“There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” — Mark Twain
We can learn a great deal from the Ancient Greeks when it comes to public speaking. The pioneers of theater and philosophy believed words held up the pillars of the universe, and that if one didn’t speak with enough vigor those proverbial towers would collapse.
And it was the statesman and orator Demosthenes who supposedly cured a nagging stutter by practicing speeches with stones in his mouth.
Thankfully, you don’t have to go through such extreme measure to become a more polished public speaker. Here are 12 lessons I’ve learned in my 14 years as an actor, teacher, speaker, and two-time TEDx Speaker.
1. Practice Until You Can’t Get it Wrong
After spending time fine-tuning your muscle movements, the neural processes controlling those movements become more efficient. We call this phenomenon, “muscle memory.”
And though there’s debate over the nuances of muscle movement consolidation, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of practice.
Going over a speech, again and again, will instill a sense of confidence in your craft and allow for flexibility when things don’t go according to plan. (because they won’t)
But remember, the goal isn’t to reenact your speech so it goes precisely how you rehearsed it, but so you have a framework to draw from. Robert DeNiro refers to this as “avoiding bedroom perfect.”
Practice = Confidence = Poise
2. Embrace the Fear
Fear is not a categorically bad thing. In fact, it’s the part of our wiring that keeps us safe. It’s only our REACTION to fear that can hinder us.
If you can reframe fear as an ally and view those nervous jitters as excitement, you’re well on your way.
Rather than trying to eliminate fear, simply allow it to run its course. It gets to come for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive.
Studies have found a speech delivered with enthusiasm can actually be better received than one that is considered eloquent.
3. Take Ownership of the Room
If possible, arrive early so you can get a sense of the space. The setting is likely to be different from how you envisioned it. Getting a sense of the acoustics and where the audience will be sitting can make a big difference.
Once the presentation begins, take ownership of the room by remembering you’ve been asked to speak for a reason. Remind yourself, you deserve to be here.
Speak from a place of kindness, but not deference. And never undervalue what it is you have to say.
4. Begin When You’re Ready
A common mistake I see among less polished speakers is beginning when they’re not quite ready. As a result, they allow nerves to dictate the entirety of the speech.
Conversely, seasoned speakers begin when they’re set.
Use the walk on stage as a way to compose yourself. Take a deep breath, claim your space, and don’t be afraid to wait a moment before beginning. The benefits are twofold: you’ll be starting from a place of empowerment, while conveying poise to the audience. This instantly puts them at ease as well.
5. Make Eye Contact
Using your “windows to the soul” effectively immediately personalizes your message and conveys you’re speaking to someone and not at them. You go from a speech to a conversation, which feels more engaging and personal.
Making eye contact also creates deeper connections and heightens the sense of trust in the room. It reminds the audience you’re there to give, not take.
6. Slow Your Roll
We speak fast in everyday life but even faster when we’re nervous. Try talking slower than you think you need to. When you slow down you avoid alienating your audience.
Remember, they want to be included. Give them the chance.
Don’t be afraid to take a moment of silence, or even a breath before diving back in. Audiences are more forgiving than you think.
7. Breathe and Hydrate
This sounds like a no-brainer, but when we’re nervous our muscles tighten up and we hold our breath. Take a few deep breaths and get the oxygen back to your brain so you can gradually relax your body. You can also practice taking quick short breaths if that works better.
Hydration is also key. Dry mouth can occur when the glands in the mouth are not working to produce enough saliva. Nervousness and stress are common triggers.
Water lubricates your joints and delivers important nutrients to your cells that keep you healthy and allow you to deliver with ENERGY.
8. Don’t Worry About Reaching Everyone
Invariably, you’ll have some audience members more engaged than others. Don’t be thrown off by those crossed arms or side bar conversations.
It’s not your responsibility to be a molder of consensus or a seeker of validation but your duty to share your unique voice with those who want to hear it.
Focus on the people who are engaged. This will infuse your talk with a heightened sense of confidence as you navigate through your talking points.
Expend your energy cultivating greater support from those already onboard rather than those who don’t seem to be buying what you’re selling.
Just move on.
9. Change the Story You’re Telling Yourself About Yourself
Have you ever gone to listen to a speaker and thought to yourself, I hope this person is awful and wastes my time.”
Didn’t think so.
So why would people think any differently with you on stage?
The next time you start telling yourself, “I’m going to embarrass myself. I could get rejected. They won’t find what I have to say compelling or worthwhile. I don’t belong up here.”
Remember this one thing:
The audience is on your side!
The people listening to you want you to rock out! In fact, they’re secretly hoping you have the answer to a problem they’ve been wrestling with. Chances are they’re dying for a new idea or an original point of view.
Look at your audience as your greatest ALLIES.
10. Show Gratitude
People are taking time out of their day to listen to what it is you have to offer. It is the ultimate gift to be given time. It’s the one resource we can’t get more of.
Show your gratitude.
When you say the words, “Thank you,” make sure you mean it. It’s one last way to connect with your presentation but arguably the most powerful.
11. Know Why You’re Speaking
Remember, public speaking is not about validation, performance, or even you.
It’s an OPPORTUNITY:
— to give
— to share and express an idea
— to persuade
— to engage
— to promote critical thinking
— to inform
— to start a dialogue
“Your number one task as a speaker is to transfer into your listener’s minds an extraordinary gift — a strange and beautiful object we call an idea.”
— Chris Evans of TED
12. Steal from the Greats
You can learn a ton from great orators. The idea isn’t to imitate their techniques but to incorporate the tools they use that may work for you. The next step is to make it your own.
Some speakers use humor, while others have mastered the art of incorporating stories. I’ve seen some of my favorites emphasize certain words or phrases to really drive a point home. Others only move on stage when they have a transitional thought.
But what all great speakers do is deliver from a place of honesty. They really believe in what they’re saying.
Passion is just as contagious as indifference. Audiences know when they’re being duped.
Authenticity is key.