The art of speaking in public
Credit: johnny goldstein through Flickr

Speaking in public has been stated as the #1 fear among Americans[1], even above the fear of death, heights or deep waters. It is true that most of us don’t have to face it every day, sometimes not even every month, but when the odd team meeting arrives and you have to report the decrease in the performance of (name it), your legs start to shake and you suddenly realize you don’t know which button you have to press to have some voice coming out of your throat.

So what can we do to overcome, or at least partially reduce that awful feeling that the whole world is staring at you?

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1. Prepare the speech well in advance

It will help knowing that you have it ready say, one week in advance, and that you have all that time to go through the slides and think of ways to explain them to your audience.

Simple (but catchy) slides will make it easier to keep your audience focused and excited about what you say. Remember, most of us don’t have the ability to do two things at the same time, so use the slides to illustrate what you are saying, not as subtitles to your discourse.

2. Focus on the needs of your audience rather than what they will think about you

This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you. Just think, if you were part of the audience (and think about the audience as a group of people who might not be familiar with what you are about to say), what statements would need step-by-step explanations, and what’s the easiest way to explain? Can you compare your process or task to something they can be familiar with? For example, if you were to explain how a balloon flies, you could compare it with a fireplace and how hot smoke goes up, in the same way that the gas goes up in a balloon and pulls it up because it is hotter than the air outside. Try to focus on the easiest part in the beginning (remember, the first 5 minutes are the hardest – but keep it catchy!) and then keep building on that towards more difficult things as you increase your confidence level.

By thinking about their needs and focusing on explaining your thing as best as you can, with the goal being their understanding, you will be less worried about what they might be thinking about your presentation skills (or any other unfounded idea that goes through your mind).

3. Practice makes perfect (but not too much)

Once you have established what you want to say, and have supported it with the slides, do a mock presentation behaving as you would on the real day. Time yourself if you need to conform to a particular schedule. You can even record yourself to see the parts where you need to improve. Don’t overdo it, as you will get to a point where you “recite” it and some spontaneity is always good. Also, you will get more stressed after 20 times repeating the same thing – do something else and forget about it for a while.

4. Don't drink coffee before your speech (or do!)

As you know, coffee is a substance that keeps you awaken, makes your blood pressure go up for a while and in general makes you more nervous. If you usually feel these effects when you drink coffee, you will even more if you are already nervous. This is of course if you can feel the effect – some people have reached a point where there is no difference at all. Other people, on the flipside, will reach a more active level of concentration and will increase overall their performance. In any case, if you haven’t tried drinking coffee before speaking in public, don’t do it if it’s an important presentation. It might make you more nervous and ruin your speech.

5. Dress appropriately and comfortably

Dress according to the circumstances, but make sure that it doesn’t keep you thinking about it all the time. For example, don’t wear high heels if you’re not used to them, or a shirt with a very tight collar.

If you never know where to put your hands, bring a laser pointer or a bottle of water (or just the slide changer remote). It will keep them busy.

6. Have a stretch/walk before the meeting

Fresh air in particular helps a lot. Also, don’t think about it too much. You won’t solve any issues at the last moment and you will make your stress a lot worse.

If you don’t have access to outside space, or you don’t want people to notice you’re doing unusual things, go to the toilet and stretch your arms as much as possible, while breathing deeply several times.

7. Give it the importance it deserves

So here’s the thing: is the meeting going to have a major impact in your life? If it’s something you don’t really care about, then be relaxed precisely because of that. Think of it in this way: you have the control over what thoughts enter your brain. Every second you are making decisions based on your environment and the options you are given (taking this or that food for lunch or staying a bit longer at work). So why can’t you decide to stop worrying about presenting in public, because you don’t mind about the outcome of the presentation?

If it can have an impact in your life, or it is important based on your values, then face it in a different way. Tell yourself: “I think it’s important for these people to understand what I have to say, so I want them to follow my speech well”. You should be excited about it, and because of that, your attitude towards it should be a really positive. As I said before, focus on conveying the message, not on the act of presenting itself. That’s what it’s all about in the end.

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For a list of "during the presentation" tips, check out this article.