I used to feel like public speaking was my Achilles heel. I would dread presentations in high school and college, and it wasn’t until graduate school that I applied learnings for myself that left me feeling prepared, able to speak with confidence, and ultimately helped me to win my program’s capstone presentation. Which might not sound like a big deal, but it’s a presentation to about 100 people comprised of your peers, faculty, and Alumni that is the cumulation of your graduate school experience. So for me, it was such a significant way to highlight the growth I made over the course of those two years.
I can’t say that I’ve actually “overcome” my fear of public speaking, but I have overcome the idea that it’s something I cannot do and something that will inhibit me from professional growth. I’m able to channel that fear into excitement because I know it’s my opportunity to shine, as we are all meant to do.
If you’re still completing your education, a young professional, or an experienced professional and who struggles with public speaking, read my tips below:
I know what you’re thinking- duh. But you’d be surprised how many people take this step for granted. Also, there are levels to it. Let me explain:
- Know your content. And by this I mean, feel confident in that you’re the subject matter expert on the content you’re presenting. It’s always easier to speak to a slide or document when you are familiar with the content. Throwing slides together the night before the presentation with information that might have been given to you to speak to and not something you’re familiar with, is never a good idea.
- Prepare speaking points for each slide. I took public speaking courses in undergrad and graduate school, and one of the most helpful tips I learned and still practice today, is not to write out full sentences. Jot down a main idea, word, or phrase that will jog your memory and guide the story you want to tell to your audience.
- Practice, practice, practice. I’ve found the best way to practice is with a co-worker, friend, or family member so you get familiar with talking about the content in front of an audience. If that’s not an option, try recording yourself and/or practicing in the mirror and get used to looking yourself in the eye. I know that sounds weird, but a lot of times part of peoples’ fear of public speaking or stage fright comes from all eyes being on them and their brain drawing a blank. When you run through your presentation a few times and start to anticipate the content you are going to speak to next, you can relax, have some fun, and continue with confidence.
I have not only heard stories about complete public speaking missteps from highly successful individuals early in their career due to lack of preparation, but also experienced it myself. Take the time to prepare!
Become Comfortable With Not Knowing the Answer
Some of the best advice I ever received coming out of college was that I was “the expert on the learning curve”. While there might be people in the room who have 10-20 more years of experience than you, don’t be afraid of not knowing the answer. Don’t be afraid of making a contribution. No matter how much you prepare, a question is bound to come up that you might not have thought of, or a perspective you hadn’t considered. And that’s ok! If someone asks you a question you don’t have the answer to, practice a phrase along the lines of “you know I hadn’t considered that but let me find out and get back to you.” And actually follow-up. I’ve found it’s always better to lead with integrity than try and flounder your way through a meeting with a flimsy response. It only makes you look ill-prepared.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Feeling uncomfortable is one of the best investments you can make in yourself. In the right context, of course. Pushing yourself and stepping out of your comfort zone almost always results in personal/professional growth. As you progress in your career, there will be times when you won’t have the opportunity to follow the steps above and you will be asked to speak off the cuff in front of a group. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become. Preparing properly for any speaking engagement is important, but even more so is feeling confident, and like anything else, this comes with practice.
Forget What People Think!
I know, easier said than done. We are all so afraid of being judged that sometimes it can be paralyzing. We all want to perform and display the best version of ourselves, but the cost of striving to be perfect can come at a great expense to our mental health. More often than not, you’re being more critical and harder on yourself than anyone in the room will be. And if you mess up a presentation, that’s ok! The world is not going to end, I promise you. Use it as a learning experience and move on. I have heard the most embarrassing of embarrassing public speaking stories and guess what? Those people went on to be very successful because they learned from that experience and didn’t let it impact the confidence they had in themselves to knock it out of the park for next time.
Mastering public speaking is a skill that will pay dividends in the lifetime of your career. You might not ever get over your nerves, but you will have the skills you need to turn those nerves into excitement, engage your audience, and leave them feeling impressed. But more importantly, leaving you feeling impressed with yourself.