You walk up to the mic, having practiced in front of the mirror hundreds of times leading up to this moment. You know the script; you've spent hours preparing for this moment. But as you look into the crowd, you feel queasy.
Hundreds of faces out there, all waiting to hear you speak. You forget everything, and awkwardly stutter your way through the presentation, leaving the stage to scattered applause.
Sounds like your worst nightmare? You're not alone. Public speaking seems to be one of humanity's collective fears.
In surveys of most people's fears, public speaking was selected as more common than death. Clearly, people do not feel confident in their ability to speak in front of other people.
However, there are many ways to improve your public speaking and ensure that you're confident the next time you step up to the mic. As a former shy kid who came out of his shell due to speech and debate, I've utilized all of these to make myself more confident and self-assured when speaking in front of other people. So, prepare yourself to leverage your public speaking with these tried and tested tips!
Tip 1: Practice in front of others
The best way to get better at speaking in front of other people is to speak in front of other people. Sounds intuitive, right? It's often overlooked when it comes to preparing for presentations, speeches, etc.
It's one thing to be in your room with a closed door speaking to yourself and entirely another to actually be up on stage speaking to other humans. Your brain knows this too, and that's why it shuts down when other people are present. One way of solving this problem is by speaking in front of a trusted friend, parent, or sibling. Ask them to dedicate 5-10 minutes to listening to your presentation and give you detailed feedback at the end of it. This will help you both practice speaking in front of other people as well as receive feedback on the content of your presentation, thus improving your speech on two fronts. This process will train your brain to get better at speaking in front of other people, helping you feel less stressed and more confident when it comes to speaking in front of the crowd during your speech.
Tip 2: Look right above people's heads
The credit for this one goes to my 3rd grade teacher. The first time we did presentations in class, she taught us all this trick: to make it seem like you are maintaining eye contact with the audience, look at the space right above their heads. This makes it seem like you are looking them right in the eye, without you having to actually do so.
Looking people directly in the eye can cause you to feel like you are being judged, but eye contact is an essential part of public speaking. By utilizing this tip, you are able to avoid feeling judged by the audience's facial expressions, but still maintain eye contact. The reason eye contact is so important for public speaking is because it builds a connection with the audience. It makes each individual feel like you are speaking to them directly rather than speaking to the crowd as a whole. This way, they become more likely to "buy what you are selling" and believe your story.
Tip 3: Be Yourself
It sounds incredibly cliché, but it's very useful in this context. No one wants to listen to a person who sounds fake or like everyone else. If you hide your true self when you speak in a public setting, you will come off as uneasy and plain.
However, if you instead let your true self shine, you will seem confident and easy to listen to. The number one thing that makes or breaks a speech is personality. Think about it: if someone other than MLK Jr. had given the 'I Have a Dream' speech in a subdued and formal tone, it would not have had the same level of connection with the audience that it did. MLK Jr's unique style of speaking was one of the reasons why the speech ended up being one of the most impactful in history. Similarly, you can bring your own style and personality into your speech to make it special. If you enjoy speaking with emphasis, then do that. If you enjoy speaking quietly, then do that and raise your voice during the important parts. Remember, if you're like everyone else, there's no reason to remember you.
Tip 4: Memorize your speech
Memorizing your speech unlocks a new world for you within public speaking. If you use notes (either physical or digital) during a presentation, you will be looking at them for the majority of the time that you are speaking. This means that you will not be able to establish a connection with the audience, hampering your presentation's perceived effectiveness as discussed above.
Clearly, memorizing your speech solves this issue. If your speech is memorized, you can focus on looking at people in the audience rather than compromising on your precious eye contact. You might think that even with notes, you can still look up occasionally and maintain eye contact. However, the amount of eye contact that you can have while using notes is significantly less than the amount you can have with a memorized speech. Thus, I recommend that you memorize your speech in order to be able to focus on more important aspects of public speaking — maintaining eye contact and connecting with your audience.
Another benefit of memorizing your speech is that you minimize the risk of sounding stilted or stuttering. If you know your speech by memory, the likelihood of you stuttering during the speech is far lower than if you were to just read off your notes. For me personally, whenever I have to read off a document or notes for a speech, I'm more likely to mess up, whether that be stuttering or missing content.
Tip 5: Hand Gestures
One of the most underrated methods to improve your speech is to use hand gestures. This can be anything from waving your hands when you want to emphasize a particularly impactful part of your speech to more descriptive tactics like counting off the points you are bringing up. The type of hand gestures you use depends on the type of speech you are giving.
If the speech is more formal, like a business presentation, it is recommended to use fewer hand gestures. However, if the speech is for something like a debate, where you are trying to convince the audience to side with you, using more hand gestures is preferred.
Overall, remember that you can do it. Becoming a good public speaker isn't an unattainable goal. While it may seem scary at first, you will gradually adapt to the stage, and learn to flourish.