I stood on stage, looking out over the hundreds focused on me—waiting for me to speak, to say anything— and the voice in the back of head made it’s way forward to remind me, “You’re not good at public speaking.”
I was the opening talk for the TEDx event, and it was up to me to set the tone. This is an extraordinary responsibility on top of giving the most important talk of your life and, had it been any other circumstance, I might have given into that voice. “Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t be here. I’m an introvert. I’m an internal editor. I can’t even finish a sentence with my wife without wanting a do-over.”
Thankfully, I’d done my homework. Not just on the talk, but on how to overcome my public speaking anxiety. I knew what I needed to say, I believed in the message, and I had a plan even if the perfect circumstances I spent so much time practicing in didn’t reflect reality on game day.
Today, I can get on stage in front of a few thousand people and speak with confidence and authority. If I’m lucky, some finesse and a few jokes that aren’t total duds. But it hasn’t always been this way.
When it comes to public speaking, any confidence I have today is the result of a tremendous amount of work, frustration, cold sweats, and embarrassment. But I’m glad I had those experiences because they got me here—a place I can share some lessons about how to go from a terrified, bumbling idiot to a calm, confident communicator.
That, perhaps, will be the most useful part of this article for you—simply knowing that public speaking skills can be learned. You don’t have to be born with them.
From sharing an idea with a small team of friends to selling one to thousands of strangers on the main stage, these are the public speaking skills — many from speakers far better than me —that have transformed me from a timid, stuttering public speaker to a confident, respected one. I hope they help you spread your own big ideas.
1. Don’t give speeches about subjects you don’t know (duh).
This sounds like lazy, throwaway advice. It isn’t. If you follow it perfectly, the rest of the public speaking skills in this piece will be easy to follow.
Once you’ve given a few talks and put yourself out there as a public speaker,you’ll occasionally be offered opportunities to talk to a large audience somewhere far away and sexy sounding. The only catch is the content. Maybe you’ve shown yourself as an expert on canary mating habits and you get an email asking you to attend a conference / office / meeting and talk about worldwide paperclip marketing and sales trends.
You should thank them for the offer and politely decline.
The reason is simple: you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Even if you study up in time, you won’t give a great presentation because you won’t care about the topic. You don’t actually want to give the talk and they don’t want what you could actually present well on. They just like the idea of having you because they saw a video of you and think you’re great.
That’s what makes this advice so hard to follow. You’re new, you want exposure, and it looks like there’s a big opportunity for you.
If you’ve ever bought something because you hoped it would do something you knew deep down it really wouldn’t (cue every late night infomercial you’ve ever seen), you’ll understand the disappointment you’re setting both parties up for from the beginning.
And don’t forget: you always get more of what you say yes to. If you want to be a world-renowned expert on paperclip trends, step up to the plate. But if you have a message want to spread, stick to it. You can adapt your message to fit a new audience, but never abandon it!
2. Script your transitions and not much else.
If you’re like me, you have a strong internal editor who sits on your shoulder with a red marker and a pair of eye glasses, ready to scribble “F! See me after class!” on every sentence you utter. No matter what you say, you always feel like you could have said it better.
When you’re preparing a presentation, the natural inclination for people like us is to write a script. When you write a script, you get all the chances you need to get your wording just right.
As ancient Chinese warrior, Sun Tzu, said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” And this is the problem with a detailed script. In this scenario, there is no enemy, but there’s a world of uncertainty that comes from stepping on stage where everything is live and there are no do-overs. The more detailed your script is, the more opportunities there are to screw it up, and the more likelihood you will. When you’re new to the public speaking world, messing up your lines and trying to remember what comes next is the last thing you need. Total confidence killer.
So what do you do instead? Just wing it? Not exactly.
While a detailed script will probably cause you more trouble than it’s worth, you need some sort of plan. What works better is to base your speech on stories (you know, those things you can’t forget even when you try) and script your transitions. Your talk should look something like this:
Stories are great because:
- Audiences love them and need them to have a good experience.
- You don’t have to script them because you’re programmed to remember them.
We’ve been telling each other stories for as long as we’ve been human. You’re genetically programmed to remember them (making them easy to present on) and, more importantly, your audience is genetically programmed to listen for them (making them happy when they hear one).
Since stories can be more free flowing, you don’t need to script every last word. The main points will do, and your human tendencies will take care of the rest. A scripted transition will help you wrap up one story and usher you, and the audience, into the next.
3. Practice public speaking (a lot) more than you think you need to.
My friend, Chris Guillebeau, is the founder and annual emcee of The World Domination Summit. Over the course of a weekend each year, he delivers what amounts to probably 10 keynote talks. Sometimes, he has a story to tell. Other times, he just needs to remind the audience of 15 things before they break for lunch.
As a co-conspirator at WDS and a budding speaker, I once asked him, “How do you remember the sheer volume of things you need to say each time you take the stage?” I was hoping for a secret public speaking tip, but his answer—the truth—was unremarkable: “I practice a lot.”
So, that’s what I do, too. And it works. Whenever I think I have my presentation down, I practice it at least 2-3 more times. It’s time consuming and often boring—you’ve been doing this for days or weeks and you don’t want to practice your speech again. But it isn’t about you. It’s about your audience. If you want the experience to be remarkable for them, you have to put in the unsexy work of boring, repetitive practice.
4. Build your talk in chunks.
Chris didn’t just say “I practice a lot.” He also said he tries to develop his presentation in pieces and then put them together.
I do this now, too, and it speeds up the time it takes to prepare. By working in chunks, you can develop and nail down different pieces of a presentation simultaneously. If one piece in the middle (or worse—in the beginning) is tripping up you, you don’t have to wait until it’s perfect to work on the rest, and you can practice the other parts while you work it out.
The faster you get your talk done, the more time you have to practice it until it’s second nature. Nothing breeds confidence like success, and nothing breeds success like practice.
So few people practice public speaking as much as they should. I guess “practice a lot” is pretty remarkable after all.
5. Slow down. Way down.
A common problem for introverts like me is that once we are talking, our mouths sometimes go into overdrive to keep up with the thoughts we’re trying to get out. My head is an idea generation and connection machine constantly charging forward. My mouth, on the other hand, is slow to speak, lest it make a mistake; there’s that internal editor again.
Once you break the seal and start letting an idea out, trying to keep it coming at the pace your brain is going is like an ant trying to steer a mastodon down a ski slope. But trying to talk faster to catch up to your head produces exactly the effect you’re trying to avoid—stammering, getting lost, and re-explaining things you’d already explained. All the while, you start to stress yourself out which takes things even further off the rails.
If your idea is important, then it deserves all the time it needs to come out. You can’t just “talk slower” though. A more useful approach is to think more carefully.
The fast-talking babble problem is created by carelessness in how you string together your thoughts. You build loose connections in your mind that need more time to develop but, instead of developing them, you jump to the next one. A few skips down the road and you hardly know where you are anymore.
The fix for this is simple: when you notice your brain skipping too far ahead, you just tell it to go back and repeat itself. Wherever your mouth is, that’s where it needs to jump back to, and start over again.
Reminding myself to think slower works because I struggle to slow down my speech unless I also slow down my thoughts.
6. Don’t wander!
As I was prepping for my TEDx talk, I put my friend, Mike Pacchione—a professional speaking coach—in charge of “buzzing me” when he noticed me doing something bad. What he caught me doing often was wandering.
It happens when an idea appears out of nowhere as you’re talking and you decide to follow it. The problem is that wandering rarely stops at one idea. Once you feed the wandering beast, it takes over, and you go down the rabbit hole.
The problem isn’t that you can’t present well while you’re wandering, but that once you’ve wandered, you become lost. How does a hiker get lost in the woods? He takes one step off the trail to look at a plant. And then, oh, there’s a mushroom a few steps away. Hey, that tree up ahead looks cool. And then he turns around and has no idea where he is or how to get back.
The temptation to wander will be high and doing it is easy but, once you have, it’s hard to get back on track.
There are two practical fixes for this problem. The first is to follow rule #3 above and practice a lot. The more you practice your presentation, the more you know your stories and where they should go. The more you know that, the less tempting it is to stray. The other fix—the one you can use in the moment on stage when you’re about to wander—is to file your wandering thought away.
Your brain doesn’t want to let go of a wandering thought—it wants to explore it. The best way to stay on track is to remind yourself that you can explore it… just not right now. File it away. Maybe you can use it when you give this talk again in the future. But, for the love of God, don’t try to use it now.
7. Build a pre-talk calming routine.
My heart was pounding through my chest. I could feel my muscles tighten and vision start to tunnel. Breath rate was rising. “What’s happening?” I asked myself. I was on the verge of a panic attack. I was about to step on stage to deliver the biggest talk of my life and the only thing I could think about was how I was going to screw it up. That triggered the stress response, and it was all downhill from there.
Luckily, I’d been coached on what to do when this happens. Vanessa Van Edwards, one of the greatest speakers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing was tasked with helping me prepare. She confided in me that she, too, gets nervous before big presentations. Had she not told me that, I’d never have guessed it.
The trick she uses? A pre-talk calming technique. Every great speaker has one, and every great speaker knows sticking to it is mandatory for delivering your best performance.
What Vanessa does is find a quiet space few minutes before she’s scheduled to take the stage—sometimes in a bathroom—and does a two to three minute routine of power posing (think wonder woman pose), deep breathing, and envisioning success.
These things sound and feel a little silly, but they actually work.
Before a big event, it’s normal for your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels to rise. We’ve evolved to become extremely sensitive to stressful events. Just a few thousand years ago, feeling stress and not responding to it could have cost you your life.
That’s rarely the case today—I couldn’t find any reports of “death by embarrassment”—but our biology hasn’t exactly caught up. The sick irony of it all is the more you give into your public speaking anxiety, the more likely you are to give a poor performance.
So, before you take the stage, make sure you check your stress levels. Excited is good. Nervous is bad. Always hold a few minutes before going on for your own calming session. The pros do it. It works. Ignore at your own risk.
Just before a big event, it’s normal for your body to start to accumulating large amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone. We’ve evolved to become extremely sensitive to stressful events. Just a few thousand years ago, feeling stress and not responding to it could have cost you your life.
That’s rarely the case today—I couldn’t find any reports of “death by embarrassment”—but our biology hasn’t exactly caught up. The sick irony of it all is the more stressed you allow yourself to become, the more likely you are to make a mistake or give a poor performance.
So, before you take the stage, make sure you check yourself and your stress level. Excited is good. Nervous is bad. Always hold a few minutes before going on for your own calming session. The pros do it. It works. Ignore at your own risk.
8. When you screw up, keep going.
Before the show ended, I was a huge fan of The Colbert Report. I rarely missed an episode. And I wasn’t the only one—it was one of the most popular TV “news” shows on the air. If you watched the show, you probably didn’t notice that Stephen flubs his lines almost every episode. He’ll change a phrase to something that doesn’t make sense, miss a word, or mispronounce one.
You might not have noticed because, seemingly, neither did Colbert. When he messed up a line, he never stumbled or corrected. He just kept going because he knew something that us detail-oriented introverts must all learn to be effective public speakers:
Context matters more than the details.
He could flub a line and get away with it because he didn’t call attention to it. And no one noticed because no one is listening to every word you say. They’re listening for context. You can leave a surprising amount of context out of a message and still get the point across.
More damaging than a small mistake is calling attention to it. And if you flub something you can’t gloss over, let your sense of humor handle the situation. Make a joke about it and move on.
9. Remember the audience wants you to succeed.
If you follow the public speaking tips above, you’ll make huge strides in your ability to present ideas to a live audience but, perhaps the simplest public speaking advice I’ve gotten from everyone in this field that’s helped me actually put those seven rules into action is this:
Always remember the audience wants you to succeed.
When you’re stressing out over how to do presentation, this simple truth can be easy to forget. Your audience didn’t show up to boo you off the stage. They want to learn what you have to teach them. They want to hear what you have to say. They’ve traded their time and, perhaps, money to listen to you. People don’t give up their time and money to have a bad experience. Just the opposite.
When you have a fear of public speaking, it’s easy to think, “What if someone doesn’t like what I say?” That thought starts to permeate and, suddenly, you’re asking yourself, “What if everyone hates me.”
This is the line of thinking that leads to bad presentations. Don’t let yourself go down that path because the reality is the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. And if you follow these public speaking rules, the odds that you will are high.
The 30-Second Recap
I’m a highly introverted person who never thought I could be a strong public speaker. It’s taken a lot of work and help from people far better at it than I, but I’ve proven myself wrong.
If you’re an introvert like me, and you have important ideas to share, you can dramatically improve your public speaking skills with these nine fundamental rules:
- Stick to what you know. Presentations fail when you try to present yourself as an expert on something you aren’t.
- Tell stories, and don’t bother scripting them. Stories are easy to remember so you won’t mess them up. Script your transitions, and you’ll be set.
- Practice more than you think you need to. Long, boring practice is what sets professional speakers apart from amateurs.
- Chunk your speeches. Don’t get stuck thinking you have to work through it in a linear fashion.
- Slow your brain down. When your brain is moving too fast, you start to stumble on your words.
- Don’t wander. The temptation to step off the trail will be high. Once you do, it will be difficult to come back.
- Always save a few moments for your pre-talk calming routine. Never go on stage without doing this first.
- Ignore your mistakes. Context is more important than perfect delivery. If you mess up, keep going.
- Remember the audience wants you to succeed. Everything is easier when you remember everyone is on your side.
I hope this advice from an introverted public speaker helps you make some strides getting your own important message to more people. It’s sure helped me.
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