. A speech works in the same way. You need to intrigue your audience. Chris Anderson, founder of TED, hosted a TED talk on the secrets to great public speaking, in 2016. He says: “Give your listeners a reason to care. Before you can start building things inside the minds of your audience, you have to get their permission to welcome you in. And the main tool to achieve that? Curiosity. Stir your audience's curiosity. Use intriguing, provocative questions to identify why something doesn't make sense and needs explaining. If you can reveal a disconnection in someone's worldview, they'll feel the need to bridge that knowledge gap. And once you've sparked that desire, it will be so much easier to start building your idea.”

This could be a surprising statistic, a quote from someone famous or a bold statement. 
Breathe Naturally you’ll have some pre-stage nerves. But there are ways to combat this feeling and stop it from taking over. Use that energy and adrenaline to boost your performance. 

The first step is focusing on your breathing to slow your heart rate and give your body the oxygen it needs to perform. This is especially important right before you speak. Take deep breaths from your belly, hold each one for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale.

Using your breath in different ways can affect the way you sound and feel when public speaking, too. You should breathe at the end of every sentence, which will naturally force you to slow down your speech.

The Genard Method is a system of public speaking training based on the techniques of the theatre, developed by Dr Gary Genard. A blog by Genard, titled ‘How to breathe to stay calm, focused, and confident’, explains that we need to breathe differently for public shows. “When speaking to an audience, you need more oxygen to project sound outward. You also need to lengthen your exhalation, since speech depends upon controlled outward breath.” He recommends learning to breath diaphragmatically – or ‘belly breathe’. This is when the diaphragm flattens when the lungs expand, and the bellows-like action allows your lungs to expand fully. He adds: “That’s the level of oxygen you need to produce strong and resonant speech – the kind that has the sound of authority.” 
The spotlight effect When all eyes are on you, the feeling can be overwhelming. According to a paper titled ‘The spotlight effect in social judgement: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one's own actions and appearance’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the spotlight effect is a result of us “being at the centre of our own universe.” This results in a difference between the awareness of our own behaviour, and how others perceive it. 
The paper adds that a “misreading of a crucial passage of a prepared speech … may seem shameful and unforgettable to us, but they often pass without notice by others”. This indicates that even if you do stumble over your words, the audience probably won’t even notice. A good way to deflect the attention away from yourself a little is by using props or supporting materials, such as handouts or a film clip in a presentation. 
Closing your speech Just as the beginning is important to grip your audience, make your last words count too. The close is your final opportunity to accomplish the goal of your speech or presentation. This could be to inspire the audience, change opinions or to drive an action. 

Paul Petrone, editor at LinkedIn Learning, wrote a blog for the social media site on this topic, titled ‘The six best ways to close a presentation’. He recommends ending with a short summary of the takeaway message(s) but admits this isn’t the “sexiest” of endings. Other solutions he suggests are finishing with a quote – “the key is selecting a good quote, that is both unique and sums up the point of your message” – or a “final story”. He says: “Tell the beginning of your story at the beginning of your presentation and tell the audience you’ll get back to that later. And then end your talk with the end of the story, which is both super cool and really makes your point.”

You could also end the speech with a rhetorical question. A famous moment for this came during a presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter. Reagan finished off his speech with a series of rhetorical questions, and it’s cemented in history. He said, when addressing the audience about election day: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” Reagan went on to become the 40th President of the United States. 

Public speaking, for some, is always going to be anxiety-inducing. But hopefully with these tips, you can stride onto the stage, or into a boardroom, prepared and ready to spread your message, whatever that may be.  

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Published: 27 Jul 2018
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