A Practical Guide for How to Speak in Public
You stand up to speak. Your mouth is dry, your heart is beating out of your chest, and you can’t think straight. Many people avoid public speaking all together—in fact, 74% of us are terrified of it and many prefer death to the thought addressing an audience.
It makes sense. Not too long ago, you could be exiled for saying something disagreeable to your fellow humans, and you would be 26% more likely to die if that happened. It’s no wonder then that public speaking triggers our fight-or-flight response.
Just because public speaking makes you feel like you’re about to die doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (promise!). The key is not to eliminate nerves—that’s setting yourself up for failure. Instead, institute a system that puts you in the driver’s seat of your own voice and makes you feel in control.
We believe that great speakers are made, not born. If you have never spoken in public (or if you have and it didn’t go well) making the decision to overcome your fear is step number one.
In January of last year, Na’ilah Amaru made a decision to overcome her fear of public speaking. Seven months after coming to Bespoken, she addressed the nation onstage at the Democratic National Convention to introduce Hillary Clinton with poise, power and precision.
Na’ilah exceeded her expected goal but we recommend starting small—public speaking doesn’t have to mean addressing a crowd at a podium on national television. It can be speaking up in a meeting, introducing yourself at a networking event, or pitching to a group of investors. Choose a speaking engagement that is achievable and set yourself up to succeed. Schedule a meeting, apply to a pitch night, or sign up to speak at a community board meeting.
Overwhelmed? Break it down
Deciding to speak in public is a big step so pat yourself on the back! It’s a huge undertaking, and one that takes preparation and practice. Creating a plan for yourself moves public speaking from the scary abstract to the doable specific. Break the process down into actionable steps as much as possible. Here’s a suggested starting point:
Identify your audience
Are you addressing eager students or seasoned executives? Understanding your audience helps you pinpoint their needs, which takes the focus off of you.
Name your objective
Specify what you want your intended audience to do immediately after hearing you speak. Do you want them to hire you? Go to your website? Buy your product? Sign up for your newsletter? Be specific!
Familiarize yourself with the environment
Will you be onstage, in a boardroom or in an elevator? How big is the room and will there be a microphone? Envisioning the space during the preparation process is essential to success.
See content creation as a journey
Knowing what you want to say takes time. Jot down some ideas and let it soak for a few days. Create an outline of bulleted items you want to include. Perfection is the enemy of good and speaking is dynamic so don’t finalize anything!
We know that practice is essential and yet, we avoid it and wing it anyway. Deciding to actually work on it sets you up to succeed. Your goal should not be to get it right but instead to practice so you can’t get it wrong. Don’t expect to hit it out of the park the first time you stand to speak it out loud. It’ll be messy, and that’s the point: You’re figuring it out!
The only thing to fear is fear itself, and fearing nerves gives them power. Accept that nerves are a part of the process. Ask others what their reactions are to public speaking and you’ll find that most people experience similar physical sensations, making you feel less alone. They may call it adrenaline and you may call it anxiety but it’s all the same. Speak it out while running on a treadmill to get comfortable in the discomfort.
Don’t let the event itself be the first time you do it. Join Toastmasters or ask a trusted friend to come be an outside eye. Better yet, stage a test run in the safety of your own home and welcome constructive criticism on your turf.
Presence onstage is the exchange of energy, so make connecting with your audience your primary goal. Make eye contact. Breathe. Be in your body. Know that nothing can go wrong because you have prepared.