When you ask people about their greatest fear, most people will say public speaking. That means most people fear public speaking more than death, commitment, or even spiders. The fear of public speaking is universal. Along with professionals in the workplace, it affects college students the most.
Knowing that presentations and speeches go hand in hand with college courses, you should consider honing your public speaking skills sooner rather than later.
1. Use an Outline
According to Shawn Davison, a former public speaking teaching assistant and a current adjunct professor in the College of Communication at Florida State University, he advocates the extemporaneous style of speech delivery. Simply put, the extemporaneous style of delivery revolves around speaking with the aid of an outline. With an outline, you’ll have notes to help you get through your speech. However, you shouldn’t rely on it. “Don’t have every word scripted out so that you have room to navigate from point to point however you choose,” Davison said. “With less on the paper to read, you have less of an opportunity to utilize your notes as a crutch and less of an opportunity to avoid making eye contact.” Make sure your outline helps rather than hurts you. You can use your outline to make notes of your transitions and main points. When used right, your outline helps you if you get stuck or lose your place.
2. Stop Anxiety from Holding You Back
Mark Zeigler, one of FSU’s most respected professors in the College of Communication, always suggests preparing if you struggle with anxiety. “If they prepare, I can deal with the anxiety. If not prepared, you should feel nervous. Other suggestions involve staying positive, visualizing yourself giving the speech, anticipating the kinds of things that may arise, focusing on the audience instead of yourself and looking for opportunities to gain experience,” Zeigler said. Struggling with anxiety doesn’t go well with public speaking, but each experience you have to give a speech in front of an audience helps you give even better speeches in the future. The next time, you’ll know what to expect and how to get through it.
3. Eliminate Vocal Fillers
The words you use unconsciously when you speak such as “um”, “like”, “so” or “uh” have a name: vocal fillers. Usually, people don’t notice when they use vocal fillers or how often they use them. To eliminate vocal fillers, you need to become aware of the fillers you use. Dr. Michelle Laurents, a Public Speaking Professor and the Public Speaking Director at FSU, said that attention and effort act as keys in eliminating these fillers. She recommends asking friends and family to help you identify your fillers and when or how you use them. “Do you say ‘like’ or ‘um’ as part of your speech or use them to fill space between thoughts and sentences? Pay close attention,” Laurents said. Once you become conscious of these vocal fillers, it’s hard to go back. “To omit fillers and improve overall, we must aim to speak with intent, use concrete language, consciously choose words, and not use any unnecessary wordiness. Stop, pause, think. Speak more slowly if necessary. When you use a filler, allow yourself to hear it, pause, and try to continue speaking without vocalizing pauses or adding extra words,” Laurents said. If you keep working on eliminating both fillers and unnecessary phrasing through intentional and thoughtful practice, you’ll move away from your unconscious wording.
4. Pay Attention to Your Audience
A great speaker knows their audience so they can prepare an appropriate speech and pays attention to their audience’s expressions. If you see your audience squinting, perhaps you need to turn down the lights in the room because they can’t see your PowerPoint in certain lighting. If they look a little bored, maybe you should sneak in a quick joke or anecdote. If you see your audience leaning in, perhaps they can’t hear you and you need to raise your voice and project. To keep them engaged, Dianne de la Cabada, former broadcast journalist and current professor at Florida International University, suggests maintaining eye contact by scanning the room and putting people at ease with jokes. You can also ask thought-provoking questions (which can be rhetorical) if you need to keep the audience engaged.
5. Prepare, But Not too Much
Most people agree that opting to not prepare for a speech or a presentation turns out detrimental regarding your organization and delivery. However, a lot of people don’t realize that over-preparing turns out just as bad. Trying to memorize every word of your speech only makes you sound unnatural and robotic. This leaves your audience feeling bored or uncomfortable, especially if you forget your wording and can’t recover. If you do happen to get off track, Zeigler recommends to always have your introduction, conclusion and transitions written out word for word. “You can start and end strong and can go to the next transition if you lose your place while making a point. The audience will not know you lost your place if you go to the next transition and carry on,” Zeigler said. Your audience won’t know that you lost your place because they didn’t write your speech. Don’t get flustered if you get stuck, just keep going with the points you remember.
6. Remember to Breathe
When I took public speaking, learning how to breathe in effective ways helped me a lot in terms of calming my nerves. I know, it sounds weird. Shouldn’t everyone know how to breathe? When it comes to public speaking, you should change your breathing pattern. When we get nervous, especially before speaking, our breathing can become shallow. Try utilizing a four-four-four technique. Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and breathe out for four seconds. Keep repeating these steps until your heart rate has slowed and you have better control over your breathing. “Deep breathing before a speech, and remembering to breathe during, can serve as very helpful tools,” Laurents said. Employ this technique before you speak and remember to pause to take time to breathe once you get speaking. Sometimes speakers get too nervous and end up talking incredibly fast or get flustered because they forget to take a second to pause. If you need help remembering to pause and breathe, write a note on your outline.
7. Release Nervous Energy
In the movie Maid in Manhattan, Ralph Fiennes plays a politician who gets over his fear of speaking by fidgeting with a paper clip in his hand. Davison recommends straying away from this tactic. “I’m not a fan of fidgeting with pens, keys, change, hair, or literally anything during a speech. In fact, I always took points off for any of these distracting behaviors,” Davison said. Instead, he recommends two main strategies. The first, release nervous energy through meaningful gestures. “For instance, whenever making your first point, it makes sense to hold up one finger when saying, ‘First’. Additionally, if you have something to point to, perhaps a PowerPoint, you can do that. Figure out what makes sense, and employ it,” Davison said. Remember, if you choose to use a PowerPoint, you should never turn your back on the audience to read from the screen. His second tip: always bring water so you can take a brief drink if your mouth gets dry. “You can also take a drink if it feels like you’ve lost your train of thought or get too far ahead of yourself and need to reset,” Davison said. If you choose to drink water, don’t chug, keep it calm and natural.
8. Craft Your Speech in Advance
While this may seem like a given, you should give yourself at least three days to practice and tweak your speech, which means you should start crafting it in advance. “Preparing well includes researching, finding quality sources, writing, organizing, editing, mulling, editing some more and practicing. Practicing in advance with a speaking outline allows us the opportunity to get comfortable enough with the material to speak more freely and naturally,” Laurents said. Even when you have your entire speech in front of you, you should still make the effort to practice and become comfortable with your speaking material. “When we get comfortable with our speaking material and have practiced well, our delivery, including our expressions, body language and voice, seem more natural and engaging,” Laurents said. In simpler words? Don’t write your speech the night before you give it. Prepare in advance and practice, practice, practice.
9. Practice in Front of Others
While some movies and T.V. shows depict their characters practicing their speeches in front of a mirror, Davison advises against it. “I always advised my students to seek out a focus group of their trusted, supportive and honest peers who they feel they can count on to listen to them deliver their fully prepared speech. Unlike a mirror or recorder, these people can tell you if you’re rushing, they can tell you about unclear points, they can tell you if you’ll need to project your voice more and so on,” Davison said. Other people can pick up on things that you might not notice if you’re observing yourself, like whether or not you make eye contact or if you move your hands too much. So, try to find some people you trust to gain some insight.
10. Keep it Concise
If your speech sounds long-winded, you probably already lost your audience’s attention. “As a broadcast journalist, some of our training focuses on keeping our sentences short and conversational,” Cabada said. During your speech, focus on speaking in a conversational tone and presenting yourself as personable because it’ll make your audience view you as a successful speaker. “You want your audience to feel like you’re speaking to them, not at them. I like to feel like I’m having a conversation with a room full of people rather than thinking of it as a presentation,” Cabada said. If you have to present mundane subject matter, your speech doesn’t have to end up boring. Remember to use familiar language and break up tedious information with a story or joke to make sure your audience doesn’t fall asleep.