How To Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

public speaking skills

How to overcome stage fright and learn to love public speaking

When coaching individuals and groups one of the most common areas for development that people ask for is around improving public speaking or presentation skills. This reflects the fact that, for all the advances in technology, most jobs require that we stand up in front of other people and have to talk to them coherently. Even with all the power of social media and other multiple communication means, nothing can beat the persuasive power of a good speech delivered in person.

Not all of us are going to be the next Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill or Chris Rock, but we can all improve our public speaking and presentation skills, no matter what our existing level. Whatever your role, improving your verbal communication will help you in the future. If you want to progress as a leader then refining your public speaking will be of particular benefit.

Here are some techniques and resources that can help you. Whether you are a beginner or relatively experienced, these tips that can aid you immediately and demonstrate how you can develop in the future.

Overcoming Stage Fright

Public speaking can be scary. Various surveys have placed public speaking as one of the top ten fears, frequently showing that people are more anxious about presenting to a group than about their own death!

That means that the first battle in public speaking is overcoming stage fright. There are some good evolutionary reasons why standing up in front of a group can feel scary; there are also some great physiological hacks that can be employed to overcome this anxiety.

Having the right posture and body language can immediately change the way you feel and improve the quality or your public speaking. Walking confidently towards an audience, looking directly at them with a smile and an open posture, will set you off on the right start (even if you are not feeling necessarily confident and happy inside).

By holding our bodies in a certain way and projecting openness and confidence, not only do we reassure the audience, we also calm ourselves. Simply put, the physical signals from our body start to tell our brain that everything is ok and you start to overcome the ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response to stress.

Early on in my speaking career I was encouraged to study stand-up comedians, as they are the masters of public speaking. For a good stand-up comedian it is not just about giving a message or even telling a joke; it is about reading the emotional temperature of a room and then connecting with people to up that temperature. That is why people talk about a ‘warm-up act’ and why comedians are often used as compères or master of ceremonies at events.

Here is an excellent TED talk that highlights some of the key approaches in turning stage fright into stage fun:

Charisma versus Stage Fright

The Importance of Body Language

We have already seen how important our posture and body language is in overcoming stage fright, but this importance does not decrease once we start to speak. This is because our sub-conscious is fine-tuned to pick up non-verbal signals from people. When we listen we also observe to check that people’s body language match what people are saying. If there is a mismatch we are unlikely to engage with that person or trust what they are saying.

  • Here are some examples of negative body language and posture:
  • Folding arms (can appear defensive)
  • Wringing hands or fidgeting (appears nervous)
  • Avoiding eye contact (appears nervous or untrustworthy)
  • Can’t keep still (appears anxious and projects avoidance)
  • Face and eyes downcast (appears unhappy, reduces energy and volume)

In the same way that mirroring body language helps to build rapport in one-to-one conversations, actively ensuring good body language helps to build connection with an audience.

Here is another excellent TED talk that builds on the theme of body language and how our psychology and physiology are intrinsically linked:

Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are

The Power of a Story

Humans love stories. We can’t stop making and sharing stories; we gossip, we read novels, we watch films. Story telling has been the method, and stories the structure, for passing on knowledge, wisdom and insight over millennia. Telling a good story is a sure way to engage with an audience. What’s more, it is easier to remember a story than a list of bullet points and is much more fun for both the speaker and the listeners!

Personal stories can be particularly good as – when told with humility – they are genuine, heartfelt and build empathy with a crowd. Your own stories are also the easiest to remember, which can reduce concern about forgetting what you want to say. Therefore, even if you have to cover other information in your talk (particularly dry or potentially dull material) a light-hearted or pertinent story can be a good way to draw in an audience at the beginning of a presentation.

Whatever the story it is worth thinking about the structure of the story and how to tell it in order for the main learning points to be self-evident. First, a good tale sets the scene, starting calm and giving the background. Then, the narrative introduces some sort of challenge that needs facing. Tension builds to a peak and then the story illustrates how the conflict is overcome and brings a resolution. This is a basic story arc and can be used whether your story is three minutes or three hours long.

Here is another great TED talk from Andrew Stanton on stories:

The Clues to a Great Story

How to Structure a Presentation

When you are creating a structure of a presentation you should remember to KISS. In other words: Keep it Simple Stupid! One of the best ways of doing this is having no more than three points to any talk or presentation.

There is something very powerful about the triptych or three-point approach. We have already seen that the story arc provides one three-part structure. Another is the ‘tell them what you are going to say, tell them, then tell them what you have said’ method. This template, that encourages repetition to drive home the main point of a talk, has been accredited to various luminaries from Aristotle to Dale Carnegie. No matter who first came up with it, the approach remains very popular, whether it is a preacher giving a 3-point sermon at church or a CEO delivering a keynote at an annual conference.

To do this well you need to crystallise the key idea that you want to convey both in your mind and in the mind of others. This will need the correct framing and explanation, and here again the use of story can be very helpful. As you progress through your structure make space to pose questions and leave pauses. These can heighten the emotional and intellectual connection with the audience. Also think about the ‘why?’ Why is this subject important? Why should people care? Why are you the person to share this information? Simon Sinek’s book and TED talk ‘Start with Why’ can be very helpful on this subject.

In terms of communicating a simple and powerful message, this TED talk is a great place to start:

TED’s Secret of Public Speaking

How to Further Improve Your Public Speaking

There is always more to learn and ways to improve both the art and science of public speaking. As with any skill, the best way to improve is to practice and therefore I encourage you to take any opportunities that come your way.

There are of course classes and courses that can help you too. Individual coaching can also provide a safe and more relaxed environment to learn and practice. There are debating clubs and public speaking forums such as Toastmasters that you can join to create more opportunities to speak. One thing you can do yourself or with a friend is to film presentations or talks you are practising. In the age of smart phones this is really easy to do and the immediate feedback you get from watching a film is second to none.

There are even apps available that can help you improve your public speaking. One such app is Gweek that uses the camera on your phone and machine learning to help you improve your verbal communication. Gweek provides a great way to improve and get useful feedback without the pressure of anyone else looking at you.

There is always room for improvement so finally, to give some ideas for development areas you might want to concentrate on, look at this TED talk on some of the core skills that have been identified for good public speaking:

The 110 Techniques of Communication and Public Speaking

A Final Encouragement

As your practice improves, so will your confidence, and with confidence you will embrace vulnerability, manage your nerves and hopefully come to truly enjoy (or at least not give in to fear) of public speaking.

Do you have a story about overcoming stage fright or improving your public speaking? Please do drop me a line or share as a comment below!

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