In a recent interview with Kourtney Kardashian, the veteran Australian TV presenter Sonia Kruger jokingly admitted to considering faking her own death to avoid speaking in public.
The two were discussing anxiety in general, and I’m not surprised public speaking wound up getting mentioned: it is a source of fear for so many people, and often comes to stand for the worst nightmare of the anxious.
What’s most striking, though, was that this conversation was being had by two women known for presenting awards shows and television programmes with huge audiences. So clearly it is possible not just to overcome such fears – but to conquer them.
Some of this can be about learning concrete methods. I am a great believer in breathing techniques: while we are discussing television shows, it is worth a mention that Ed Balls, the ex-shadow chancellor currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing in the UK, is known for overcoming a bad stammer by using breathing and speaking techniques. These physical “tricks of the trade” can really help resolve speech impediments; but they can also help more generally with confidence, since good breathing has a relaxing effect.
There are also, though, some rules of thumb which don’t involve deep breathing exercises. Here are three of my favourites: they’re so good because anyone can do them, and they will free you from many of the assumptions about public speaking that can cause such fear.
1. Be Yourself. No, Really!
So many people are intimidated by speaking in public because they feel there must be a right – and therefore a wrong – way of doing it. The truth is that all speaking is public speaking and making a speech is, in one fundamental way, like any other form of more informal communication – it’s about giving a little bit of yourself away.
There is no one correct way to speak, no one correct way to be. In fact, audiences will react much more positively to you if they believe you to be authentic. Use your own voice, not what you imagine a Shakespearean actor to sound like; speak about issues important to you and close to your personal life. Make your public speaking persona an extension of yourself – it will make you a better speaker and a more confident one.
2. Avoid The Script – or, rather, avoid reading the script by knowing the content.
This is tightly linked in some ways to tip number one: the audience wants to see you relaxed. If you don’t know what you are saying and are relying on a script to help you through, you could easily turn into a bit of a robot. To speak well you need to start with a script, revise it and hone it until you know it well enough to either not read it or abandon it entirely for note cards. Then go on stage.
PowerPoint is not a script. Reading off the screen will give the impression that you are not prepared, or even worse, do not know your topic and need a constant prompt.
I can’t emphasise enough that note cards combined with a sense of where you want to go are good – think of them as training wheels on a bicycle, keeping you safe and steady. Being so aware of your script that you refuse to deviate from it will make you overly self-aware and far too focused on what you’re saying rather than how.
3. Use Your Nerves.
Finally, don’t expect any technique to eliminate your nerves entirely. Feeling nervous is natural – it’s simply a sign that something means a lot to you. That’s OK – in fact, it’s essential if you’re going to appear passionate and convincing!
Nerves can and will give you energy, so harness that and put it into a brilliant performance. It takes a lot of effort to fake your own death. It’s so much easier to give a great speech!