How to improve your speaking and break through the nerves.
“Not Hannah’s!” I said to the waiter as he tried to take away my plate. I wasn’t finished eating yet. Laughter erupted from my family and the neighbouring tables. It was my 2nd birthday and my first foray into public speaking.
But definitely not my last.
What is Public Speaking?
Public speaking has 2 main elements: an audience and a message.
“Public” relates to any person that you are in communication with. And “speaking” means to communicate.
All types of speaking (outside of the silent conversations that you have with yourself in your bedroom) is public speaking. Conversations, negotiations, pitches, and speeches all count!
Oftentimes you use “public speaking” and “speaking to crowds” interchangeably. But if you broaden your understanding of public speaking to mean speaking of any kind, you are likely to take the pressure off of yourself to perform every time you “public speak.”
An estimated 25% of North Americans are afraid of speaking in front of crowds. But most are able to hold a conversation when needed.
Why is it that speaking to more than one person is so much scarier than a 1–1 conversation?
In this piece, I will shed light on the key factors separating great speakers from poor ones, and outline the most important (and unused) element of speaking in any context… humanness.
What Makes a Good Speaker?
Take a minute and think about the speakers that resonate with you. It’s likely that they share some similar characteristics.
Simon Sinek, Brene Brown, and John C. Maxwell are all well-known speakers that reach people through multiple platforms (books, podcasts, video content, and traditional speaking events).
- They speak about their respective areas of expertise and strength.
- Empirical evidence, personal stories, and historical examples support their speaking points.
- They share their passions to improve an important aspect of their listener’s lives.
- They are charismatic and engage their audience with every word. And it’s why they are hugely popular.
When following simple speaking guidelines, it is possible for you to communicate as effectively as they do no matter the context.
According to Magnetic Speaking, there are 9 elements that allow great public speakers to communicate well. These factors can be hard to identify but are innately recognized in strong speakers.
9 Key Elements of Public Speaking
Confidence is most commonly expressed through the physical presence that the speaker embodies. You are able to distinguish confidence in a person through their tone of voice and body language. Effective speakers use posture and enunciation to their advantage. They practice projecting the physical signs of confidence even if they don’t feel confident at that moment. According to research by Amy Cuddy, the act of holding your body in a posture of confidence (deemed power poses) creates a physiological positive feedback loop. You release hormones in your body that make you feel more confident in response to your posture.
You communicate passion through genuine enthusiasm and emotion about the topic you are discussing. It is very hard to be passionate about a topic that you didn’t get to pick. A lack of passion makes it very difficult for your reader to buy into what you are sharing.
Here is an example of the impact of lack of passion:
A middle-manager was told that there is a change in the sales process of his company that needed to be rolled out to his group. He needed to sell a change to their team in a weekly meeting. Since he didn’t play a part in making the decision (and doesn’t agree with the choice) he doesn’t feel passionate about the change. In the meeting, his communication with the team falls flat and he is unable to get buy-in to the new process. If he were to take the time to understand the benefits of the change, he is more likely to speak with conviction. Conviction translates into passion and garners more buy-in from the team.
Ensure your message is true and believe it wholeheartedly. People can discern disingenuousness! Authenticity is one of the buzz words of millennial self-improvement and leadership. Check out this piece by Alex J. Hughes and this piece by Richie Norton for more information.
4. Practise (but not memorization)
Speaking with a clear plan but without sounding rigid or scripted, is a critical piece of strong communication. You must be able to respond to the energy in the room and adapt the way that you speak to each individual audience. And in spite of the slight changes to the script, you must make sure you still deliver your message. It’s a tall order. You have likely sat through a speaker that sounds more like a robot than a human. This is often a result of not practicing enough to know their key speaking points or practicing to the point of memorization. Neither results in great delivery for your listener.
5. Voice modulations
The best way to become aware of your intonation is to record yourself practicing your talk and play it back. Notice if there are sections that sound monotone or robotic. Try to add some changes in volume, rhythm, and cadence to emphasize your main points and engage your audience. When done well, voice modulation can have your listener on the edge of their seat waiting for you to say your next word. It can transform the conversation from boring to fascinating without changing the content at all.
You don’t need to fill all the time that you have been given to talk. Focus on delivering your main point in a way that is clear, persuasive, and understandable. People don’t need every piece of evidence to understand your point. They need you to communicate the best evidence effectively. So take the pressure off the length of your talk and leave time for questions instead!
7. Connecting with your audience
Know the backgrounds of your audience and communicate with them in mind. Engage with them by staying as relaxed as you can, making frequent eye contact, and relating your topic to current events that are impacting your listener’s life. It also helps to laugh at yourself and share personal anecdotes. This removes any perceived distance between you and your listener. It helps them to connect with what you are saying.
Stats and facts can only communicate so much to your audience. By adding a narrative you can impart why the stats and facts matter to them. Your stories will more effectively drive home your main points.
Modern communication inevitably means competing with many distractions. Don’t expect your listener to have heard your point the first time you said it! They may have received an important text message at the critical moment and missed your thesis statement. Repeat your main point throughout your talk to reiterate and ensure that your listener understands your message.
Why Are You Nervous?
It’s natural to be nervous before speaking events. The bigger the event and the more critical the outcome, the more nervous you become. While nerves can be a good thing to add a little extra energy to your talk (jitters are energy in the form of motion, after all), if they are too intense, they will detract from your ability to communicate your message. Alternatively, we have all seen the person who starts to talk, looks out at the people in the room, and freezes. It’s as if all the energy has been drained from their bodies and they are unable to move at all.
Nerves Are Protective
Nervousness is a natural fight or flight response. As part of human evolution, this response protected us from predators and ensured that we didn’t die. In our modern times, the fight or flight response still activates, even though the stressful event is less likely to be a case of life or death. When you are nervous your body is preparing you to “run” in response to the stressor (your listeners). Your body is paying attention and on high alert.
Nervousness tries to protect you from:
- embarrassing yourself
- judgment of others
- being uncomfortable
- screwing something up
- looking like a fool
These are all good things to avoid.
But if you run from the possibility of negative consequences, you will never reap the rewards of positive speaking experiences.
To Overcome Nervousness
There are several ways to break through the fight-or-flight response. My favourite is to remember that your audience (however large) are human beings. They live on earth, and are experiencing the moment with you!
This is the most important element of public speaking that allows me to relax in front of crowds of any size.
Recognizing that your listener is human allows you to focus on the experience that you want them to have with you. When listening to a speaker people want to feel valued and appreciated. They don’t want to feel disconnected due to a perceived sense of status. By doctoring up your message the purpose of your communication suffers.
The greatest element of public speaking is a key factor in all communication. Speak to others as you would like to be spoken to… the golden rule in one of its many forms!
Speaking in a way that is respectful, honouring, encouraging, humorous, informative, entertaining, and valuable comes from the ability to recognize that your listener is a valuable human who deserves your best.
Honouring the “humanness” of your audience helps to:
Let go of fear — By remembering the “humanness” of my listeners, I am reminded that most people are not mean-hearted, cruel or unkind. There are definitely some “bad apples” out there, but for the most part, people are good! If someone is hurtful to you, it is likely because they themselves are hurting. Remembering this can help you to channel their anger into empathy and take the edge of your fear.
This infographic from the Gottman Institute shows many of the underlying human experiences that people express as anger.
Remember that you are enough — humans spend more time thinking about themselves than they do thinking about others. The brain pathways that activate as a default when we are doing nothing, are the same as the ones that activate when we are thinking about ourselves. Our default setting is to be self-focused.
In the context of speaking, this is important because your listeners are spending a lot less time judging your performance than you are. You are your worst critic. Remind yourself that you are knowledgeable about your topic, your opinions matter, and you are capable of delivering your message to your audience before every important interaction.
Be prepared — showing up to a meeting, discussion, or presentation unprepared is a sign of disrespect. You are communicating to your audience, that they were not worth giving your best effort to. This is a subtle message that most people are not intending to send. But it is very difficult to recover from!
If you would like people to prepare their best to speak to you, it follows that you should also come prepared to speak with them. Treat others how you would like to be treated.
There are many components of public speaking that impact your ability to deliver a persuasive message. To conquer nervousness notice the “humanness” of your audience. Practicing this, along with the 9 elements of public speaking, will greatly improve your communication skills and confidence.
If you approach speaking as an opportunity to treat others as you want to be treated, you will enhance the messages that you deliver to the world.