How to beat your fear of public speaking and get good at it in 10 steps
An actor called George Jessel once said: “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”
If you’re scared of public speaking join… everybody else. The good news is there are some clear steps you can take to become a drastically better public speaker.
Personally I often feel like the moment the spotlight is on me I go under water and I don’t come up for air until it’s over. I don’t see or hear anything clearly—it’s like I don’t control my own body or my voice. Like a blackout. So what to do?
Here are 10 steps you should probably take if you want to be better at public speaking in the future.
1. It’s okay to be nervous
I’ve been in plays, movies, and given many boring PowerPoint presentations, and it never gets easy. As far as I know even the best speakers are nervous, and no matter how experienced they are, they still need lots of practice and preparation.
In fact, most speakers and actors I know say that being nervous is a good thing—perhaps even necessary. I think mainly because it keeps you focused and makes you want to improve.
2. Get training, if you can
But training and preparation are even more important. As diplomats we receive proper training for public speaking; on-camera speeches, peer critiques, repetition, using various formats, and engaging in competitive discussions about difficult political topics.
One of my goals has always been to be a better public speaker. To improve my voice, posture, message, anecdotes, relationship with the audience… there’s a lot to think about. The good news is that by now I’m convinced you can learn each of these things by using strategies and by practicing.
3. Write it up
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing out your entire speech. In fact, doing it makes you better at creating structure, including meaningful pauses, adding fun and effective examples, and generally tweaking you spiel to make it better. Afraid to sound unnatural? Just tailor and rehearse it until it really sounds like you.
4. Rehearse. A lot.
When you rehearse a speech or monologue often enough something magical happens; you start to believe and own it. As an actress this was truly important; I had to not only believe my lines but emotionally express them and make everyone in the audience feel it. Presenting in an office setting is perhaps less dramatic but the principle is the same; the better you know your message the more you make it your own and enjoy delivering it. And the audience enjoys nothing more than a speaker in their “element.”
5. Stick to your core message
There is a reason for every speech or presentation and why you, in particular, are giving it. Basically all you have to do is realize the core of what you’re trying to say and double down on it. People may get confused or distracted if you’re saying stuff other people believe or things that aren’t relevant to your topic.
So mostly stick to the core of what you’re trying to say. Try to present it from multiple angles and with many examples to draw everybody in (even if they dozed off for part of it). Remember that they don’t have to agree with you to appreciate your views—it’s about making a good point. I’ve played many horrible characters people loved to watch simply because they were convincing!
6. Solid structure.
Using a solid structure puts everyone at ease. There are lots of variations to “introduction, key points, examples, conclusion” but don’t feel like you have to get creative. Those structures exist for a reason. Just like the 10-20-30 PowerPoint rule: a PowerPoint presentation should have 10 slides, last 20 minutes (max), and contain no font smaller than 30 points.
7. Use catch phrases
Another good strategy is saying stuff like: “If there’s one thing I want you to remember from what I’m saying is…” That really wakes people up and is also a great way to challenge them with your statement. Don’t be afraid of a little debate afterwards!
8. Do not avoid public speaking!
Don’t be like me. When I look back at my previous jobs, I feel stupid for avoiding public speaking opportunities. If I had done it more, even if it was on topics I knew little about, or cared about, I would have found out earlier that it’s okay and can be fun to speak to a crowd. All you have to do is follow a few simple strategies and you get better at it each time. And make no mistake—people appreciate and admire it when you dare to speak in front of an audience.
These days it’s easy to avoid almost any speaking. People send emails instead of calling someone on the phone, or send carefully crafted SOPs instead of explaining something to their colleagues in person. But that’s not very inspiring, is it?
9. So how about those nerves?
I feel a lot less nervous since I know how to approach a speech. My goal is not to blow people’s minds with a talk like they’ve never heard before. Instead, I aim to present them with something that’s clear and digestible, and the only wowing should come from me being prepared and—when appropriate—my personality and experience shining through.
Whenever I’m nervous now, like when I’m talking about consular affairs to students, or presenting new rules and policies to senior staff members, I don’t worry about being the right person to do it or even having the right material. I just practice some more instead of wasting time on worrying. And every time I rehearse my presentation I add useful insights and examples to make it easier on the audience.
And anyway, people expect you to be nervous! You might even say it, during your presentation, just so it’s out there. People may laugh or cheer in encouragement—because we all feel the same.
10. What if you’re technologically challenged?
A lot of people are extra nervous to present in front of a (digital) audience because they fear their technology—PowerPoint, Zoom, YouTube, microphone, shared screen button—may fail them. It definitely can.
I once had to take over someone else’s half of the presentation because they had a problem getting on Zoom. Thankfully I had most of their script printed out! So I just went for it—my preparation paid off big time and everyone was happy.
Just always have a Plan B and don’t waste time apologizing. As long as you can provide your genuine insight into the topic, even on a simple personal level that might seem mundane to you, people can really connect with you if you try to get them the basic information they’re looking for.