Speaking in Public: A Step-By-Step Guide to Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety

Leadership Speaker PublicI had an interesting discussion with a friend recently about how even people with great interpersonal skills may struggle with speaking in public.  As someone who was once relatively shy, and now speaks on panels and to large groups, I felt it would be useful to share some of the strategies I personally used.

Step 1: Improve Speaking and Pronunciation

Before I dealt with issue of speaking in public, I first wanted to be a good speaker.  There’s an unfortunate catch-22 with public speaking: good speakers have confidence, but they have confidence because they are skilled at public speaking.  To raise my own abilities, and confidence in those abilities, before I ever spoke in public I first practiced just speaking.

  • Read out loud.   I had a number of choose-your-own-adventure novels I enjoyed when I was young. In addition to being entertaining, reading them out loud allowed me to practice speaking with a broad, exciting vocabulary.  Choose your own adventure books also lend themselves well to dramatic interpretation, which allowed me to play around with inflection and tone.  My brother and I would sometimes take turns with them, reading a page and then debating which was the best approach.  If I had to pick reading material to start with now, I would probably use op-ed pieces in newspapers. 
  • Emulate other speakers.   As a child I watched Wheel of Fortune with my family. Pat Sajak had a calm, clear speaking voice.  When I started looking to improve my speech, I would watch and quietly repeat what he said to myself, and later while reading out loud in my room, or even in conversations with friends, I would ask myself “How would Pat Sajak say this?”  Pat Sajak was the ultimate host – he made people feel at ease, projected confidence and charisma, and spoke clearly.  I noticed how he looked people in the eyes, his body language and the way he was expressive with his hands and body – but not too expressive.   Eventually I stopped emulating him, as I grew into my own as a speaker.

Step 2: Practice Speaking and Poise

Once I was comfortable with speaking out loud clearly, I needed to improve my timing, tone, inflection and presentation.  There were no shortcuts for me – just lots of practice and steady improvement.  

  • Practice speaking to a mirror.  This has always been a little difficult for me.   The usefulness of this activity is hard to dispute though.  The feedback is clear and immediate, and as I started improving it boosted my confidence by seeing how easy it was for myself to present an argument or point of view – even if it was just to myself. 
  • Record yourself speaking.  Video works best, but even just hearing audio will point out flaws in your speaking.  You’ll notice whether you speak too slow or fast, the inflections in your voice, the “ums” etc. If you can stand it, it’s great to have someone else review your recording and critique you as well. In high school I picked up a cheap audio recorder and would record myself practicing class presentations.  I did this for timing, as well as to see how I sounded – did my presentation make sense, did I speak clearly, was I too slow or fast.  By the time I had to actually present in class, I had already heard the presentation a half dozen times – and breezed through it.

When I was attending USC for my master’s, I had to collaborate with other students on group projects which often ended in a class presentation at the close of the semester. Because we could not always meet in person to practice, we needed to find another way to review our speaking parts. The easy solution was to upload videos to YouTube. A couple of my classmates were foreign students who were still learning how to speak English. Watching them on video allowed me to point out grammar errors, inflection, mispronunciation, etc. After the course was over, one of them remarked to me that the group project recordings had done more to improve his speaking than the two years he had spent trying to immerse himself in America.

Step 3: Practice Speaking With Friends and Family

No real secret here – once I started improving my speaking skills, I enjoyed conversation more and was more outspoken among friends.  If you lack interesting material to talk about, consider reading some of my favorite personal development books.  Some other stories and thoughts from this site that provide good conversation fodder include:

Step 4: Practice Speaking to Others – For a Small Audience

Once I had confidence in my abilities speaking, there were still a couple hurdles to cross.  Among them – would I run out of things to say, and since speeches are a one way street, how would I know if my audience was interested?  There are a few social situations that can help with this

  • Multiple person dinner/party conversations.  All human interaction isn’t just one on one – oftentimes we’ll meet for dinner with multiple people, or perhaps I’ll be in a circle of friends at a party.  In these cases, when I’m talking and more than one person is listening, it’s a bit like a radio show – myself and the person speaking are the radio hosts, and the other spectating conversationalists are our audience.  These situations (unintentionally) present fantastic opportunities to work on speaking skills in a (generally) warm environment
  • Committee meetings and debate.  I was in a number of service clubs, social clubs, student government organizations etc as a child.  Even at work I continue to have small 3-6 person committee meetings.  Once again, this provides a small, reasonably receptive audience to speak to – and one or two people who would provide immediate feedback.

Step 5: Practice in Small Venues

Once I was able to present my point of view in front of spectator audiences, it was time to speak to real audiences.  I started small, in welcoming environments

  • Toasts/Speeches at Social Events.  Nobody is going to boo you off stage if you choose to make a toast at a New Year’s, etc.  Depending on your level of comfort, it can be simple (“Here’s a toast to health and happines in the New Year!”), or perhaps a short speech if appropriate for the event.  Remember, it’s just about practicing speaking.
  • Toastmasters LogoToastmasters.  I’ve attended a few toastmaster’s meetings.  Though I never stuck with it long enough I have no doubt regular attendance would boost anybody’s speaking skills.  The meetings I attended were well organized and everyone had a chance to speak, if only for a few minutes.  Members also were able to present longer speeches (5-10 minutes) that they had worked on and prepared on various topics for the group, who then critiqued them and provided feedback on the presentation, as well as how well the speaker presented.  Practice coupled with constructive criticism  is a surefire recipe for public speaking success.

That’s it! Once I was able to speak comfortably at small venues, it was just a matter of increasing the size of my audience.  I typically do not speak to groups larger than 50-100 people in person, but I imagine past that point any issues that arise would be most likely related to intimidation and stage fright.  There’s no cure for that except for preparation, practice and putting yourself out there.  I have glossed over stage fright above, because it’s hard to address that directly – but after considering it, I think I have an explanation for how I overcame stage fright as well.

Bonus Tip:  Non-Speech Performances to Increase Speaking Confidence

Concert Stage Microphone SpotlightThe above steps are the basic formula I followed to improve my public speaking skills, but I have one final tip which didn’t fit in the above categories, but that definitely helped me overcome stage fright.  The secret? Performing in domains where I already had expertise, just to get me comfortable in front of an audience.

  • Spectator Sports. Throughout school I played various sports – swimming, soccer, baseball, basketball, table tennis, tennis, badminton.  I was not a particularly good athlete, but my parents had to come cheer me on anyway.  Being out on the field in front of people, win or lose, gave me the confidence to be out there.  I am sure it helped that my parents were supportive – so be sure to bring some cheerleaders along.
  • Karaoke, chorus, concerts and open mic nights.  I’ve always enjoyed music – I played piano when I was younger and play guitar now.  I sang in chorus, played for hundreds of people at concerts and have performed at dozens of open mic nights by myself. Any chance I get, I’ll sing at karaoke as well.  Hamming it up for friends and strangers helped boost my confidence to once again deal with stage fright, which made facing crowds easier when I delivered seminars and speeches.
  • Plays and theater performances.  My good friend Ryan took a theater class his first year in college, and while he was hardly shy before that, taking the class definitely made him more outgoing.  Making a fool out of himself on stage, in front of 500 of his classmates, with no negative repercussions has helped him be effective in his role as a manager today. 

A Final Point – Experience and Expertise

One point I have glossed over above is that it takes experience and expertise to speak effectively on a topic. I can discuss with confidence various technology trends, blogging, web 2.0, time management, efficiency, etc – but I have no skill in other areas.  The reason I can speak confidently about certain domains is because I have the years of experience, training and personal study to back them up.  Put me in a situation where I need to discuss something that I have no familiarity with, and without adequate preparation time I’m sure to falter.  If you need to give a speech, don’t be scared of pushing your limits, but at least be aware of your expertise – and spend an appropriate amount of time preparing.  

What do you think? What other tips would you add?

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