You feel your knees start to shake as you approach the podium. Your mouth is suddenly dry and you struggle to remember your opening lines, which you spent hours perfecting the night before.
You look out at the crowd of indistinguishable faces and when you finally try to speak, your words come out in a nervous rush.
Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety
If the situation above sounds familiar, you’re definitely not alone. In fact, in many surveys public speaking tops the list of our greatest fears, even beating out heights, flying, and death.
And it’s not just the fear of addressing thousands—sometimes, just speaking up during a meeting is enough to get voices cracking.
But despite our aversion, public speaking remains a critical skill for career advancement that we must master if we want to be successful.
Even if you work independently—as a writer or freelancer, for example—chances are you’ll still come across situations that require you to deliver a presentation or pitch an idea.
While you might never love public speaking, there are some simple steps you can take to feel more prepared and deliver your next pitch with confidence.
1. Don’t Obsess Over Perfection
Here’s a secret: No matter how many hours you spend preparing, no matter how many times you’ve recited your speech in front of the mirror or even memorized each word, your speech still won’t be perfect.
By “perfect,” I mean exactly the way you planned it. You might forget a minor point or two, encounter some technical issues, or even mis-reference an idea.
But even if all of those things happen, you can still have a successful presentation. The trick is not letting these small errors destroy you.
Most likely, your audience won’t even know that you’ve made a mistake unless you show them.
When you realize you’ve made an error, simply breathe, smile, and carry on with confidence. If it was something really significant, you can address it while answering questions or taking comments at the end of your speech.
2. Know Your Subject
One of the best ways to prepare for a presentation and overcome any potential slip-ups is by knowing your subject inside and out.
Having a solid understanding of the material will help you feel more confident as you address your audience, and you’ll be less likely to make mistakes.
As soon as you have a date for your presentation, start dedicating some time each day to study up on the topic. Consider all aspects and try to foresee any potential questions that audience members might have.
Ideally, you should know more about the topic than anyone else in the audience. But even if you don’t think that’s the case, speaking confidently and maintaining your poise just might fool even your toughest critics.
3. Don’t Memorize
No matter how tempting it may seem, DO NOT try to memorize your entire presentation.
At some point—probably due to the nerves—you will forget a word or phrase. And since you only prepared by studying one very specific format, you won’t know how to continue.
Instead, stay flexible. Make an outline (which you can memorize) that will guide you through your most important points. You can include any examples or specific cases that you want to mention as support.
In this way, you won’t have to think about where you’re going as you speak, but you’ll still have the freedom to choose your own words and sound natural.
4. Practice Out Loud
Try running through your speech or presentation a few times before the big day. If you can find a friend or co-worker who’s willing to lend an ear and provide feedback, that’s even better.
Practicing your speech out loud will allow you to hear how the words actually sound, and you can catch any parts that don’t quite work before it’s too late.
It’s also a great way to test your outline. If it’s well-designed, you should be able to get through a practice run with few blunders. If you still get a little lost, it might be time to add in a few more details.
5. Visualize Success
Envision yourself at the podium, delivering your talk with grace and confidence. Imagine the people in the audience, actively listening and enjoying your presentation.
Try to picture even the details, like what you’ll be wearing to feel your most confident or what you’ll do afterward to celebrate your success. Having something pleasant to look forward to always helps.
Whatever you do, do NOT start imagining what could go wrong. This will only increase your anxiety and up your chances of actually making nervous mistakes.
Right before it’s your turn, take a few deep breaths. Inhaling with your stomach muscles, rather than your chest, is proven to be more effective at calming nerves.
You should also try this even after you’ve started with your delivery. It’s one way to avoid talking too quickly (a common result of public speaking anxiety and a dead giveaway that you’re terrified).
As you speak, slow down and always remember to breathe. If you have to speak for a long period, make sure you have some water available. (Nervous or not, projecting your voice for extended periods can dry you out).
7. Make Eye Contact
This might be the most challenging step of all, but it will make your delivery much more impactful.
If you’re addressing a crowded room, try picking out a few friendly faces. Try to make eye contact with them throughout your presentation. You’ll exude much more confidence if you’re not looking at your shoes or notes.
Try imagining that one of those faces is a close friend. Pretend that you’re explaining a simple concept to your friend (rather than a crowded room) with no pressure at all.
If maintaining direct eye contact is still too intimidating for you, you might try looking to the back of the room and fixing your gaze between a few different objects.
It’s much better than looking at the floor or staring at your boss to read his reactions.
8. Don’t Read
Unless you’re actually performing a reading of your own written work, avoid reading directly from your notes when giving a presentation.
You won’t be able to project your voice as far, and you’ll look far less confident when you read. You also won’t be able to make eye contact with your audience (see Tip #7).
Keep an outline handy, and refer to it when necessary. It should be used to guide your thoughts and provide reminders, not to be read religiously.
It will be hard to draw your gaze from your notes and back to the crowd, but you’ll look 100% more confident when you do.
One great way to deflect some of that uncomfortable attention is by shining it back on your audience.
Keep your listeners engaged by asking them questions or having them participate in interactive activities.
This can help to greatly reduce your nerves while ensuring that your audience stays engaged and focused on your points. No yawns from this crowd!
10. Be Aware of Your Body Language
Finally, while you may rely on your mouth to do the talking, your body language can actually tell your audience even more about how you’re feeling.
Maintain a good posture, with your back straight and shoulders back (but relaxed). Do not cross your arms or start fidgeting—these are major signs of insecurity.
You can, however, try walking around your presentation space as you speak. Feel free to also use hand gestures to emphasize your words.
Keep your body open and maintain a gentle smile (unless you’re trying to drive home a particularly serious or somber point). Your audience will feel at ease and stay more engaged with what you’re saying.
They’ll also see you as a credible source if you look confident in what you’re saying.
Speak With Confidence
Public speaking is something most of us dread. But with a little practice and these ten helpful tips, you can deliver a five-star presentation with confidence.
Leave a lasting impression at your next meeting or project proposal by using these tips to stay calm, cool, and collected.
How do you prepare for public speaking? Share your tips in the comments below!
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