Public speaking—by which I mean any form of presenting to a group of people, whether it’s a simple team meeting, giving a media interview, or a keynote to a theatre full of people—is daunting. I don’t care how many times you’ve done it before; it’s daunting. Even if you enjoy it, it’s still daunting. Nerves are natural.
But like any athlete or actor will tell you, nerves and adrenaline can actually fuel your performance. Heart thumping on the starting blocks, pulse racing right before a penalty shot, nausea before that first step on the stage—all of it can power a great performance, but the key is how to channel it.
The trick is not to think; “How can I suddenly become a flawless and worry-free public speaker?” Such a thing does not exist. Even the most impressive speakers that you’ve seen have worked hard at their craft, and they still get anxious. That’s a fact.
However, from my experience as a barrister, court-room attorney and public speaking coach, I offer here some basic guidance that can give you the confidence needed to speak well in a room, present your ideas clearly and compellingly, and take down mental barriers.
Know your audience
Understanding exactly to whom you are going to be communicating should guide you in terms of the format, language, tone, and level of detail needed for the information you’re communicating. A Monday morning briefing with important information to convey? You probably should be clear, to the point, and lay out specific bullet points. An evening panel event where the wine is flowing? Bring your facts, but also a sense of humor.
Standing properly, feet firmly on the ground, allows you to stand tall and hold focus—and grounds you to project your voice. Pacing in front of a crowd can be distracting. If you’re on a panel, don’t slouch. Look alert and interested, especially when other panelists are talking; your body language conveys volumes, even in silence. And remember to breathe–natural pauses allow for cadence and a more conversational tone.
Tell the story
Narrative is important because it helps your audience follow what you have to say in a logical manner. But here’s the trick: if you structure what you’re saying as a story, it’s also easier for you to remember—think beginning, middle, and end. This also means you can rely on notes less, and you won’t lose your train of thought.
If you went to the theatre and the entire cast was reading from scripts, it would be entirely unengaging, and the audience will assume the actors haven’t prepared. Eye contact is crucial to establish trust, and lets you sense check that your audience is following you and engaging. If you’re presenting a slide deck, remember three key points from each slide and say them in your own words—don’t read the text.
The slides are not the presentation; you are. If you are presenting with a deck, the slide should illustrate the point you are trying to make, not the other way around. Simple. Doing this also means your audience spends less time reading the screen, pulling their attention away from you. If you’re presenting to a big room, make your slides mostly visual, to illustrate your points.
If you’re speaking, people are there to hear you, so show personality. Using humor, anecdotes and real-life examples humanizes the content and can bring it to life. Telling a personal story right off the bat is also a natural ice-breaker for a big audience—they want to like you. This is especially true when presenting in the corporate world; show, don’t tell, should always be the rule, establishing credibility.
Take a tip from comedians
Comedians use a trick called the ‘primacy and recency effect.’ We remember the first and last thing we’re told most of all; this is why standup comedians open and close with their strongest jokes. Start with something impactful, and finish with a strong and smart call to action.