I am an introvert. I prefer my own company most of the time, so when - many years ago, I received an invitation to deliver my first public speech, I was more than a little bit uncomfortable at the idea.
Nevertheless, I accepted. The days leading up to the speech were filled with anxiety and nightmares of forgetting my lines. When the moment finally arrived, things didn't go terribly wrong, but the audience's feedback was less than favorable. They pointed out that I looked nervous, and seemed too mechanical while speaking. Those critiques hit me hard, and I realised that I needed to address my fear of public speaking if I wanted to pursue my passions and achieve my goals.
Over time, I've given more than 100 speeches and numerous presentations, and my perspective on public speaking has completely transformed. Although I occasionally still experience nervousness, speaking in public has become one of my favorite activities. I've discovered five crucial steps that helped me overcome my anxiety:
1. Embrace excitement over trying to calm down. Research by Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks showed that attempting to relax before speaking didn't lead to persuasive and confident speeches. Instead, those who embraced excitement rather than trying to be calm delivered more compelling talks. Excitement and anxiety are both strong emotions, but channeling anxiety into excitement can be more effective in boosting confidence. The realization that I didn't have to eliminate anxiety entirely, but rather transform it into a positive force, was liberating. It allowed me to acknowledge that nervousness is natural and that I could leverage it to fuel my enthusiasm for the message I wanted to deliver. By focusing on the excitement of sharing meaningful insights, challenging assumptions, and entertaining the audience, I found that my anxiety gradually subsided, making room for a more confident and enthusiastic speaker to emerge.
2. Practice in front of an audience. Early on, I used to rehearse my speeches alone, but I learned that practicing in front of others better prepared me for the actual performance. Practicing with a small group can be particularly beneficial, as it helps you get accustomed to the feeling of being observed by others, an essential aspect of public speaking. The presence of an audience introduces a level of pressure that simulates the real speaking experience, allowing you to adapt and fine-tune your delivery based on their reactions and feedback. Although it might be intimidating at first, confronting the fear of judgment in a controlled setting helped me develop resilience and adaptability. Moreover, receiving constructive criticism from supportive peers allowed me to improve my delivery, pacing, and overall stage presence.
3. Utilize dim lighting. During the speech, I prefer dimming the lights in the room. This helps reduce my arousal as faces become less visible. Interestingly, it has an added advantage of making the audience more relaxed and receptive to humor, leading to more laughter. I discovered the power of dim lighting through trial and error. In the early stages of my public speaking journey, I often found myself getting overwhelmed by the sight of a large, bright audience staring back at me. It made it challenging to concentrate and maintain a connection with the audience. By adjusting the lighting, the audience's focus shifted from scrutinizing me to engaging with the content of my speech. As the atmosphere became more comfortable and intimate, I noticed that the audience responded more positively, encouraging me to further explore the use of lighting as a tool to enhance the overall experience.
4. Understand your audience. The more I know about the audience beforehand, the less nervous I become. Learning about their backgrounds and interests humanizes them and helps me find common ground. This also aids in tailoring the content to suit their preferences. Before speaking to any audience, I now make a concerted effort to gather information about their interests, industries, and challenges. This research helps me align my message with their specific needs and expectations, creating a more relevant and engaging experience for everyone involved. When I can connect with the audience on a personal level and demonstrate that I understand their perspectives, the atmosphere becomes more relaxed, and the fear of being judged diminishes. Understanding the audience also allows me to anticipate potential questions or concerns they might have, enabling me to address them proactively during the speech, thus building trust and credibility.
5. Start with a puzzle, question, or story. Opening with a puzzle engages the audience with ideas rather than focusing on the speaker. Similarly, beginning with a thought-provoking question gets the audience thinking, diverting attention away from judgment. Using a captivating story has a similar effect, capturing the audience's attention and shifting their focus from the speaker to the narrative. Crafting compelling openings has become a vital aspect of my public speaking approach. It sets the tone for the entire speech and captivates the audience from the outset. Whether it's presenting a puzzling fact, posing a relevant question, or sharing a personal anecdote, these opening techniques allow me to draw the audience into the conversation immediately. By engaging them intellectually or emotionally right from the start, I noticed that their attention remains focused on the content of the speech rather than scrutinizing my delivery. It also gives me an opportunity to establish rapport and create a connection with the audience, making them more receptive to the rest of the presentation. As I've honed my skills in crafting powerful openings, my confidence in engaging the audience has grown significantly.