How to conquer your fear of public speaking once and for all

If you’re like most people, the idea of public speaking terrifies you (it terrifies me too). So how do you get over those jitters, get up on stage, and give an amazing talk? First, a disclaimer: this article is purely about your stage presence, not about crafting the content of your talk.

Tip #1: Practice, practice, practice.

Don’t just read through your notes, talk out loud. Talk to yourself, talk to your friends, talk to the mirror. It doesn’t matter where you practice as long as you do it out loud.

Get used to the sound of your own voice. It might sound strange at first, particularly if you haven’t done it before. But it will help you identify phrasing that sounds strange or points that don’t connect much more quickly than reading your notes in your head.

Often, when someone tells you that you sound ‘rehearsed,’ it actually means you haven’t practiced enough to make the speech sound conversational. If you’re feeling very brave, record yourself and watch your performance. Notice your movements. Do your hands distract from the points you’re trying to make? Do you sway back and forth nervously? Are you making eye contact?

Tip #2: Listen to others.

Watch others give talks. How do they speak, gesture, relate to the audience? Go to talks similar to the ones you want to give and pay attention - not just to the speaker’s content, but to their delivery. Do they seem excited about their talk? Are they making eye contact with the audience? What do they do with their hands? How quickly are the speaking? Now, pay attention to the audience. Are they engaged, or are they on their phones? Are you interested? Now think about why.

If you need inspiration, check out these TED talks. All three speakers have very different talks and very different styles, but they have several things in common. They talk relatively slowly, pause often, and make deliberate hand gestures.

The best advice I ever got before giving a speech (as I tend to talk very quickly) was to speak so slowly it felt painful. Particularly as most people tend to talk faster when nervous, it’s pretty great advice.

Figure out where there is a natural break in your speech, and pause there. Take a deep breath. Hold it. Does it feel uncomfortable yet? You’re doing it right. Okay, keep going. At first, your speech cadence and pauses will feel far too slow. That’s okay. Keep doing it. On stage, when you’re nervous, you’ll naturally speed up, and your speech will feel normal.

Tip #3: Avoid Reading.

Notes, or a script, are definitely easier, but they put up a barrier between you and your audience. Try your best to avoid staring down at a screen so that you’re not distracted by looking down. Spend your time focusing on the audience instead, in order to connect with them.

Tip #4: Beginnings and Endings.

People tend to remember the beginnings and endings of things, while the middle tends to fall away. Open with something which gets your audience engaged (try asking a question, playing a game, or telling a fun anecdote). When you end, summarize your talk, and give one (or a short list) of key takeaways.

In order to develop this, think about your audience leaving your talk. When someone asks them ‘What was that talk about?’, what do you want them to say? That’s your takeaway.

Tip #5: Keep it Relevant.

Try your best to keep the talk specific to this audience (even if you’ve given the same talk 100s of times). Can you incorporate a reference to a previous speaker? What about the place where you are, or the type of event? People will pay more attention, and appreciate the talk more, when they think it is directed at them.

Think about your audience and put yourself in their shoes. If you can, talk to the speakers before and after you. Can you connect your presentation to theirs?

Tip #5: Slides.

Ensure that any slides you use are necessary and avoid words as much as possible. Any time you have words on your slides, you audience will stop to read them, and you’ll lose their attention. Keep words to a minimum, and keep the slides simple and relevant.

If you're showing code snippets, make sure they're big enough that people in the back can read (my favorite suggestion I've received for how large a font you should use is to take the age of the oldest person in the room and halve it. Someone's 40? Great, make your text size 20. It's lighthearted, but it helps ensure your audience isn't squinting at the screen to read).

Tip #6: One Day Before.

Great, you’ve practiced, you’re ready, and you’re at the conference. Figure out where and when you’ll be speaking. Think about your audience at that time. Are they sleepy after lunch (how can you get them moving and engaged)? Is it first thing in the morning (great, they’re probably still really focused!)? Is it right before lunch (definitely end on time!)? If you can, check out the room ahead of time.

  • How big is the area where you’ll have to stand?
  • Where will your slides be broadcast?
  • How big is the room?
  • Is there a timer available?
  • Can you test your presentation?
  • Where should you stand before your presentation?
  • Is someone announcing you?
  • What should you do if there’s a tech issue?
  • Do you have a microphone? What kind (does it clip onto you, or is it on a podium)?
  • Does the audience have a mic for questions?

Tip #7: Prepare for EVERYTHING.

Assume that anything which can go wrong, will, and pack accordingly. With that in mind, what should you bring to your talk?

  • Your (fully charged) laptop
  • An adapter to connect your laptop to ANYTHING
  • Charging Cable, adapter (if necessary)
  • Water
  • Slides clicker (if you have slides)
  • Your slides on your laptop
  • Your slides on a USB
  • Your slides printed and ready to go
  • If you have a live demo, make sure you also have a video pre-recorded in case something goes wrong

Tip #8: Take Care of Yourself.

Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Don’t be afraid to call it an early night to review your presentation one more time. You don’t want to be hungover, tired, or sick tomorrow. If you’re jet-lagged, keep that in mind and make sure you’re well rested.

Tip #9: Relax

Take a deep breath and give your speech. You’re going to be great! Personally, right before I get up on stage, I like to imagine the audience applauding at the end of a great talk. At that point, there’s no preparation left to do, and it helps calm my nerves to imagine the most positive outcome. Remember, everyone gets nervous. Public speaking is all about dealing with the nerves, and pushing through it.

Tip #10: Celebrate!

Don’t forget to relax and celebrate your accomplishment afterward. Giving a talk can be really, really hard and just finishing it is an accomplishment.

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