How to Build Confidence in Public Speaking

how to improve public speaking and be more confident
Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

3 simple elements of psychology to help improve your public speaking

Do you get nervous at the thought of public speaking?

If you do you are in good company. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health indicated that over 40 % of people could be considered to have glossophobia (a fear of public speaking). Another well-cited statistic from various academic surveys is that most people fear public speaking more than death!

I am a professional facilitator, coach, and communicator. I have given talks to crowds of hundreds of people and presentations to board members, politicians, senior military, and even royalty. People are therefore somewhat surprised that historically my most significant hurdle to public speaking was confidence.

This is not the case now and, due to my work, people assume I am extroverted. But in terms of character, I am actually introverted. Although I enjoy social interactions, I find them draining and I must harness my energy to be outgoing, upbeat and take centre stage. It doesn’t come naturally. 

What’s more, since childhood, I have harboured unhelpful fears of looking foolish in front of people and an overactive imagination that provides me with hundreds of ways that I could be shamed if I were foolish enough to try to stand up and talk to a crowd, especially to a bunch of strangers!

So, what changed?

An experience that challenged my assumptions about public speaking

I used to think some people were born confident. I used to believe some folks were just natural public speakers. One personal experience helped to change these assumptions.

It happened at a time when I was working backstage during a large event. It was taking place in a theatre in London’s West End. The theatre could seat over a thousand people, and it was packed. I was running all the back-stage operations which included helping presenters with any technical support.

The speaker that day was well-known and very highly regarded. I had seen him many times, on various stages, speaking to audiences of hundreds, sometimes thousands, much as he was about to do now. I had watched in awe as he strode about, effortlessly unpacking intellectual themes and making them understandable to us mere mortals. 

It was seconds before he was due to go on stage, the music was queuing up ready for his entrance. In the dark wings of the theatre, between props and backdrops, I stepped up to him to do a final check on his microphone. As I drew close, I could hear him whispering to himself, head down, hands fluttering about. He glanced up, catching my eye and faltering for a moment. I did not know whether he was doing vocal exercises, practising part of his talk or reciting some positive affirmations, but I could see that he was nervous. I was shocked; I literally couldn’t believe it. Him? Nervous?

One way or another it certainly did not seem to impact him. I finished with the microphone, and he stood up straight, faced the stage and walked into the blinding lights to loud applause. Seconds later the audience was silent and hanging onto every word conveyed by his steady voice. And all I could do was stand dumbfounded backstage thinking, hang on, that guy had stage fright moments ago! This giant of public speaking! And you know what? It was one of the most liberating of little moments I have had the privilege to witness. 

Ok, what did I learn?

Confidence is a frame of mind that you can develop

You don’t have to be born confident to be a good public speaker. In fact, research shows that you don’t need to have innate self-belief, it can be developed. Neuroscientist Dr Ian Robertson, author of How Confidence Works, has identified that confidence comes down to two core beliefs. He calls these ‘can do’ and ‘can happen’. In other words, you need both the belief that you can do something coupled with the idea that an action can happen and affect the external world. 

In this context, you can build both beliefs. For example, have you ever had a conversation with more than one other person at the same time? Most likely you have, even if just around the dinner table. Well done, you have just proven to yourself that you can speak to groups of people.

Another thought. Have you ever said something that someone has found interesting or changed the way someone has thought or behaved? If so, then you also have proof that your communication does have an impact. It can happen. What you say matters to people; you just need to find your audience.

The more instances you can think of to reinforce both the can do and can happen the better. These will strengthen your self-belief. Then build on this confidence; start small and build up. For example, talk to a small group of people you know, just for a few minutes. It could just be a joke or a short story. By doing this you build experience and confidence to increase the size of the audience and length of what you are going to say. 

Courage is a decision, not an innate quality

Similarly, with confidence, people often assume that courage is innate, something some people are born with. But this is also a false assumption. As Winston Churchill said:

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”

Winston Churchill

We all feel fear. It is a natural psychological reaction to certain situations. This is the in-built fight, flight or freeze response which primarily helps us when we face physical danger. The problem is, the mind has the same response to perceived social danger, as we experience during public speaking. 

This can lead to amygdala hijack, the situation where more primal parts of the brain override our more rational brain. This leads to several things but notably that we cannot think straight, and our body is flooded with adrenaline. Therefore, in the case of public speaking, we are likely to forget what we want to say (because we can’t access the pre-frontal cortex), our hearts beat faster, and we start to sweat. 

And what is the best way to deal with this? Breathe. Breathing exercises, such as the 5:5:5 technique (breathe in for a count of 5, hold for 5 and out for 5) are proven ways to help manage stress responses.

The other thing is to change your mindset. As comedian Deborah Frances-White points out in her excellent (and highly entertaining) TED talk, you need to stop thinking like prey when you get on stage and take the attitude of the predator. You need to own the space; boldly stalk around the stage while maintaining eye contact with your audience. Do not shrink behind the lectern or hide at the back of the stage. 

And fake it until you make it because, as Amy Cuddy tells us, our physiology impacts our psychology. In other words, even if you don’t feel self-assured, forcing your body into a confident posture (e.g. standing tall, maintaining eye contact and not crossing your arms) will actually change your mindset. You will start to feel more confident. 

Communication happens when we connect with people

The final thing to help your confidence and courage is to remember that audience is just made up of people like you. As Brené Brown (author of Dare to Lead) says:

“People, people, people are just people, people, people.” 

It doesn’t matter what title they hold, or how rich or famous they are, they are all just human. Many of our assumptions, like those I had of the speaker in my story, are wrong.

Brené Brown also points out why we feel nervous when public speaking; because we make ourselves vulnerable. But that is an opportunity. Vulnerability gives us an opportunity to be authentic. And guess what, other normal humans also feel afraid at times, so these shared feelings can help create empathy. Acknowledging our fear can even help build rapport with an audience. 

So, when you look at the audience remember they are like you. If it helps, picture them as school kids, but no matter what, remember that they certainly were all school kids before they were whatever they are now. People are just people. 

The positive psychology of public speaking

Do I still get nervous? Yes. Can I effectively manage those feelings and be a successful public speaker? Yes. Can you too? Again, yes.

Mark Twain is accredited with saying:

“There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars”.

So don’t worry about being worried. You can build confidence. You can choose to be courageous. You can use your feelings to build a deeper connection with your audience.

But you do need to practice. So, think of an opportunity where you can stretch yourself a little and develop your speaking. Is nothing specific coming up? Then think of an anecdote, an experience from your life. Pick something fun! Take a few minutes to craft that story, maybe write it down and then say it out loud to yourself. Look at your body language; force yourself to look and sound assured. By doing so you are programming your brain; pre-wiring synapses and setting the conditions of confidence. Then hold onto the story and wait for an opportunity to share it with others. 

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