Public speaking - WordCamp talk

Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety With These 10 Practical Steps

In 2006, I made a career switch and joined an R&D company with a strong training department. Over the past decade, I’ve spent over 6,000 hours on stage – the majority being public speaking and training courses mixed with 100+ conference talks and various meetup or workshop sessions.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach classes and speak at:

  • CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research)
  • Saudi Aramco (the world’s biggest oil company)
  • VMware, SAP, Software AG, and dozens of other multinational tech organizations
  • MIT (and a dozen more universities, training academies, and schools)

to name a few.

Today, I’ll share some thoughts on public speaking from a trainer’s perspective – applicable for a keynote speech, a lightning talk, a workshop, a standard conference talk or complete training. Because the fear of public speaking is real and beginner presenters are often hesitant to share their know-how with a public crowd (for various reasons).

Here are the top ten strategies I focus on when working with my training groups.

1. Study Your Audience Upfront

Most of my embarrassing moments on stage were due to a misaligned scope of a talk or a training course. Taking advantage of this tip will help you prepare instead of being nervous during your presentation.

You probably won’t receive a physical folder with the CVs of each attendee (although I’ve actually received that for courses), but doing a proper research upfront would help you serve the right audience.

Combat fear of public speaking with extensive research

I’ve attended several technical conferences where 70% of the attendees were managers and C-levels. Or marketing events crowded with designers and developers.

Ask the conference organizers about demographics. Compare with existing data from the previous year. Make sure that your talk is titled properly and assigned to the right track or panel.

As an expert, you could improvise and shift your story in a relatable way for your attendees. But rebuilding your slides or coming up with the right stories will likely not work out in the last moment.

Knowing your audience will let you craft a scenario that resonates with them and is genuinely helpful. This is the first recipe for combating the fear of presenting on stage.

2. Industry Expertise Is a Must

I’ve seen far too many dilettantes presenting at events as presumable authorities.

Not only this may backfire but there’s a risk of talking non-sense or just misleading your audience as an honest mistake. This cognitive dissonance would inevitably spark a myriad of emotions, fear and anxiety among them.

It’s also a pity when a public speaker can’t answer basic questions in front of the audience.

Last year, I spoke at an event with over 2,000 people. The speaker presenting before me had some freelance experience and decided to submit a talk about project management. Not only was the story bland and impractical, but she wasn’t aware of “agile” or “waterfall” when someone asked her which methodology she prefers with her clients.

She was absolutely a nice lady but lacking the 101 in the field is a good “after party” story for years to come.

Industry knowledge is an important tool against the fear of public speaking. Stick to what you know best. Dabble with relevant and tangible areas but don’t pretend you’re qualified to discuss.

3. Public Speaking Resembles a Natural Conversation

Many inexperienced public speakers follow one of the well-known rulebooks that sets a specific tone – body language, intonation, tone, pace, gestures.

Many of the said tips are reasonable. But following them isn’t straightforward.

That’s why you have acting classes. You can watch some series and try to shadow a star. But you need to get in the groove and become comfortable.

Your temperament, weight, and height, clothing style, voice, expressions, mood, accent form a complete picture. Borrowing some tips may very well seem unnatural and make your audience uncomfortable.

Use your personal experience and see what works best for you.

  • What gets you energized while hanging out with friends at a garden party or a bar?
  • Are you able to entertain your neighbors and make them laugh?
  • When was the last time you were talking about your experience and everyone gathered around, listening and asking follow-up questions?

Tap into your experience and build the best “speaker” version of yourself that you’re comfortable with. Iterate and improve if needed but don’t force it and don’t take huge leaps. One step at a time.

Being comfortable and communicating clearly would seem natural and ease up the crowd.

4. Use Relevant Stories And Examples

I can no longer stand the endless storytelling that became trendy over the past few years. But storytelling works — and the best public speakers maximize their impact thanks to compelling tales.

Using relevant stories or a brief intro that would provide some context is great. But unless you’re a life coach, an inspirational guru, or simply one of the top 20 influencers worldwide, you need to provide value.

According to a study quoted by Corporate Communication Experts, the average information retention rate is 5 to 10 percent. A great story including examples and tapping into emotions can boost it as high as 65-75%.

Use relevant examples in your talk. Build case studies. Discuss practical applications and how was your experience helpful.

But definitely avoid starting with a 5-minute story from a fairy tale book that has nothing to do with your topic. It’s likely that:

  1. Other beginner speakers would try the same advice from the rule books
  2. Experienced speakers will build a powerful story that would bring value

Trying to fake authenticity will inevitably make you nervous and amplify your fear to get on stage. Being helpful in an engaging way is much more meaningful than just being entertaining.

5. Consider The Session Time Format

As a public speaker, I’ve always found 5-minute lightning talks to be 10x more challenging than a 2-hour workshop.

In theory, that shouldn’t be the case, right? You can prepare easily, it’s a brief talk, not too much to mess up.

Practical anxiety for speakers missing the time stamp

Creating an engaging story, connecting with your audience, uncovering a reasonable topic and building up to a legitimate conclusion in merely 5 minutes requires mastery.

Therefore, it’s really important to fit into the right time format.

  • There are lightning talks within 5–15 minutes.
  • Or standard conference presentations between 30 to 45 minutes.
  • A keynote speech may last an hour and a half or even longer.
  • Training courses and workshops may last for a whole day, a week, or even longer.

Be careful when selecting a topic depending on the time frame. Make sure you can fit the right details within the established time frame. Keep an eye on the breaks between the sessions and see if there’s someone else presenting before you.

Setting up your own laptop at some events may eat up some time as well. Consider the acceptable time for answering questions and don’t let panic take the best out of you.

A 20-minute talk may shrink to a bit over 10 minutes if you don’t plan everything well enough. Trying to deliver a 30min+ presentation would not end well.

6. Follow The Very Same Train of Thought

Each talk, a workshop session, or a training course comes with an agenda. Don’t be afraid to guide the conversation for everyone to follow — after all, that’s the reason you’re speaking at the event.

That agenda aims to deliver some results, explain a problem, or demonstrate a process. Roughly speaking.

Which is why public speakers need to build a story that revolves around the problem in hand and repetitively provide the proof and techniques that attendees can leverage themselves.

One of the best ways to prepare the talk is thinking backward.

  1. Consider the end goal.
  2. Imagine the end result and what the impact should be.
  3. Then reverse-engineer that into a step-by-step process being the foundation of your presentation.

And be consistent. Each example or scenario should support your core idea.

Imagine a legal case. Each trial aims to bring enough facts supporting attorney’s case. Deviation could weaken the story and sneak suspicion in the jury.

What about software project management? Or building a marketing campaign? Or a curriculum for a university program?

All of them have an end goal in mind and every step gets you closer to the goal.

Build a story that’s engaging, support it with examples, tailor it to your audience and make sure you fit into the time format. Don’t be afraid to cut down on the initial set of ideas. In fact, you can throw everything in the first draft and generously cut down anything that doesn’t directly impact your audience.

7. Don’t Rush

Talking too fast is common with nervous and inexperienced speakers. But that increases the odds of introducing too much context and new information to people who can’t cope up and simply give up on your session.

A public speaking cheat sheet

Moreover, you’re processing more information which drains your energy. The pace isn’t balanced, either. There are more breaks once you try to recollect a memory.

Your presentation should be engaging.

You can play with the pace once you have more experience. Don’t be afraid of introducing longer breaks and pauses. Convey a message, build up some tension, speed up a bit and then hit a break.

That’s not to say that you should be boringly slow. But rushing in an attempt to recite the entire talk without missing any slides is common – and you have to keep the pace into account. It will require some practice – but it makes a difference.

8. Share Your Best Strategies

There’s a ton of “common knowledge” out there. Information widely available in Google and techniques that are considered to be “best practices” by everyone out there.

With that informational overload in mind, unique and creative strategies are always valued more than standard ones.

It’s the same as enrolling in a class, reading a book or even checking on an article out there. If it’s generic and mainly covers the common sense ideas, it wouldn’t be as valuable to you.

On the other hand, if your talk reveals some practical strategies, a unique perspective, less known instruments and tools or some time-saving shortcuts, this would be far more meaningful. Including practical case studies or results from experiments that someone has spent time and money on is the way to go.

Suppress your anxiety and share your best strategies when presenting. The more helpful you are, the more your audience will enjoy your talk and will be happy to attend another presentation of yours.

9. Observe Your Audience

Most strategies shared above (and answered by others) are generally helpful and work more often than not.

But people are different. They work in different fields and have different expertise. Most of all, they may attend an event to learn something, to meet people, or simply because they were sent by their HR or management teams.

You can’t satisfy everyone as a public speaker. The larger the crowd, the more challenging it is to juggle with different points of view.

But you can keep an eye on your visitors and adjust your style depending on their interest. Feel free to poll them before you start (a couple “hands up” questions would do) in order to learn more about them.

And don’t stare at the ceiling or the end of the hall. Eye contact is a powerful connector when presenting your talk. Three seconds is what it takes to build a bond with a member of the audience (just the right time between a quick glance looking around and a creepy stare).

Ask a couple of questions during your talk as well – just to reclaim their attention and provide some know-how depending on what makes sense to them and what – doesn’t.

You can, of course, follow your initial agenda – and this may be fine in most cases, especially if you’re really nervous. But if the group of people is looking for something else, you still have a chance to showcase some other tricks or share some specific strategies of yours that would be applicable to those fellows.

10. Always Keep Practicing

Public speaking isn’t something that you can only practice during a training course or at a conference.

Plus, there’s plenty of work you should put in body language, clear pronunciation, following the right pace, preparing use cases and examples, designing your slides – you name it.

The Extreme Presentation Method

There are plenty of meetups that you can apply for in your area. And virtual conferences or webinars that you can participate in. You can even start a podcast or a YouTube channel and test new strategies weekly.

You may have heard of an international club called Toastmasters that organizes events for people eager to improve their communication and public speaking skills. They meet frequently and exchange tips, do short presentations and share feedback. You can browse for a local Toastmasters group or contact them with a request for starting a new one in your town.

Overcoming The Fear Of Public Speaking

I’ve uncovered speaking games such as Bredogenerator organized by other communities. Of course, there are all of the books, training YouTube videos, and public speaking classes that you can follow regularly.

Public speaking is a skill. You need to practice regularly and nurture it. The better you get, the more techniques you can incorporate in your talks and help your audience even more.

By following the simple checklist in this article, you’ll overcome the most common reasons for the fear of public speaking. As soon as you go through the initial pressure, you’ll quickly get used to the adrenaline rush and impatiently work on the next opportunity to present.

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