How to be a good at public speaking

Public speaking is an art not a science. It’s also the number one fear for many people but it’s a powerful tool that should be mastered.

public speaking

Public speaking is an art not a science. It’s also the number one fear for many people.

I remember the first time I spoke at an event.

I’d just moved to London and I was invited to speak in front of 250 people.

Ten minutes before I was due to go on stage I realised I’d been thrown in at the deep end and needless to say I was fearful.

My body began to shake, my heart started pounding through my chest and the palms of my hands were sweating profusely.

I ran to the toilets with five minutes to spare and splashed my face with water while talking to myself in the mirror.

“You can do this!” I kept saying while looking deep into my own eyes and nervous as hell.

Time is up. Time to go on stage.

The negative self-talk spirals out of control.

“Are my slides OK? Will I remember what to say? Am I good enough to be up here? Will the audience think I’m stupid? I’m not good enough. I feel fake. I am fake. Why are you here? You’re of the working class and you should be back on the building site or in the factory where you started. You don’t belong here.”

Needless to say my first speaking gig was wrapped in nervous self-doubt but thankfully what I lacked in both confidence and speaking skills I made up in passion for my speaking subject.

Despite the negative self-talk and poor performance I discovered that day I enjoy speaking in front of large audiences.

The natural feeling of elation after speaking at the event is something I’d never felt before.

My body de-stressed from the nervousness and released a cocktail of feel-good endorphins and hormones into my endocrine system. I felt great.

I had what I would call a ‘speakers high’ and with the build up of tension and subsequent release I felt like lying down and taking a nap.

Since that day I’ve spoke at numerous events from groups of ten to audiences in the hundreds.

I’ve spoke on stages and in conference rooms across the UK, mainland Europe, the Middle East, the US and even Russia.

I’ve spoke to an eclectic mix of people from university students to doctors to CEOs and C-level execs. Students are the hardest audience to engage by a mile.

I don’t claim to be a great orator neither do I profess to being a speaking coach but I have learnt some tricks along the way that have helped me deal with the nerves and deliver a good talk.

You only need to know four big picture things. Get these right and everything else will fit into place.

Me speaking in the House of Commons

1. Only speak on subjects you’re passionate about

First and foremost you should be passionate about the topic you’re speaking on.

You can’t substitute passion. It trumps talent all day long.

When you’re passionate about something your eyes light up when discussing it and you have a depth of knowledge on your subject that others can’t compete with. You could chew someone’s ear off for hours.

Passion is infectious and the audience will feel the emotion coming from you and ride the vibe with you.

Be passionate about your subject matter and the rest will follow.

2. You’re there to communicate not put on a show

Too many people think that public speaking is like giving a performance.

They think the ‘show’ has to be pitch perfect with no mistakes and while it is desirable it is not necessary.

Thinking this way will only give you problems because once you make a mistake (and you inevitably will) it’ll ruin your flow.

The point of public speaking is to educate, inform and in some cases entertain. It’s about building a rapport with the audience and being genuine.

If that means stammering your words a little and um-ing now and again no one cares. People make their minds up on a speaker if he is likeable not how perfect the delivery is.

Sure, you have to be coherent and not a stammering mess but go easy on yourself. We all make mistakes in our day to day verbal communication. It’s no big deal if you do the same here.

3. Accept that nerves are normal

For a long time I tried to get rid of the pre-speaking nerves.

No matter where I was speaking or who I was speaking to the nerves would inevitably kick in five minutes before it was my turn to speak.

For a long time I tried to stop the nerves but nothing I tried worked. For a while I assumed I had mild public speaking anxiety and other people didn’t. It was something I just had to deal with.

Turns out I was wrong. Everyone gets nervous before getting up on stage to speak with to an audience. It’s a natural thing tied to our biology and the ‘fight or flight’ response.

I made my peace with the nerves and now I don’t even try to stop them but rather I fully accept them and own them. It’s this acceptance that brings calm.

Remember that nerves are only normal. When they make their appearance, accept them and take deep breaths from your stomach. They’ll soon pass.

4. Bring humour into the talk

People don’t remember what you say, they remember how they make you feel.

Have you ever met someone for the first time and they were so engaging, passionate, genuine and funny you came away with a great feeling about them? The same applies in public speaking too.

If you can weave all of the above plus some humour then your talk has the recipe for success.

Granted, humour is not appropriate for all talks but if the situation allows it give it a try.

It doesn’t come without risks however. If you try and be funny and the audience don’t laugh then you’ll die on your ass like a rubbish standup comedian. Luckily most audiences don’t heckle.

If you make people laugh or at the very least smile then they’re likely to warm to you. Be brave and crack a couple of jokes.

Public speaking is not for everyone and some people are more fearful of it than death but being able to share your message in person with a group of people is a powerful asset to have. Become not only good at it but known for it and it will open new doors for you.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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